Home » Agroforestry Movement Takes Root

Agroforestry Movement Takes Root

Joe Pizzo and Mike Ortiz, who serve on the Board of Directors for White Lion Farms, an organization the provides agricultural opportunities for returning veterans, sit on the back of a planting tractor to plant hybrid nut tree seedlings on a ridge in Cambridge, New York.

BY TRACY FRISCH

Last May a crew gathered at Kevin Maher’s farm in Cambridge, New York, with an ambitious goal for the weekend: to plant 10,000 hazelnut trees in open fields on the hilly, largely wooded 240-acre property.


The project was the first to be undertaken by Agroforestry Management LLC, a new company Maher founded with Jared Woodcock, a native of the neighboring town of White Creek. Their business is dedicated to spreading the practice of “forest agriculture” — in which tree crops like nuts are planted in widely spaced rows that allow space for complementary farming activities — in New York’s Washington County and beyond.

The effort is part of a broader movement, inspired by the well-known Wisconsin farmer and author Mark Shepard, that aims to get thousands of acres in the region planted with chestnuts, hazelnuts and Korean pine nuts. If it succeeds, supporters say the agroforestry movement has the potential to radically transform large-scale agriculture both locally and nationally.

In this region, where New York and New England meet, the idea of growing nut trees commercially marks a significant break with convention. The local agricultural landscape is dominated by corn and forages like hay, that are mainly destined to feed dairy cows. The only tree crops commonly harvested locally are maple syrup and apples.

The thought of planting rows of nut trees on cropland and hilly fields probably would strike many farmers in the region as a cockamamie scheme unlikely to ever take hold. Maher and Woodcock aim to disprove that by scaling up their vision for regenerative farming.

The concept is to put nut trees at the center of their farming operations while encouraging complementary agricultural enterprises — from pastured livestock to fruit-bearing shrubs or vegetable production — in the ample alleyways between rows of nut trees.

Supporters say this system offers both financial and environmental benefits by developing diverse, high-value crops and by reducing soil erosion, improving soil health and fostering biological diversity. And the trees planted for agroforestry would absorb the atmospheric carbon that contributes to climate change and put it back into the soil.

Maher and Woodcock say success depends on pursuing the concept on a large scale. A critical mass of nut producers will be needed to justify the processing and marketing infrastructure that would give growers outlets beyond U-pick operations, farmers’ markets and online sales. While they work with local farmers and landowners, their primary focus is partnering with investors to purchase farms on which to establish these large agroforestry systems. Combining these methods, Maher and Woodcock aim to get 4,000 acres of nut trees in the ground within a decade.

Seeking a bigger impact

Several other farmers and landowners are putting the concept of agroforestry into practice independently around the region, including two with nut tree plantings in an adjacent county.

But the project started by Maher and Woodcock stands out for its ambitious scale. The two partners say they began with a vision, inspired by Shepard, and created their limited liability company as a means to realize that vision. They decided to partner with accredited investors — wealthy or high-income individuals who meet federal rules that allow them to participate in riskier, and potentially more lucrative, investments.

“We could go to banks and other conventional lenders, or we could work with humans who have the same belief system and can contribute money,” Woodcock explained. “That is why we prefer to work with equity partners.”

Maher, who previously worked in the world of finance and first became interested in farming because of a family health issue, says the nut trees are the sort of investment that requires patience.

“Essentially what we are doing is building a biological factory, so there are start-up costs and labor costs,” Maher said. “Then you have a consistent yield that can last for generations and sequester carbon and increase biodiversity.”

Their company is using investor funds to acquire land, buy and plant seedlings and sustain the trees during the early years. The investors will share in the proceeds from crop sales when the trees mature. At this stage in the development of their business, they are working hard to “prove out” their model, Maher explained.

Over time, Agroforestry Management aims to help other farmers join the movement. Once the processing infrastructure is established, other farmers will have the opportunity to use these perennial crops to diversify their operations with less risk. “We will be working with farmers wherever possible, but we are not raising capital for them,” Maher clarified.

“No one farmer can afford to create that critical mass alone,” Woodcock said. “And groups of farmers can’t risk everything to plant it all at once.”

Maher said they are focusing first on establishing parcels to demonstrate that the model can work. And those parcels will be larger ones. Getting 400 acres established will allow them to put a small-scale processing facility in place, and achieving that milestone will make planting nut trees a more viable option.

“There are two sides to it,” Maher explained. “If we’re working with investors and they see the progress, they may be comfortable before we reach full maturity. As people see it go from theory to implementation, I think we’ll be able to move faster.”

