Mark Shepherd’s 106 Acre Permaculture Farm in Viola, Wisconsin
by Chuck Burr
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Mark Shepard’s family permaculture farm in Viola, Wisconsin. Mark has planted an estimated 250,000 trees over the last 15 years on his 106 acre farm. Forest Agriculture Enterprises is known for its hazelnut, chestnut, butternut, nut pine and apple produce, scion-wood and value added products. Mark has a lot of wisdom on not only farm operation but also community and staff and intern economics.
The coulee district of south western Wisconsin is beautiful rolling hill country. Mark has planted his trees and market garden patches on contour to retain water and to heal the land—the only exception is the hazelnut maze.
Mark follows the keyline technique and has made a vast network of small pocket ponds and spreader swales to slow and spread rain water and to heal gully erosion. His application of contour planting on the rolling coulee hillsides has a sublimely pleasing visual effect.
Trees are planted in a much higher density than a typical Oregon or California orchard. “It’s primarily for Luther Burbank style mass selection breeding If you’re going to plant seedlings and if you’re going to discover and sell new varieties, you’ve got to de-select a lot of material. Planting at low densities is like playing Yahtzee with only 3 dice, you can’t do it. I like to play Yahtzee with a thousand dice!”
Propagation and Permaculture Business Model
Regarding propagation, Mark offered:
Most seeds are planted in a nursery bed, then transplanted one year later. Some seed, oak, butternut, black walnut, hickories are direct seeded. No pots. Pots represent too much embodied energy and are too much work to produce an inferior plant.
For large lots of seed, korean pines, chestnuts and hazelnuts, I searched around to find somebody already in the nursery business who was really good at producing outstanding plants. Once I found the person/people we entered into a long-term contract.
The cost-per-tree works out quite well for both myself and the nurseryman. He doesn’t have to buy the seed, I supply it, and he still gets his full wholesale price. We both get a better deal. I only get screwed when I don’t sell all of them, because I owe him per-tree whether I sell them all or not.
You seem to be asking questions from the typical, western-materialist-reductionist point of view. We work from the other side of the equation. When it comes to plants, we don’t ask what it will cost to plant a million trees. We ask how much we’ll earn from planting a million trees.
Remember, the problem is the solution line? Well it’s true, but I’ve re-worded it, Problem is the word Profit spelled incorrectly. For every tree that I’ve planted I’ve earned at least a dollar. Do the math. It works out much better than costs do.”
Look around, how does the current economic system work? Now design a Permaculture business in order to fit into it, then get yer arse in gear!
Like all of my many ventures, there is no one enterprise that is able to pay all the bills all by itself. Every venture that we do is small. I don’t have the job skills, tools or education to earn $100,000 and $100,000 seems like a big scary number to me. But I can a dollar. I can sell a dozen trees. I can sell a couple of sticks, some cut flowers, some asparagus, some mushrooms, some salad greens, do a couple tours, speak at a conference or two, teach a course, grow some peppers, sell some nuts, make some cider, sell some pigs and some beef, sell some firewood, etc., and it all adds up. No one thing does it. They all are key.
A Permaculture Farm ideally has a polyculture of plants, animals and activities occurring on it. In a polyculture system there’s always something that can be grown, made or exchanged in order to acquire dollars and pay the bills. Once you start looking at Permaculture as a profitable venture, you start seeing all of the opportunity.”
Forest Agriculture Enterprises
In a nutshell, pun intended, Mark’s approach to growing the farm nursery stock has been one of early extensive variety trials and then broad scale planting. This vision has matured into an edible woody crops nursery — Forest Agriculture Enterprises. Mark’s mission is to “help people and organizations to do something positive and real to change the world. One way to do this is to plant trees. Not just any trees, however, but trees that produce food, medicines, fuels and fiber. And not just trees!, but shrubs, vines, canes…in fact, entire ecosystems!”
When Mark started there were no best, cold hardy hazelnut, chestnut or nut pine varieties for Wisconsin. For example, Mark tried over 200 varieties of Apples to find out what grows best on his land. When it came to nut pines, Korean nut pines succeeded where Italian and Pinon varieties failed. When he found a variety or tree that succeeded, he propagated that out primarily by seed. Most of the early yields have gone back to propagation and not market nut sales. This has been the key to producing the high volume of trees. Today Mark sells nuts and scion-wood to other farmers.
