What If We’re Thinking About Agriculture All Wrong?
Two pioneers believe we can feed the world with trees
Most of the world’s 7.7 billion people rely on annual plants for food. By definition, these crops perform their entire life cycle in a single growing season. In under 12 months, they sprout, flower, go to seed, and die.
Currently, just three annual plants—rice, wheat, and corn—provide 60 percent of the world’s calories. To plant them, we destroy complex perennial ecosystems, cutting down forests and plowing prairies to create an ever-growing number of agricultural fields. To date, we’ve cleared an estimated third of the world’s ice-free land. Greenhouse gas emissions from land use, mainly agriculture, forestry, and land clearing, currently make up 23 percent of the world’s total. In short, our eating habits are wreaking havoc on the planet.
What if we tapped into nut-producing trees and shrubs as staple crops instead?
Mark Shepard started thinking about this as a kid in the 1970s in western Massachusetts. The oil embargo pushed his parents to get a wood stove, and every day after working in the garden, he was sent into the forest to collect firewood. He snacked on berries and experimented with eating acorns, and he noticed how much food the woods produced, without all the dirt and sweat of the garden. After college, he started envisioning a new kind of agriculture: one that combined permaculture and habitat restoration with the goal of using nut trees and animals to produce staple foods. He dubbed it “restoration agriculture.” In 1994, he bought 100 acres of spent cornfields in Wisconsin and initiated a project he called New Forest Farm.
Shepard began by researching biomes — the large, naturally occurring communities of distinctive flora and fauna that cover Earth. He discovered that the biome with the widest distribution across North America is the savanna, a grassy area scattered with shrubs and trees. And he discovered that the most common type is the oak savanna. The overstory was composed of tall, nut-bearing trees in the family Fagaceae: oaks, chestnuts, and beeches. Beneath that were Malus (apples), Corylus (hazelnuts), Prunus (cherries, plums, peaches), Rubus (raspberries and blackberries), Ribes (gooseberries and currants), Vitis (grapes)…