Woodcock said their company is unusual in several ways, especially because farmers and land stewards will make all the land management decisions. He and Maher see that ground rule as a safeguard allowing farmers to use their best judgment to sustain the enterprise and the integrity of the agricultural ecosystem.

“What’s so progressive about our model is that we’re the only for-profit organization that has a pathway for farmers to earn equity in the land and business with their labor and commitment,” Woodcock explained.

Photos by Joan Lentini

A tree-planting adventure

At Maher’s farm, the planting crew was tasked with getting thousands of bare-rooted hybrid hazelnut seedlings into the ground. The crew consisted of a core group of five or six people, with others showing up to help for a few hours here and there. At any one time, eight or ten people were contributing their labor.

Shepard, the author and a national leader in the agroforestry movement, traveled to upstate New York from Wisconsin to lead the first planting of nut trees for the business he’d inspired Maher and Woodcock to start. For years, he has been helping to guide similar installations around the country.

As a nurseryman, Shepard had selected and grown the tree seedlings that were being planted. Shepard also came to offer his expertise in water management and to teach the growers how to lay out the orchard rows to more evenly distribute water and prevent erosion.

“The task is to spread water out by the way you plant, rather than by draining the land,” he explained. His strategy is to keep the water on the land for the benefit of the plants, while managing it so that it isn’t a destructive force, whether through erosion or by oversaturated soil, which can cause plant disease.

Over the course of that one weekend in 2019, the crew was able to plant 10,000 hazelnut trees in long rows that curve and meander with the contours of the topography. On Saturday they labored for 14 hours to plant 5,700 hazelnuts. The next day their performance was much improved. That Sunday they were able to plant 4,000 hazelnuts on a lower, flatter field in just five hours.

On Monday, Maher jubilantly announced, “We cranked out a 10-acre planting in a day and a half.”

Just a week and a half later, thanks to warm weather and plentiful rain, some of the vigorous seedlings were already starting to leaf out.

Yet another reason that Maher is excited about the prospect of growing hazelnuts in upstate New York is that they can be grown as part of natural ecosystem, rather than in a sterile monoculture. In Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley, the U.S. epicenter of hazelnut production, land is very expensive at $20,000 to $50,000 an acre and growers employ harsh practices to produce a hazelnut crop. “They nuke the land [fumigate it] and laser plane it,” Maher said.

Lessons of forestry and life

Meeting the ambitious goal of planting thousands of nut trees in a couple days hadn’t been a sure thing. The tree planters were working with borrowed equipment that malfunctioned. A local nursery dropped off a tree planter, and a generous neighbor lent them a tractor.

But the pull-behind tree planter had come with a broken coulter. That essential piece of iron cuts the sod into which the trees are to be planted. Having grown up on a farm, around practical trades, Woodcock was able to take apart the coulter on the spot and repair and sharpen it. A grateful Maher marveled at his skill.

Woodcock traces his interest in forest agriculture back to his father, who had a passion for the American chestnut. One day in his boyhood, when he was working with his dad in the woods, they happened upon a large chestnut tree.

American chestnuts had been all but wiped out by a fungal disease in the early 20th century. Woodcock remembers the intensity of his father’s excitement at discovering a survivor.

“We planted out its nuts in the yard,” he said. The nuts that grew into trees produced chestnuts, though all of them eventually fell ill from the blight.

Woodcock, 37, brings crucial agricultural skills to the project of planting trees and managing the land. “I took these life lessons for granted until I went to college and realized most people weren’t as lucky as me to grow up in a way that allowed me to learn how to use tools and get things done,” he said.

“My mother always says, ‘Necessity breeds invention.’ That’s her way of saying, ‘I’m not going to buy it for you. Go and figure it out.’”

Woodcock currently makes his living as a private forest manager and grows food for his family on their homestead. With his workhorses he does woods work year round for private landowners. Previously, for several years, he helped get the agriculture program off the ground at the State University of New York’s regional campus (SUNY Adirondack), inspiring students to work with new paradigms for ecological agriculture. Before that, he managed the farm at Merck Forest in Vermont for a couple years.

He compares working a homestead to having a big garden. “It’s based on beauty and poetry,” he said.

In his opinion, full-time farming is “not as fun.” But he recognizes its necessity — and its benefits.

“We know that tree crops have a positive effect on the ecosystem services that we humans depend on,” he said. “And they also produce a long-term food crop, so it’s win-win.”

