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Future Farming

Photos by Dan Bishop

September 2014

Michael Gutschenritter, left, and Chris Johnson

Chestnut and hazelnut trees just may save us all, insists third-generation farmer Michael Gutschenritter, co-owner of Three Brothers Farm in the town of Oconomowoc, and heís out to prove it. "Weíre really focusing on design on our property, and design for permanence," he says.

Wisconsin is emerging as a leader in permaculture, Gutschenritter says: "I would define it as growing staple crops by mimicking ecosystems. Thereís a whole group of people proving that we can use woody perennial alternatives, such as chestnuts and hazelnuts, to provide the carbohydrates, proteins and oils that humans need to survive as a species."

So, instead of planting acre upon acre of corn, year after year, he and the farmís co-owner, Chris Johnson, planted 3,000 hybrid chestnut trees this spring. The trees have to be planted only once, he notes, "as opposed to farmers who have to tear up thousands of acres (for corn and soy) for a gamble every year." At some point, Gutschenritter says, if farmers continue to rely on the same crops and use chemicals to grow them, the land will simply be worn out.

The nut and fruit trees and bushes that Gutschenritter will eventually plant are intended to make the farm drought-proof and flood-proof, and less dependent on the whims of weather. Instead of drip-line irrigation systems, Three Brothers Farm relies on a series of ditches or swales built on the contours of the land, so that rainwater soaks in slowly.

Although permaculture is most often applied to farming, home gardeners can adopt some of its principles. Planting berry bushes instead of flowering hedges, for example, and using native plants and perennial vegetables such as asparagus, borrows the idea of planting things not just for their beauty but for their usefulness. Research plants that complement each other, such as currant bushes planted between nut trees. The idea of permaculture gardening is to use the landscape to provide practical benefits, like food and shelter. Use compost to enrich the soil, and avoid using chemicals.

At the moment, Three Brothers Farm benefits from community supported agriculture, or CSA. People buy "shares" every year and during the summer and fall, shareholders get fresh, naturally grown vegetables, eggs and meat directly from the farm.

Gutschenritter is working toward a day when Wisconsinís chestnut and hazelnut farmers will convince large food companies to replace the corn in their products, like snack chips, with nut products and broad-acre farms are transformed into sustainable food forests.

"Iím really planting these trees so my great-great-great-grandkids are still harvesting crops off our property and theyíll be able to still make a living off our land," he says. m


This story ran in the September 2014 issue of: