Among my peer group it is not unusual to hear gripes. We don’t always see clear pathways to a greener future. Once in a while, amidst this depressive jabber, we identify solutions such as the one I was introduced to this fall: restoration agriculture.
Restoration agriculture is a set of tools with which we build farm enterprises that supply all of the food, fuel, fiber, and medicine that we as humans require, while simultaneously reviving the ecological communities that are home to all life on earth. If that was not enough to hook me, a deeper look at what makes restoration agriculture happen had me preaching it like I had just discovered the meaning of life.
By far the most exciting part of restoration agriculture is that, aside from its name, there is not a thing new about it. Every aspect of restoration agriculture has been practiced at least to some degree by people around the world. What is exciting about restoration agriculture is not the individual pieces, but the incredible synergy that occurs when they are all at work together. A restoration agriculture farmer takes well-known techniques and complements them with other techniques, and the result is extraordinary: Garden-of-Eden-esque food forests that are safe havens for endangered songbirds, yet supply more human nutrition per acre than any ordinary farm.
Restoration agriculture starts with well-known ideas like permaculture design, agroforestry, water management, and soil science. Permaculture or permanent agriculture is a set of principles for designing living landscapes. Permaculture functions well to offer self-sufficiency to an individual family, but where it loses its integrity is with the production staple foods for a large population. In restoration agriculture, permaculture is the design methodology with which we create our systems.
Agroforestry (agriculture plus forestry) is an intentional way of integrating trees, livestock, and annual crops. It is widely used throughout the world, and much great work has been done in this field, but its shortfalls are in biodiversity. Agroforestry systems often utilize only two or three species where there previously was one. Restoration agriculture uses the technology of growing plants and raising animals among trees, but integrates it with permaculture to form a stronger, more complex system.
Soil science is the study of the sand, silt, clay, organic material, and living things (bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, mycorrhizae, insects, and worms) that compose the earth’s crust. A true restoration agriculture farmer never sees only what’s on the surface—they see a tangled maze of roots below ground teeming with beneficial life forms that are deeply interconnected with the foliage and animals that are visible above ground.
Keyline design is another ingredient in restoration agriculture, and its purpose is to manage water in the system. While problems of erosion and runoff have crippled the world’s waterways from poor agricultural practices, causing great algal blooms and stagnant dead zones, a restoration agriculture farmer holds water close. Keyline design is pattern for land planning that aims to slow, spread, and sink every drop of water that falls on the farm. When water falls from the sky and percolates into the ground it brings nitrogen and oxygen from the atmosphere, which nourishes the soil biota, who in turn feed the plants that feed humans and other animals.
It is easy to get excited about restoration agriculture when looking at the individual pieces, but it is a different thing all together to see the synergistic relationship these pieces form, and the results that are then produced. Restoration agriculture has two main goals: To transform degraded landscapes into ecological paradises, and to provide for the needs of human beings. A successful restoration agriculture farm will most likely not look like a farm at all—it will more resemble a wild place. It will be literally covered in life from the treetops to ten feet below ground.
A closer look, however, will indicate that food is plentiful. Nuts, fruit, berries, vegetables, meat, seeds, and grasses are abundant. There is enough food growing to feed ourselves with leftovers going to our livestock, while wild animals feast on food we have abandoned, and still more food is returned to replenish the soil.
Just as restoration agriculture will someday replace the polluted cornfields and factory farms of the present, already it has replaced the gripes and complaints that once fueled dinner conversations among my peers. Where previously I can imagine having sat at dinner and discussed the word “sustainable” in a hopelessly sarcastic tone, we now plan the food forests of the future, save the seeds from our apples, and smile at the thought of restoring our planet’s ecosystems. It is amazing the effect that a handful of simple ingredients, when combined in just the right proportions, can have not only on the future, but in the present day as well. •