Cal O’Connell, a landscaper from Cambridge New York, hand-checks the newly planted nut tree seedlings on a planed ridge. The seedlings are a hybrid of American and European nut trees developed to be hardy and to promote a naturally functioning ecosystem of self-sustainable growth.

Finance to farming

Maher came to the partnership from an altogether different background: He moved up to his rural upstate New York county from suburban New Jersey, where he’d been a commodity trader.

“We chose to move up here because my ex-wife was from the region,” he explained. “In 2011, I had stepped back from my trading career and was home with my kids.”

A family health issue with food intolerances first prompted his shift in priorities in the early 2000s. Looking into the source and quality of their food, the Mahers educated themselves about the food system. This exploration led them to join the community supported agriculture project at Farm in Blairstown, N.J. Started by visionary Catholic nun Sr. Miriam MacGillis and run under the sponsorship of Dominican sisters, Genesis Farm was one of the first farms in the country to follow the CSA concept, in which a farm’s customers pay in advance to buy shares of each year’s harvest. Maher wound up serving on the farm’s board of directors for a time.

“I was being made aware of issues in agriculture and how we grow our food and the impacts it has had on ecosystems,” he recalled.

On his suburban house lot of one-third of an acre, Maher and his family had a forest garden – a landscape of edible perennials – installed as a Genesis Farm workshop.

“We had pear and plum trees in the upper story,” he recalled. “Below these fruit trees were other edibles, like goumi, a relative of the autumn olive; bush cherry trees; raspberry canes; and tuber-producing Chinese artichokes, as well as all sorts of medicinal and culinary herbs.”

Even before he moved to this area, Maher was familiar with the work Shepard had been doing in Wisconsin. And he had just this type of project in mind when he decided to buy his semi-mountainous property in Cambridge, though he lacked the requisite practical know-how to realize his dream.

Soon after moving to the area, he met Woodcock at the Cambridge farmers market. The two men were inspired by Shepard’s book Restoration Agriculture, which came out in 2012. Two years later, they both met Shepard when he did a weekend workshop just down the road in Stephentown, New York.

Shepard told them he thought this region was perfectly suited for his agroforestry model, and they began discussing how to overcome the initial hurdles to implementing that model – especially the cost and delayed payback of planting tree crops.

Maher has used his financial skills to guide the limited liability company he and Woodcock formed. In 2018 they brought in Jisoo Noh, a lawyer in the Philadelphia area who Maher said had been a close friend since high school.

“We’ve been looking for a diversity of skills and background to build our woody crop company,” he said.

Keeping farming viable

As the architect of agroforestry, Shepard’s work has drawn interest around the country. While he was in the area working with Maher and Woodcock last spring, he led a two-hour workshop on “restoration agriculture” hosted by the Agricultural Stewardship Association, a regional farmland conservation group. Despite minimal advance notice, the workshop attracted more than 50 people, some from a couple hours away.

Teri Ptacek, the executive director of the Agricultural Stewardship Association, said Shepard’s work offers an intriguing model for helping to sustain working farms in the region, where dairy has been dominant.

“Farm viability has always been a part of our mission.” Ptacek said. “We’re particularly concerned about what kinds of effects climate change is having on agriculture. That’s why we’re interested in hosting programs that orient farmers toward adopting practices that sequester carbon and build soil health so their land is more resilient.”

Promoters of agroforestry say that its benefits flow from the creation of perennial polycultures – in other words, growing multiple perennial plant species together rather than a typical monoculture of corn or other annuals.

Trees transpire as a matter of course, providing natural cooling during the growing season and helping to prevent drought. Tree plantings are better able to withstand the weather extremes associated with climate change than annual crops with smaller root systems.

Forest agriculture reduces farmers’ workload as well as their costs, such as those for chemical inputs, like the fertilizers and biocides normally used for corn and other row crops. And the concept offers the potential for better economic sustainability due to the potential high value of tree nuts and the fact that multiple enterprises can coexist on the same acreage.

Another advantage of mixed plantings or polycultures is their greater productivity compared to monocultures, Shepard told his audience. When plantings contain more than a single species, he said, they capture more sunlight and produce more biomass.

Shepard started with the premise that trees are superior to annual crops in their resilience and their capacity to heal the land.

More than 20 years ago, he founded Forest Agriculture Enterprises, a nursery where he’s been breeding productive, cold-hardy chestnut and hazelnut hybrids for use as perennial alternatives to corn and soybeans. His 105-acre New Forest Farm in southwestern Wisconsin has offered a demonstration of how agricultural soils degraded by row cropping in corn can be restored through conversion into a perennial agricultural system.