Making a Real Difference with Permaculture
One person making a real change in the real world is worth a thousand virtual feel-gooders. You’ve got to learn how this economic system works in the same way that you learned how gravity works when you were little. When it comes to gravity, some people choose to walk or run only. Other people learn a little bit more about how gravity works. They then build planes and they fly. Permaculturists have got to get out of the poverty mindset and begin to fly. This planet needs us to succeed.
Zero equals zero is where we started economically umpteen years ago. In fact we actually started off in the negative. With no money, a fair amount of debt, no jobs, no prospects for employment, but with the observational perspective that Permaculture turned me on to, we were able to buy 100 plus acres of land, build our own home, plant zillions of trees, raise a family of pretty smart and talented kids, eat awesome food, and live a good life.
Every ‘problem’ really is an opportunity! We really are surrounded by nearly insurmountable opportunity. If you’re looking at how daunting a task is, you’re looking at the wrong side of the equation and you will find the things that will limit you and prevent you from succeeding. Put roots in the ground. Grow your food. Build your shelter. Create a Permaculture enterprise and provide real Permaculture goods and services, then link up with others that are doing complimentary things. This is the way we will create a new culture and economy.
I asked Mark about his farm economics three, five and 10 years from the beginning.
When designed properly, a conversion to a Permaculture farm need not lower the net income to the farmer. If done really well, it actually means an increase in income. Annuals play a more significant role in the early years than later on. Once upon a time I did 16 Acres of annual produce, now I can do zero and still make ends meet.
A very real statistic that in my opinion must be shared with prospective farmers and market gardeners, is that according to USDA Agricultural census data and corroborated by my experience in meeting with hundreds, maybe thousands by now, of farmers throughout the years, is that there are only 11 counties in the USA where the revenues from Agriculture exceed expenses. They boil down to 10 confinement livestock operations and Yuma county AZ where they grow produce on the Mexican border. So, if virtually nobody is making any money farming, then why should you hold yourself up to such a high standard? The key is to figure out how to stay on the farm and pay the bills.
Also from USDA agricultural statistics 80 percent of all farmers obtain the majority of their income off-farm. The economics that describe agriculture don’t work. Many atypical farmers and especially organic farmers claim to be quite profitable but many of them are not sharing their data and have special circumstances. Many folks inherited property or brought big piles of cash from previous jobs and investments. Far too many operations, especially CSAs and Organic farms, rely on the modern equivalent of slavery and that is interns. I even know of operations that charge interns to work for them!
So, from day one the farm has been profitable. It has not paid all the bills. My income is derived from farm products, edible tree and shrub sales, speaking and consulting and brokering products for other farmers. My wife is a massage therapist, which is essential. No single enterprise that we have going on, is able to carry the whole economic load. The system, does. All of the things working together; we designed it that way. A Permaculture understanding of business entities and how the tax system works is an essential part of our economy.
Realistic numbers? With no savings, no inheritance from Mommy and Daddy, with no jobs at first, we bought and are paying for everything you see here. Any student in any Permaculture course that you teach, can go out and within 18 months buy land and establish a profitable Permaculture paradise. The skills they need to do that, however aren’t taught in the Permaculture Design Course (PDC) curriculum.
Anything and everything is for sale. There are nearly seven billion people on this planet. With this many people, niche markets end up being huge.
You’ve got to actually have something to sell if you want to sell it. The advice from Extension and Universities that you should have your products sold before you put seed in the ground is somewhat misguided. Have a plan perhaps, but you’ve got to have something in order to sell it.
When you grow or make something make sure you have enough of it. A big problem in polyculture enterprises is the fact that you don’t necessarily have the economies of scale that a monoculture would allow. Don’t be afraid to do a lot of something. The Permaculture principle of Use small and slow solutions has been twisted by too many people to mean that Permaculture has to be small. Small-scale Permaculture systems are exactly what’s needed in an urban-suburban setting as one’s home turf, but or an enterprise to have enough cash to sustain itself in this economy, however, it has to be bigger. You can’t pay your mortgage on a dozen hazelnut bushes.
