It's a long way from a homestead cabin in the Alaskan wilderness to an organic farm in rural southwestern Wisconsin. But for Mark and Jen Shepard and their two "pumpkin-polishers", the distance isn't as great as it seems. After all, the same pioneering spirit lies at the heart of both endeavors.
Mark Shepard grew up in Massachusetts, the son of machinist/toolmaker whose true passion was gardening. At that time, growing food organically was practically a subversive act, Mark remembers. "My Dad was into organics back when you could practically get arrested as a socialist for such things. We used to go to various organic gardening meetings in church basements and different places but they were always careful to call the meetings something else on the signs."
Trained as a mechanical engineer, Mark first worked for the federal government designing body armor and helmets for the military before returning to college to study ecology. Meanwhile, Jen Shepard, a biochemist-now a certified massage therapist-raised in the suburbs of Boston, found herself increasingly disenchanted with her work at a food science laboratory where the use of chemicals and the development of GMOs were rapidly proliferating.
Determined to live independent lives in harmony with nature, Mark and Jen lit out for Alaska to stake out land of their own before the closing of the Homestead Act. For eight years, they lived in the mountainous wilderness with moose, caribou and bear-and few other people-as their neighbors. "It was a great opportunity to make a total break from societal culture and expectations, to be my own person," observes Jen.
After traveling to Wisconsin to attend a wedding, Mark and Jen became partners in a venture to buy farmland near rural Viola, Wisconsin and moved to the area in 1994. "We saw immediately that it offered us an opportunity to continue to live a self-reliant lifestyle," says Mark.
A long-time student of, and frequent lecturer on, the subjects of permaculture and agroforestry, Mark Shepard also saw the move as an opportunity to create a farm, literally, from the ground up based on principles that restore Mother Nature as chief architect and arbiter of the landscape. Says Shepard, "Perennial plants are infinitely more sustainable than annual plants since you only have to plant them once in your life. I only have to plow ONCE to establish my plantings them I'm done. Not only does this reduce soil erosion, it costs a lot less too!"
"While we are busy installing the perennial plants into the ecosystem, organically grown annual crops can pay the bills. At New Forest Farm we've concentrated on cucumbers, zucchini, green peppers and a wide variety of winter squash as well as some small grains and hay. Most perennial crops that a farmer can plant, won't produce an income for several years. While the perennials are maturing, cash-flow can be maintained by the annual produce. Asparagus and chestnuts were our first income producing perennials."
In addition to farming, Shepard is also Vice President of the SW Badger Resource Conservation and Development Council, a non-profit organization comprised of a USDA employee, county and local elected officials, and interested citizens. It sponsors many workshops on small-scale farming, sustainable ag and agroforestry, and promotes rural economic development through the restoration of local forests, fisheries and agrotourism.
He also serves on the Board of Directors of the Association for Temperate Agroforestry, a national non-profit that promotes the integration of woody crops into annual crop farms.
The Shepards' sons -- both botanically well-versed -- have already embraced their parents' tree-centric approach to farming. The boys recently planted 150 fledgling Christmas trees, an investment that they hope will pay dividends 'round about the time they're ready to trade their two-wheelers in for four-wheelers.
An Organic Valley produce grower for twelve years, Mark observes that the farmer-owned cooperative conducts its business-both internally and externally-in a way that squares with his own personal ethics and beliefs. "We nurture the earth with organic agriculture and humane treatment of animals. I can't think of a better way for us to live, to market our products, and to relate to each other as human beings. Organic Valley is a band of rather independent, different thinkers who are essentially interdependent."