By Mark Shepard
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Acres U.S.A. original book, Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard. Copyright 2013, softcover, 339 pages. Regular price: $30.00. SALE PRICE: $24.00.
Where is the progress in this? Is our progress as a society to be measured by how big our sport utility vehicles are? Or is our progress measured by the fact that we have a 72-inch widescreen plasma TV in the living room with 300 channels of programming? Is it progress to be able to buy a 40-ounce “Big Buddy” soft drink at every corner and have a Walmart store within 30 miles of every citizen?
Do we measure our progress by the number of extremely overweight Americans that there are in the country? The United States has one of the highest rates of heart disease (#13) and diabetes (#3) in the world according to the World Health Organization. Is progress measured by the fact that Americans are so unhealthy that the latest Army statistics show that 75 percent of military-age youth are ineligible to join the military because they are overweight, can’t pass entrance exams, have dropped out of high school, or had run-ins with the law? “We’ve never had this problem of young people being obese like we have today, “ said General John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
There’s a crisis running through the heart of America and clinging to its coronary arteries. It ripples out in all directions into everything we do, everything we feel and everything we think. Some may say it’s a political crisis. Some blame the most recent batch of immigrants, others blame religion (or lack thereof). In each case, the proponents of one solution over another share some very basic common traits with their opponents. These commonalities are such deeply held core beliefs that they are nearly invisible to both sides. No matter who is to blame for our current health predicament and no matter who is morally or ethically “right” when it comes to finding solutions, we all share the same crisis. Our crisis has its roots in how we get our food.
How a human being obtains his or her food has a direct and very real impact on the biological health of the planet. What you eat creates the market forces that cause farmers to grow crops to satisfy your demand. What a farmer grows and how those crops are grown directly affect the ecological health of the soil, plant and animal life of a place, the atmosphere, the hydrology and even the patterns of human settlement. What you eat is indirectly responsible for nearly every single crisis that humanity faces and with an economy that is global in scale today, the food choices of one individual (you or me) are compounded by the billions and change the world like no other socioeconomic juggernaut ever known. We are eating our planet away to the bare bedrock bones and changing the conditions of our home planet into something that would be unrecognizable to our great-grandparents.
Humankind has reached a phase in development where we must have the courage to uncover our blind beliefs and make the efforts to fundamentally change the face of agriculture. By fundamentally changing the face of agriculture, we change the food system. By changing our food system we change the health and wellbeing of the populace, and as I will point out in this book, by changing the face of agriculture we can change the ecological health of the entire planet. The “progress” that we have made as a nation has been built on a food system that has denuded continents for millennia. With the discovery of liquid crude oil, the invention of the internal combustion engine to power farm machinery and with the development of fossil fuel-derived synthetic fertilizers, the ecological destruction has shifted into overdrive.
In the short span of one human lifetime, the change in Ash Ridge, Wisconsin, rural North America and around the world has been extreme.
In 1910, there were 6.4 million farms in the United States. The average farm size was 138 acres. Most farms were owned by the farmer and his family (back then most farmers were male). These small family farms provided a modest but healthy livelihood for its inhabitants which were typically large extended families.
Since 1910, the number of farms in the United States has plummeted from 6.4 million to less than 2.2 million in 2008. The average size of an American farm has ballooned to 461 acres. Despite the fact that half the number of American farmers are now tending seven times the landmass that my grandpa did, he or she is now earning less today (in inflation-adjusted dollars) than way back then.
The United States Department of Agriculture statistics very accurately track these changes. The changes began somewhat gradually and have accelerated with the increased availability of fossil fuels and the mechanization of farm equipment. The tractor is a relatively new invention in the world of agriculture. My grandfather farmed with horses. My uncles learned to farm with horses and adopted the tractor as soon as they could afford one. “Affording one” was a part of the problem. At the dawn of the age of tractors, a horse or mule-powered farm was a pro table venture. My grandfather raised a family of six children solely on the income from a 60-acre farm and helped send three of them to college. As tractors became more common, farm prices first went stagnant. Then they began to fall.
Mark Shepard heads Forest Agriculture Enterprises and runs New Forest Farm, a 106-acre commercial-scale perennial agricultural ecosystem that was converted from a row-crop grain farm. Trained in mechanical engineering and ecology, Mark has combined these two passions to develop equipment and processes for the cultivation, harvesting and processing of forest-derived agricultural products for human foods and biofuel production. Mark is a certified permaculture designer and teaches agroforestry and permaculture around the world. He lives with his wife Jen and two sons Erik and Daniel, in Richland County, Wisconsin.