As regenerative farmers, our top priority is to sequester carbon into the soil. There are many methods to do this—and the most effective method for a piece of land depends upon the makeup of the land being regenerated. Since our farm is mostly pasture, we use sheep and poultry to holistically manage the land’s water, carbon, and nutrient cycles. The system we’ve built mimics the natural grassland ecosystem (of hundreds of years ago) and takes advantage of the fast growth of perennial grasses and forbs. The sheep graze, trample, and poop their way across our fields, the birds follow pecking,scratching and further fertilizing, and the pasture comes roaring back—rebuilding the ecosystem from the soil up. Using this system, we’ve been able to build one centimeter of soil per year in places, manage water effectively in downpour and drought, and produce more forage than we ever did with chemical fertilizers. But not all of our land is fit for grazing. So, in order to expand our carbon-sequestering and food-production regeneration efforts, we are embarking on a new “carbon farming” project: a perennial food forest.
There are many designs of food forest, but the one we are likely to emulate is the high-yield polyculture savanna espoused by Mark Shepard and the pioneering work of New Forest Farm. This multilayered system capitalizes on biodiversity to produce food and fodder at many tiers—acorns and walnuts high above; apples and stone fruits at the secondary canopy, covered in the vines of grapes and hops; berry shrubs and bushes in rows below; and annuals like tomatoes and peppers planted on ground level. Livestock are grazed through the shaded alleyways and fruits, berries, and veggies can be harvested throughout the season—with minimal work of the sort that is associated with gardens and traditional orchards. And by packing so much vegetation in a vertical space, this system optimizes both food production and carbon sequestration per square foot of soil.
For the location of our perennial food forest we chose a site that has long been neglected. Sandwiched between old oak forest and pasture, this four-acre plot has been untouched since it was clear-cut about twenty years ago. The loggers left the soil compacted and covered with abandoned logs, and regrowth has been dismally slow. Most of the logs have oxidized rather than decompose—stymying growth in the soil below and losing valuable carbon to the air—and what vegetation has grown back around them has made an impassable, viney, thorny thicket. Currently this land produces no food, but holds tremendous potential.
Conventional agriculture—focused on speed of production—would recommend heavy machinery to clear the logs, tear down unwanted woody vegetation, and prepare the soil for planting. But while speed is important to us, unnecessary burning of fossil fuels is anathema to our carbon-down philosophy. Why lose to the air what can do so much good in the soil? So to solve the problem of how best to prepare the land for our food forest, we turned to our most-trusted source of practical knowledge: Nature.
Pigs! Curious, hungry, and rugged by nature, pigs turn up forest litter and soil in their search for mushrooms, grubs, roots, and fallen nuts. Their snouts are strong enough to turn over logs, their little hooves are sharp enough to aerate soil, and their manure is an ideal nutrient-rich fertilizer to leave behind as they trail-blaze through dense underbrush. They graze leaves and grasses as well as any herbivore, but their greatest function within an ecosystem is breaking down rotting logs and other slowly-decaying bio-matter, thus speeding up decomposition and sequestering carbon in the soil. And did I mention this is where bacon comes from?
When allowed to flourish in their natural role, pigs have none of the negative qualities that we associate with them in conventionally-raised systems (smelly, aggressive, prone to escaping), and the meat that they produce is indescribably delicious. Happy pigs, tasty pork, and site preparation work done without heavy machinery—that’s a win-win-win!
But pigs can’t do all the work we need to do to prepare the land for the food forest. While they’re great at breaking down rotting logs and clearing underbrush, they can do little more to the felled trees than loosen them from clutching vines. Conventional practices would suggest piling the logs and having a bonfire, but burning of decomposable biomass is just as counterproductive as burning fossil fuels—it sends carbon up into the air instead of making it available to the soil microbiology. We wanted to speed up the process without compromising our regenerative principles.
This time our answer came from the pioneering farmers before us. Hügelkultur is a German technique that gained global recognition in the 20th century through Rudolf Steiner’s lectures and teachings on the principles of biodynamic agriculture. The system of hügelkultur is simple: it is essentially a raised bed built from decomposing woody and vegetative material, covered with soil. These can be dug into the ground or constructed above the soil in extremely wet climates (such as ours). Dimensions, shapes, and specific materials in the beds can vary, but the benefits produced are the same: as the woody material decomposes under the soil, it nourishes the subterranean ecosystem, which then provides vital nutrients to the plants above. Then, as the plants grow, the hungry mycorrhizae and microorganisms gathering around their roots speed up the breakdown of wood. What’s more, the heat produced from this decomposition process warms the soil and allows for extended growing seasons in cold-winter climates (such as ours). The carbon of the wood is kept down in the soil and the byproduct is an ideal planting bed for tasty vegetables! By working alongside natural processes, rather than opposing them, we are able to clear our land quickly, and in a way that sequesters carbon and improves the soil.
Hogs and hügels, however, only prepare the site. To create the perennial food forest we envision there is much more work to be done–planning and planting and waiting and nurturing—and it will be years before anyone will taste the (literal) fruits of our labor. In that way it is our gift to the next generation; one that they can pass on to those after them. Accordingly, so too will the food forest be the apogee of our farm’s mission: a perennially-rooted garden where people and livestock work in concert with nature, producing abundant food and fostering a healthy ecosystem.