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This week’s Book of the Week feature is Restoration Agricultureby Mark Shepard.

From Chapter 7: The Steps Towards Restoration Agriculture

With restoration agriculture we are not necessarily creating a savanna restoration in the purist sense of the word. Restoration work is important for the overall health and well being of the planet and should be done, but for our purposes we are not talking about restoration in the common usage of the word.

Instead of restoring degraded savannas into a more historically common form, the land we are restoring is agricultural land, land that has been under the plow in some cases for centuries. What we are doing is designing an agricultural system that closely mimics the savanna in its structure (vertical structure as well as spatial distribution), the species mix (with cultivated substitutions), and in ecological function.

For each individual species in the system, we will be using far more domesticated plants, plants that have been bred through the years to produce high crop yields every single year. We will substitute higher yielding varieties of the species in question and we will choose which species or varieties to plant in higher quantities, depending on the markets available to us, or because of our own personal preferences. How this would happen, is explained below.

Fagaceae: Oaks, Beech, Chestnuts

Acorns are large, high-calorie nuts. They are rich in protein and minerals and 50-70 percent oil, which can be pressed and used as an industrial food processing ingredient, cooking oil, or as a fuel. Spain and Italy have an entire industry and culinary tradition in place where pigs are fattened on acorns. Their hams, salt-cured and air dried, are called jamón ibérico and prosciutto respectively. Appalachian North America also had this tradition, and after nearly disappearing the trend is actually on the increase again.

Iberian pigs eating acorns.

Back in my great-grandfather’s day, the pigs were turned loose into the woods to fatten themselves on acorns, hickories and beechnuts. The pigs would come back to the farm when the nuts were gone and they were hungry for corn.

This type of forest feeding today, for the quantities of pork needed to feed millions of North Americans, would prove to be quite destructive to our remaining forests. The pigs would root up the ground, destroy forest seedlings and disrupt the natural forest in numerous ways. Turning the pigs loose in the woods to run wild and fatten up is not restoration agriculture.

Intentionally designing and planting a slightly wooded pasture, dominated with species for hog foraging, then practicing management-intensive grazing (using hogs with nose rings to prevent rooting up the pasture) qualifies as the agroforestry practice of silvopasture (trees plus grazing livestock together). Agroforestry techniques such as silvopasture will be discussed later in this book.

More frequently these days, acorn-fed hog producers are either collecting their own feed (acorns) or buying them from acorn collectors. Think about how many tons of acorns fall unutilized on the millions of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres in the United States every year. Acorn collection can even be considered a public service in places, I am sure that public works departments in many cities and towns would be more than happy to get rid of the acorns that fall in public parks.

Acorns on the ground in parks are considered a public safety risk as well as a clean-up nuisance. What a different world it would be if only more people realized that acorns are incredibly nutritious food. Even better would be if we had the processing capacity to buy those unused acorns and turn them into salad oil, tortillas, granola bars or bacon.

What a different world it would be if only more people realized that acorns are incredibly nutritious food.

Acorns are excellent as hog or poultry feed, but because of their irregular bearing habit a farmer would have to have a number of suppliers lined up in various regions of the country in order to ensure a steady supply. This doesn’t necessarily stimulate the need to plant restoration agriculture systems, it merely creates a demand for nuts that are already out there and going unutilized.

The same would be true of another Fagaceae plant family member, and that is the beech tree. As of this writing, I know of nobody who is raising beechnut-fed pork. There is no reason why this can’t be done. The same issues apply to beechnuts, however, as do acorns. Beech are masting trees, which means that they do not crop every single year and therefore one beechnut hog farmer or one beechnut butter company would have to draw from a wide region in order to ensure a regular supply.

There is, however, a Fagaceae family member that bears every single year and also bears large crops (up to and over a ton per acre), and does so beginning at a young age — that is the chestnut.

Any discussion about chestnuts in North America absolutely must include a mention of the previously grand American chestnut.

From the time of the last ice age up until the early 20th century, the American chestnut was the dominant tree in the eastern United States. Some people estimate that it comprised approximately 30 percent of all living biomass in the eastern forests. The tree has rightfully been called the “redwood of the East” and could almost have been called the “tree of life” for all of the good it provided. The older specimens approached 200 feet in height. Their wood was lightweight, strong and extremely decay resistant. The bark is extremely high in tannic acid and was used in the tanning industry for preserving leather until the 1930s. Each and every fall American chestnuts, from north Florida to central Maine and as far west as the Mississippi River, would rain down thousands of tons of small, sweet chestnuts to feed man as well as beast.

The re-emergence of the once nearly extinct American chestnut is a testament to the ability for human beings to be a force for beneficial ecosystem development.

Unlike most other tree nuts the chestnut is not a high-oil nut. Consequently chestnuts are nutritionally more similar to brown rice than they are to any other tree nut such as walnuts, almonds and acorns.

All was well until the early 1900s, with global travel on the increase, when a fungus was accidently introduced into North America. In the summer of 1904, Hermann Merkel, the chief forester for the New York Zoological Park (eventually to be named the Bronx Zoo), discovered the first known instance of what has now become known as “chestnut blight.” Undergoing at least one name change from Endothia parasitica to Cryphonectria parasitica, this fungal disease originated in China and was transported to the United States on specimens of naturally immune Chinese chestnuts, spreading like a biological wildfire. Some would argue that the management practices adopted by the various states and the federal government did nothing to slow the spread of the disease and in fact may have contributed much to the American chestnut’s demise.

A chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) canker in all its infectious glory.

A policy of wholesale chestnut eradication became the law beginning in 1911 in Pennsylvania, which resulted in not a single chestnut tree standing within two decades. Eradicating every chestnut tree resulted in more trees being transported than before and at a faster rate, which no doubt spread the fungus farther faster. The fact that the chestnut blight fungus harmlessly lives on oaks and will survive in the soil or as airborne spores nearly indefinitely, also accelerated the demise of the American chestnut. Looking back, the practice of eradicating every chestnut in order to prevent the spread of the blight is analogous to shooting all of the residents in a nursing home in order to prevent the spread of the flu. By eradicating the American chestnut at the hands of the logging industry’s saws, there was no opportunity allowed for any tree to be known that was showing resistance. If a tree showed resistance to the blight nobody would have known, because that tree would have been cut down and added to the burn pile.

The American chestnut as it was may be gone forever, but chestnuts themselves are not. Even the genetics of American chestnuts remain today. More than a thousand pure, native American chestnuts survive west of the Rocky Mountains where chestnut blight has evidently not passed through yet, and the genes of the American chestnut lie embedded quite safely within European and most especially Chinese chestnut hybrids that have been created to preserve the American chestnut’s genetics. The American Chestnut Foundation of Meadowview, Virginia is theoretically at a stage in chestnut breeding where they now have a Chinese and American chestnut cross that is approximately 98 percent American and only 2 percent Chinese, with the 2 percent conferring the blight resistance. These are few in numbers and are considered by the Foundation itself to be at the experimental and research stage.

Learn more about Restoration Agriculture here.

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About the Author:

Mark Shepard heads Forest Agriculture Enterprises and runs New Forest Farm, an 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. 

Similar Books of Interest:

Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Landby Gary Paul Nabhan

The Woodland Homesteadby Brett McLeod

Sepp Holzer’s Permacultureby Sepp Holzer