Shepard has long wanted to see his vision implemented on a larger scale. Most of those who’ve tried it so far have done small plantings that are too widely dispersed geographically to create any kind of critical mass.

But now in several areas of the Midwest, and in the Ithaca area of New York, nut growers are scaling up their orchards and banding together to form co-operatives to support needed processing facilities. Shepard believes that 4,000 acres of nut trees would be an appropriate target to create the level of crop production needed to support processing and marketing. And that’s the goal that Maher and Woodcock are seeking to reach.

Attracting new nut growers

Lawrie Nickerson owns Hay Berry Farm LLC in Hoosick Falls, a property with a lot of hilly land. She grows perennial crops on the limited level portion of the farm but until recently hadn’t been able to figure out what to do with the slopes.

Last spring, Nickerson went to hear Mark Shepard speak at the Agricultural Stewardship Association event. While that evening almost immediately changed the future of her farm, allowing her to finally begin to fulfill her aspirations for the land, it was only “by a fluke” that she attended.

“I wanted to do this for so long, but I didn’t have the sense that anyone had the scope or the vision or the experience,” she said.

Shepard had come to the area to consult with Maher and Woodcock for Agroforestry LLC. He would be laying out swales to manage water in future nut tree plantings. (His new water management book, Water for Any Farm, gives very specific guidance on how to plant on hills.)

After his talk, a crowd of people surrounded him so Nickerson made a beeline to Maher to tell him that she had land and was interested in joining the agroforestry project.

“Two weeks later I had 6,000 hazelnuts. They had plants that someone else had ordered but had decided not to plant,” Nickerson said. Her response: “Wait a minute! It had all happened so fast!” But she was also elated to find her dream becoming a reality.

Since she had purchased her farm in 2007, Nickerson had been trying to find a way to make use of its hills that made ecological sense. Unwilling to plow up these hills, she had refrained from planting them.

Instead she took the path of least resistance and left the hilly lands on her farm in grass. For a while, she grazed sheep in an effort to diversify and stabilize the farm income. Now all the grass is mowed for hay.

“My main hay customers are goat breeders. Goats do really well on these hays,” she said, explaining that they really like the brushy weeds. But to her, it always seemed like a waste to just sell hay.

“I’ve been teased by the idea of permaculture in the hills for years. I’ve approached several people, but all were dead ends,” she reported.

Nickerson was raised to respect the natural world. She describes her mother, who practiced law, as “a renaissance woman,” who “exuded an understanding of the environment.” When her family moved to a little hamlet on Long Island, her mother persuaded all of their neighbors to stop spraying for gypsy moth so that the birds would return.

In the early 1980s, Nickerson joined the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, not long after the organization formed. She found her niche as a landscaper, preferring to work with trees and shrubs.

“I was 60-something when I found this farm,” she said. The farm has allowed her to pursue her dream of growing perennials. She put in three acres of no-spray blueberries, which she runs as a U-pick operation. This solved the problem of marketing since Hay Berry Farm is located in “a perfect spot” on a state route between the small cities of Troy, New York, and Bennington, Vermont. Besides the blueberries, she also grows other U-pick perennials, including lavender, rhubarb, and asparagus, and she raises shitake mushrooms in the woods. They attend a nearby farmers’ market across the border in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

The U-pick crops make use of the farm’s flat terrain, which is on gravel deposited by the glaciers. Since it’s very well drained, it has to be irrigated. This flat land is also the lowest area and thus in somewhat of a frost pocket.

Financially, Hay Berry Farm is in the black. Nickerson doesn’t subsidize it, nor does she draw income from her operation. Farm expenses include payroll. She has one full-time employee over most of the year as well as summer workers.

Nickerson finds the agroforestry project to be very exciting for several other reasons. “I tuned into it as a farm project. The effort is to be on a bigger scale, not just a backyard project,” she said.

Not only is it “doable for farmers,” but it also fits the needs of their underutilized resource base, namely their untillable hills. In the northeast, she said, many of these deforested hills are going to scrub because people keep their cows in barns.

She is also pleased that, as a member of the project, she is not alone, but a participant with other like-minded farmers in the region.
Installing a nut orchard

Last spring, shortly after he made that local presentation, Mark Shepard came out to Hay Berry Farm. “He surveyed it with Jared [Woodcock] and laid out the lines for cuts to manage the water and indicating where to plant. Gravity is a blessing for these hills,” she added.