Most importantly though, what is it that you’re trying to create? Observe the system conditions around you. View the world through your observations, not your concepts. Mimic what is effortlessly successful. Create your permaculture vision. Ignore your excuses as to why you can’t or aren’t and just figure out how. Not doing it serves no one. Do it! Hold your head up honorably. Act fearless!
If John Q Pubic views reality through the concepts of ‘land is so expensive, and, young people can’t access land, guess what he discovers? He’s right! If you’re looking at how incredible a permaculture paradise will be and if you’re looking for opportunity, guess what? You’ll find it!
I asked Mark, “One of the most frequent things I hear from people is that they want to get landed to start their homestead, organic farm, etc. I would be interested in your advice to a young person or couple on gaining land access”
This can be done anywhere in the country in less than one year. The systems are in place. Anyone who doesn’t believe so is either unaware of the systems in place or is unwilling to ‘play the game’ as it is currently rigged. If people really want land and really want to get into agriculture especially Permaculture designed agriculture, financing is available. It is how the current economic system works.
Learn how to manage your numbers. Set up your IRS Schedule F farm business yesterday! Build your credit rating, learn how to ‘exercise’ your credit, then borrow the money and buy a farm [FSA loans, bank loans, private investors, socially responsible lending funds].
Most young people that I know of who claim that they ‘wish’ they could buy a farm only want to exist within the life of their dreams. They don’t want to undertake the realities of making that dream real (i.e. long hours of physical labor, low pay, managing “the numbers”, being hot, cold, wet, tired). Land is accessible. The current economic system has a process in place to access it. Observe. What are the system conditions? Learn them! Learn how to access the financing, buy the land, then figure out how to keep it!
Design your permaculture paradise to fit into the scheme of things. Accept feedback & redesign. Keep on keeping on.
I asked Mark about his model for staff and interns. As usual, he had some pretty sage and innovative advice.
Our model is that you are a collaborating enterpriser. As such, you learn how to do [something] by actually doing it. Your pay depends on your success. It is a model of the real world that businesses and farmers face every day.
You have your enterprise going on at this location and I have mine. We design our enterprises to be mutually supportive. When we do business-to-business transactions it’s done at current market rates. We are real businesses. We produce real goods and provide real services. We exist within the current economy while we create the productive systems of the future.
The model is, that what you would call “interns” start their own businesses and earn whatever they can. They are self-supporting entrepreneurs. We help them get their biz started, then get out of their way. Eight out of 12 of our past summer folk have gone on to create their own Permaculture ventures. We collaborate however we can, to create synergies between the businesses. We don’t have staff interns. We have independent, collaborative relationships with individuals who freely choose to associate. By current market rates, I mean what comparable services would cost if we were to pay for it by hiring somebody else.
Let give you an example here. Brad’s Biz LLC doesn’t own a tractor or equipment. He wants his fields tilled. He hires somebody to do that for him. He can hire New Forest Farms LLC or any other custom hire company that he wants to. I want some help planting trees, so I hire a custom tree planting company to put them in the ground. It could be Brad’s Biz, Larry’s Labor, or any other custom tree planting service out there.
By structuring things this way, a collaborator develops actual business management skills, they learn their way within the tax code, they develop a good credit rating, they learn how to write and read business contracts, offers to purchase real estate, they learn about how to Permaculturally stack various different business entities for optimum yield, they learn how to borrow and spend responsibly in the real world.
You can be a volunteer, an intern or an employee on a farm or in a Permaculture business forever and still not learn the skills needed for you do be a successful, independent Permaculture enterprise. All you’ll ever learn is how to weed the radishes or shovel compost. They don’t teach you that the real way a farming venture works is the ‘behind the scenes’ business management skills. We have no staff interns and therefore we pay no staff interns.
If a person wants shelter, they are responsible for it. The biggest lesson that most Americans need to learn, is how to take something from the virtual realm of thoughts and ideas, then bridge the chasm between intellect and the will.
