Let Facebook get credit where credit is deserved. I heard about a MOSES-sponsored field day at Mark and Jen Shepard’s permaculture farm through a Facebook event. What is a field day? Farmers and aspiring farmers take a day to gather in a field. Or several fields. They then walk around those fields and talk about everything they see.
Field days are almost as exciting pasture walks. You know you’re a grass farmer when your idea of a good time is to spend all day walking around in cow pastures and talking about grass. Usually in midday in July. Bring water and a sun hat.
The Shepard’s are radical farmers, well, permaculturists. I’m not even sure how to describe what they do. New Forest Farm takes the principles of organics and sustainability to create a farm system that mimics nature.
Food grown on the farm includes hazelnuts, asparagus, beef, pork, and apple cider. I saw ducks and chickens running around, and Mark was always pointing out other little projects, including comfrey, hardwoods, and pines for Christmas trees. A windmill provides electricity on the farm, and rain barrels catch water from the house’s roof.
The landscape on my family’s dairy farm is very orderly. Fences are neatly lined to put cows into measured paddocks of grass. Woods are fenced off and not entered. The garden is in neat little boxes. It’s true that our free-range chickens go wherever they want, but only because we can’t train them to stay away from the flowerbeds.
New Forest Farm, to the contrary, consists of curving rows of trees that wrap around hills, weedy asparagus beds tucked here and there, and dots of scrubby areas. As Mark talks, he explains it is all by design. The farm looks like nature had a heyday – and she did. But the Shepard’s have been guiding the process the entire time.
Mark fiercely believes in not babying plants. He won’t weed the asapargus because wild asparagus doesn’t need to be weeded. He won’t coddle young trees, because if they die, they weren’t strong enough to live. He lets nature weed out the week genes from the plants.
The entire conception of space on his farm is different. I tend to think of land as square footage. He thinks of cubed feet. His farm isn’t the land under his feet – it’s the space above the ground as well. Hence the “dots of scrubby areas” are actually a tall hazelnut tree, a few medium sized apple trees, short rose bushes or berry bushes, and even shorter daffodils and iris. He is utilizing space in a more natural and efficient way than planting long lines of apple trees, long lines of roses, and long lines of flowers.
The practice that stuck with me the most was that of planting comfrey and irises around the base of an apple tree. The roots of the comfrey and irises make the soil around the apple tree loose and crumbly. This natural way of bringing more oxygen to the soil life greatly benefits the apple tree. End result is a valuable herb, high-end flowers, and more and better apples.