“My cuts are 90 feet apart. We are planning very large alleyways to be hayed or grazed,” she explained. That’s also the initial row spacing for the chestnuts to be planted this spring, as soon as the plant material arrives.

A year ago, when it was time to plant the hazelnuts, a local nurseryman loaned them a planter. With Woodcock driving the tractor and two people on the planter – Hay Berry Farm manager Zeb Ferguson and Cal O’Connell, who’s interested in doing the nursery for Agroforestry LLC – they were able to install 6,000 hazelnuts in a single day.

Then in the fall, Nickerson hired Eric Berg, an engineer who has worked with Mark Shepard for years. He came with a bulldozer to make the cuts for water management and he dug ponds in the field. Six months later, all the ponds that Berg created were loaded with frog eggs!

Another farm embraces nuts

In early May this year, Maher and Woodcock came with an Agroforestry LLC crew to plant thousands of chestnuts and hazelnuts on Allie’s Farm in the hamlet of Copake, two hours south of Cambridge, New York. When farm owner Dominik Eckenstein’s tractor died with a couple hours of work remaining, his neighbor jumped in to complete the job.

Like Nickerson, Eckenstein owns hilly land on which hay is made. He, too, has long been interested in growing trees but felt stymied by his limited knowledge about how to turn nut trees into a viable agricultural enterprise. Last summer, after reading a story about Agroforestry LLC, he decided to join the project.

Eckenstein already had experience with Mark Shepard, having traveled to Ithaca, New York, a few years ago when Shepard was leading a weekend nut tree installation at Eco-Village, a pioneering co-housing community that had set aside land for agricultural enterprises.

His experience with Shepard motivated him to apply what he had learned at Allie’s Farm. “We started experimenting on our own,” he said. They put in 200 chestnut trees to make an orchard in a field behind the farmhouse.

Joining Agroforestry LLC last summer immediately opened up new opportunities for Allie’s Farm. “Last fall Mark Shepard and his people installed three miles of swales on my farm,” he said, noting that he was “squeezed in on short notice.” However they had to skip some portions of the farm, as they were too steep and overgrown.

With two weeks of tractor work, they completely changed the farm’s layout. Rather than being divided into separate fields, the farm is now organized along contour lines. Where nut trees have been planted, there is 80 feet open between the rows. The swales are doing what they intended, keeping the water on the hill rather than allowing it to flow off.

For Eckenstein, the agroforestry project feels like the culmination of a lifetime of interest in horticulture. Raised in Switzerland, he grew up fascinated by his grandmother’s impressive vegetable garden. As a teenager, he imagined “doing something agricultural” for his lifework. In his youth he worked on a cherry orchard and at a winery, but his career took him in other directions.

In recent years, Eckenstein, who lives in Brooklyn, has made his living renovating historic buildings in Baltimore and Brooklyn, work that dovetails with his real estate investments. Up until the early 2000s, he worked in hotel management. He said he tends to shift his professional focus approximately every fifteen years.

Three years ago, Eckenstein bought the 70-acre property that would become Allie’s Farm. He envisioned it as a place to explore his desire to farm. The land came with a relationship with Camphill Village U.S.A., an intentional community that supports people with special needs and practices agriculture and artisanal crafts. Every year Camphill harvests the farm’s hayfields for its cattle.

The same group that sold him his farm also owns a level parcel of good agricultural land across the street. On this land, four farmers produce high-value specialty crops as tenants holding long-term leases. Some years ago, that land had been a cornfield, belonging to a now defunct, investor-owned thousand-cow dairy farm. Then, in the 2000s, a non-profit organization acquired the 122-acre parcel in order to build 138 units of mixed income housing, but the proposal ran into snags.

For Eckenstein, the presence of the small, diverse tenant farmers in the neighborhood presents potential opportunities. He said they are looking at informal ways to cooperate and find synergy. This could involve anything from sharing equipment, resources, or labor to marketing together or marketing one another’s farm products.

Last summer Eckenstein hired a full-time farm manager, who lives with his family in the farmhouse. Last year he grazed 45 sheep. In 2020 the flock has grown with 55 lambs, and the farm census also includes 25 turkeys and 40 laying hens as well as 60 chicks. Over the summer he also grazes some cattle from Camphill Village. The livestock are run on an unplanted part of the land, while the area planted in the hybrid chestnut trees gets hayed. A new orchard of a mix of fruit trees, planted in 2019, also requires care.

