in 2007 i took my permaculture design certificate class with midwest permaculture at mark shepard’s new forest farm. camping for a week in a chestnut grove and hanging out with a guy like mark can really change your perspective. when ma and i were planning a trip to wisconsin i knew we had to stop by and see the farm and visit with mark and his family.
new forest farm is 106 acres of polyculture tree crops, dominated by hazelnuts, chestnuts and apples, with plenty of pine nuts, blueberries, plums, heartnuts, walnuts, butternuts, hickories, and asparagus too.
it’s a little off the beaten track, and in order to find it we are instructed to look for the wind turbine.
what a wind turbine it is, i’d guess at least 120 feet tall. i’m glad i’m not the one who needs to service that thing. the turbine supplies all the power for the cider house and then some. when we were poking around the farm the wind was blowing at over 25 miles per hour – some serious energy.
mark was in the middle of mowing when we arrived, so we gave ourselves a tour of the farm. walking the farm is really quite spectacular – very much like walking though the midwest woodland prairies that it is modeled after, more like a walk in the woods than a farm walk.
one of the major issues with utilizing perennial crops is that they take a long time to yield, and you need to have cash flow in the meantime. annual vegetables were at one point part of the business plan, but now that so many perennials are yielding well, the only annuals to be found are in the kitchen garden. some of the first yielding perennial crops were the asparagus. the waving fronds of asparagus are amazing in the windy sunshine.
the crop that really captures my imagination is the chestnut, because of the chestnut blight very few of us have the chance to spend any time with these majestic trees.
by the time we got back from our walk mark was done with mowing, and was ready to give us a little tour.
when i last visited they were still constructing the cider house – it was now mostly completed, they have plenty of product ready to be sold, but are still waiting on the county for permitting. we are provided with a couple of lovely samples, shown the fermenting room and the labels.
in the back there is a small washing/grading station, as well as a press for apples. many of the apples trees planted are cider apples, they could never be sold fresh, and since spraying methods – organic or otherwise are not used, the apples wouldn’t look too great, but they do make great juice.
in the same area where the apple press is housed there is also the hazelnut cracker.
since no one has ever bothered to try to grow american hazelnuts commercially, no one has ever bothered to come up with the machinery for shelling and processing american hazelnuts. which is why they have had to work to develop the machinery to do these tasks. they are still working on more equipment for processing, mostly for sorting the shells away from the meat.
they have to get stirred daily as they dry. there are tubs and tubs of hazel nuts drying, having already sold 4 tons of hazels that year. when the conversation turns to breeding of nut varieties, it means we needed to take a tour of the chestnut forest in order to discuss more fully.
new forest farm is not just growing chestnuts, they are breeding them. on the slops of the farm are american and chinese chestnuts in various states of crosses. varieties are selected for yield and quality of nuts, seeds from these varieties are grown out and then the process of selecting the best begins again from those trees. in doing so they have created varieties that are hardy to a much harsher climate than they are native to as well as high yielding, disease and pest resistant, and low maintenance.
not all the chestnuts had been gathered for the year, and by careful searching we are able to gather a nice snack.
very few folks have had the joy of foraging for chestnuts, and i have to say it’s quite a pleasure, these chestnuts are sweet and delicious. i had been hungry, but quickly fill my belly and makes waiting for dinner no problem.
mark invited us to dinner, which his wife jen lovingly prepares, and as quickly as she whipped it up is obviously an expert at quick whole foods cooking. while jen is not as involved as she once was with the farm, it was obvious that her vision and passion were just as much on the roots of each tree on the farm as mark.
we sit and enjoy dinner, conversation, and when jen and mark’s boys return home, banter about school, a chess game, and an impromptu concert. it is obviously a household full of life and love, and i felt a spark of energy in myself from the time shared with them.
ma and i leisurely walk back to the cider house in the moonlight, where we would rest our head for the night.
in the morning a bargain is struck of trading some labor for some chestnut and hazelnut seeds. while i felt like the food and lodging where enough for me to feel the need to put in a mornings labor, i wanted those seeds and was more than willing to peel and sort hazels and chestnuts. we left the farm with what will be the future plantings of many detroit vacant lots, breeding stock, and a lot of inspiration.