Real Food. Insanely Cheap. Musings on Mark Shepard’s “Restoration Agriculture” Farm.

MLK HAD A DREAM.  I HAVE A DREAM TOO …. REAL FOOD. SUPER CHEAP.  HEALING LAND.  HEALING SOULS.  Here’s some thoughts on this topic drawn from Mark Shepard’s 2013 book “Restoration Agriculture” (Mark’s farm pictured at left) The most remarkable things I glean from Mark’s book are …

1) Mob Grazing Plus. Everything I have learned about Mob Grazing – cattle, sheep, chickens following, etc. – applies – that is, no input, much higher grazing densities, no meds, etc. BUT … with Mark’s system, densities can be increased even more because of 3 key factors – (a) partial shade which benefits both the animals and the grasses, and (b) fruit from trees falling on the ground which automatically supply extra feed to pigs and chickens (omnivores), and (c) multiple livestock species

2) Mob Grazing Plus a Gazillion. OK well, not quite. But a whole new universe of production is available – IN ADDITION to the mob grazed livestock on the same acreage – because of the trees and bushes, which are arranged in rows with 23 ft wide alleys. You can harvest 1000 lbs per acre of chestnuts alone plus apples and several other items. So for example, if a Mob Grazed cattle operations produces 50 lbs of beef per acre per year (what Greg Judy does), a Mark Shepard system might produce more like 60 lbs because of the extra fertility / shading of the grass, animal shade, etc, PLUS perhaps 10 lbs of lamb, 40 lbs of pork, 15 lbs of chickens (for meat), 50 dozen eggs, PLUS 1000 lbs of chestnuts, 7000 lbs of currants and more (Mark does not give the yields for hazelnuts, grapes and raspberries which all grow under the chestnut / apple trees). Anyway the production is enormous from the tree / bush crops and this is ON TOP OF the already efficient mob grazing operation!

What are the implications of this?

Well, it tells me that with Mark’s system, we have the economic “engine” to drive conversion of cropland — which is degrading rapidly due to tillage — into farmland which is not only wildly productive and wildly profitable, but actually REVERSES land degradation.

I have not assembled all the numbers yet, but I do have some of them. Let’s calculate some retail values of production with what I know so far from Mark’s book. Let’s use some average numbers for retail for “beyond organic” animal products. LIVESTOCK: 60 lbs beef x $5/lb = $300. 10 lbs lamb x $8/lb. = $80. 40 lbs pork x $5/lb = $200. 15 lbs chicken x $3/lb = $45. 50 dozen eggs x $3/dozen = $150. Livestock total per acre: $775/acre. TREE/BUSH CROPS. Add in 1000 lbs chestnuts x $5/lb = $5000 plus 7000 lbs of currants x ?/lb plus hazelnuts plus apples plus grapes plus plus plus … do you get the picture?

Now one of the greatest obstacles to converting row crop land to Restoration Farm land (Oak Savannah) is the high lease cost, typically a minimum of $100 per acre per year and as high as $300/acre per year – even higher in some places. Another obstacle is that cropland is DEAD. The soil life has been killed by years of tillage and chemicals and pesticides. There is very little organic matter in the soil so the soil must be brought back to life by adding organic material. This costs money and takes time.

BUT … it seems to me that an investor with a little patience could realize huge returns by making the up front investment to resurrect dead cropland and put the land into “Restoration Farm” production. We’re talking over $700 per acre in just livestock revenues against very low production costs. Then on top of this, we have THOUSANDS of $ per acre in tree / bush crops, again, against very low inputs / harvesting cost.

As for revenue timeframes, I have heard that chestnuts can begin yielding in as little as 3 years with grafting and proper soil prep. The other tree and bush crops can yield sooner than this and livestock can begin yielding within 2 years. I don’t know yet how much this conversion would cost up front, but I do have a feel for what steps to take and some approximate costs of some of these steps. I hope that I can refine this model soon for presentation to investors.

Stay tuned!

PS How will we get cheap food out of this? Well … it seems to me that if we can invest say $1000 per acre over 3 years to resurrect cropland then begin harvesting all this bounty, would it not be possible to lower the retail prices of food thusly produced? If “beyond organic” beef sells for $5 per lb under the Single Species Mob Grazing model, isn’t it possible that we could see it drop to $1 per lb under the Mark Shepard model? I see no reason it could not. Ditto for chestnuts. And everything else. Abundant supply drops prices. This we know. How much it will drop, I cannot say.

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