“Every year we add something,” Eckenstein said.

Testing other approaches

Around the region, other farmers and landowners have becoming interested in this agroforestry model and are working out their own ways of getting nut orchards planted locally.

Nearly two hours to the south of Maher’s farm, in the small city of Hudson, a business run by millennials called Propagate Ventures works with investors to finance the planting and management of nut trees in exchange for a no-cost partnership lease with farmer-landowners. In this model, the trees are managed as investor assets, while profits from the nut crops are shared with each farmer. Farmers do not earn equity in the nut orchards, though they do have the option of buying out the investors and gaining ownership of the trees and the infrastructure that supports them.

Closer to Cambridge, New York, in Pittstown, former dairy farmer Brad Wiley has leased 7 or 8 acres to Russell Wallack, a beginning farmer who planted the field in chestnut trees. That arrangement came about after Wiley’s partner, Elizabeth Collins, stumbled upon Wallack’s entry on the Hudson Valley Farmland Finder. She had been scrolling through the online matching service, looking for a vegetable farmer to lease their tenant house and some of their tillable land.

Wallack, who lives in Amherst, Mass., calls his business Breadtree Farms. The name refers to the chestnut, which in various ethnic cuisines has been traditionally used to make a type of gluten-free flour. Wallack entered into a 30-year lease with Wiley.

“I’m a 30-year-old beginning farmer,” Wallack said in 2019. “So for me, it’s a great opportunity. I can’t afford to buy land.”

Wallack was able to self-finance his tree planting partially through his day job with the consulting firm Terragenesis International, which assists brands in understanding the impacts of their sourcing decisions. He said he used his credit cards to obtain the rest of the needed funds, though he stressed that he’s conservative in his spending habits.

His agreement with Wiley follows a revenue-sharing model. Because Wallack is fronting the cost of establishing the nut orchard, he explained that under their contract, “Brad [Wiley] won’t receive any cash until I’m making money.”

Wallack expects to begin harvesting chestnuts within three or four years. At first he will sell fresh whole nuts, which can go for $10 a pound. They will be husked but unshelled. But by the time his chestnut trees achieve full production after eight or ten years, Wallack said he would like to have access to a drying and milling facility.

Like other current and future chestnut orchardists, Wallack said he sees a market that’s wide open. Currently, 90 percent of fresh chestnuts consumed in the United States are imported.

But that might not be indicative of future trends. Domestic almond production has quadrupled in the past 20 years, he noted.

A model for the future?

Ben Hart and his wife bought land and built their home in Stephentown in 2014. In the spring three years later, he invited Shepard to the region to give a weekend workshop on forest agriculture. The workshop attracted 35 people, including Maher and Woodcock.

On the weekend of that workshop, Hart planted most of his land — nearly 9 acres — in 1,000 chestnut and 2,000 hazelnut trees. He had done little to prepare the land in advance, but it doesn’t seem to have mattered.

“So far the results have been fine,” Hart said, adding that the well-drained soil, although it had been heavily farmed in the past, had lain fallow for two or three years before the tree planting.

Before moving to Rensselaer County, Hart lived in St. Louis, where he was finishing his doctorate in philosophy. While writing his dissertation, he said he realized he wanted to do something more impactful than writing papers that only would only be read by a handful of other academics.

As he pondered his next move, he read Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and considered its implications. He became interested in the permaculture movement.

“But permaculture is not going to feed people at scale in a regenerative way,” Hart said. “I felt like permaculture is great for one acre. It’s gorgeous and productive.”

When he attended a talk by Shepard, he got excited by his vision of an agriculture modeled on natural ecosystems, based on “what wants to grow” in a particular region. He liked the fact that Shepard, trained in permaculture, had taken its principles and developed a model that can be scaled, combining perennials, such as nut trees, with animals.

Within three or four years, Hart expects to be harvesting a lot of nuts, because the trees, which came from Shepard’s nursery, were selected for early bearing.

“I think of it as a long-term investment,” Hart said.

An earlier version of this story appeared in Hill Country Observer, June 2019. Published with permission in Acres U.S.A. Tracy Frisch is a writer with extensive experience working with farmers and eaters to develop more equitable, nutritious and resilient food systems. She is keenly interested in tapping into the wisdom of the earth and realizing the potential of ecological agriculture to heal the carbon cycle, the water cycle and the nutrient cycle. She homesteads and organizes for environmental justice and social change in rural upstate New York.

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