If I help people to learn one thing, it is to do just that. Start with the idea, then make it real. If it doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would, accept that feedback, re-think and re-do. There are no mistakes, there’s only feedback. Life and permaculture are not spectator sports. And besides, If you don’t make the bridge from thinking to action, there are places for you in somebody else’s drama where you act and create their thoughts. You get the crumbs.
The best way to learn how to build is to do it. Reading, blogging and going to workshops are fun and all that, but out here on planet earth, you build a shelter, or experience the consequences. How you get that shelter is up to you. You learn through actual feedback of hot, cold, wet and dry if you’ve done things well. You get to live and directly experience the results of your efforts.
Supplying slaves with free shelter is not what we’re all about. We’re into helping people to become responsible and effective Permaculturists. Grow your food. Pay your own way. Build your own shelter. Produce real goods and services for others. Isn’t that part of what Permaculture is all about? Aren’t we individually and collectively setting out to create a new culture? A new biologically intact environment with new, socially just relationships? Earth Care, People Care, Equitable Share are not merely platitudes, they’re the foundation of what we’re all about.
We live on planet earth. Planet earth works in certain ways. Observe how planet earth works, design a system to work within the system conditions of planet earth while creating Permaculture paradise. Blogging all day or sitting around bitching about all the things that suck in the world is not earth care.
Providing comfy, crash-pads for lazy, virtual humans is not people care. Giving somebody paper dollars when they do my bidding is not equitable share. Teaching people how to actually ‘for real’ apply Permaculture design on the actual planet and grow their own food, fuel, medicines and fibers in perennial, ecological systems, is earth care.
Teaching people how to pay their own bills by starting their own businesses that provide goods and services to others while creating a permaculture paradise is people care. Teaching people how to create their own abundance and pay their own way, puts them in the situation where they decide how their resources are used, gives them control of their own equity.
Community and Living Permaculture
Mark collaborates with farmers helping them make the transition to permaculture through workshops and one-on-one consulting. Even neighboring Amish farmers come to Mark to exchange ideas about sustainable farming practices. When you talk to Mark you get a full explanation, wisdom and philosophy.
I asked Mark, “are you trying to build community in the farm as well?”
Building anything is work. If you have to build community into a project, it’s not a self-organizing organic organism and therefore is modeled after the hierarchical, paternalistic, pluto and kleptocratic socioeconomic system from which we are emerging.
We have a steady stream of casual visitors, refugees escaping from the collapsing empire, organized tours, alumni, close friends as well as customers. We don’t have to build anything. It is what it is. We have an actual community. Several, in fact. We don’t attempt to force reality to conform to our personally held concepts of what a community should be, We accept it for what it is. Those who are not attracted to interacting as sovereign enterprising individuals and would rather be a part of a contrived community or would rather enter into a hierarchical, bossman-slave relationship, don’t fit in here and they select themselves out. I’m appalled at the percentage of people who come by here who have no idea how to self-start, how to work toward a goal that they choose and to keep at it with nobody looking over their shoulder and how to make the effort to actually take care of themselves. When your food and shelter depends on you actually getting it, growing it or building it, you go hungry in a hurry and leave. Or, you finally get it and your life is changed forever!
One of our semi-regular visitors once came up to me and said "Hey, I thought you told me this was an all you can eat farm? What have you got me on, the Ethiopian diet?" I said, "Eat whatever you want, food is all over the place everywhere." "But I don’t want to pick food," he said "I just want to eat it!"
He sums up a huge demographic in this country and even within permaculture circles. Ninety percent of certified permaculture designers that I have encountered are not doing it. They’re playing at the edges and fooling themselves. They’re not creating a different culture, they’re not growing their own food. Like the 55 gallon rain barrel, they deceive themselves by thinking that by toying with inadequately designed rainwater collection systems, that they have obtained absolution and don’t have to really strive to create PermaCulture. "I don’t want to pick my food. I just want to eat it."
Thirty five thousand gallons of rain falls off my roof but I want to hold fast to the cute idea that a little 55 gallon barrel will hold it all and I can feel like I’ve saved the world. That’s simply poor design and living through your concepts rather than your observations.
This farm is a part of our local community, like I said, several local communities. We’re members of several co-ops and collaborative ventures, we’re part of the real world.