Tahlequah Daily Press

February 12, 2013

Precious resource

By ROB W. ANDERSON
Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Water may soon become as precious a resource as oil, and area residents who recognize that possibility met Monday to inspect a keyline water management system.

Property owner and certified farm-scale permaculturist Julie Gahn hosted fellow land owners to follow up on the topographic water flow system she’s established on her 30-acre property south of Double Spring Creek. Gahn started the project after attending a course taught by Restoration Agriculture Institute President Mark Shepard, whose 106-acre perennial farm is viewed by many as one of the country’s most ambitious sustainable agriculture projects.

Gahn led the group on a short hike along a sloping 800-foot ridge on her property to show those in attendance the layout of the water management system that maximizes resources. Shepard, who homesteaded in Alaska for eight years before establishing his Wisconsin New Forest Farm, walked Gahn’s property swale, searching to pinpoint the “sweetspot keyline,” or the feeding point of the water dispersing system.

“The sweetspot keyline pond ended up right next to an existing pond,” said Gahn. “Mark doesn’t do a lot of planning on paper, which is different than other permaculture designers. He’s very connected to the land. He just goes out there and really feels the land. You just have to walk it and figure out the right spot.”

Shepard’s repeated treks were to locate low places where the ground is moist and often has thick vegetation. A sort of cascading system of sloped mounds of dirt is then developed around one embankment that serves as natural water storage.

Shepard’s restoration agriculture practice converts natural ecosystems to fields for the production of crops or livestock, while rebuilding the local ecoystem.

“What inspired me to work with Mark is my family is from western Nebraska, and they’ve [planted annual crops] for years and years,” said Gahn. “They irrigate out of the Ogallala Aquifer. I came to understand from my uncle that there is no plan and no process for determining how much water is in that aquifer and how much water the farmers use.”

Gahn is concerned about the depletion of aquifers.

“There’s no system, and that’s kind of terrifying to me when you think about how fast that aquifer is going down,” said Gahn.

“So when I read that Mark had figured out that chestnuts and things like hazelnuts can replace things like soybeans in terms of nutrition and calories, [I decided to follow his lead].”

Gahn uses a perennial system now.

“You don’t have to plow up the ground every year and lose top soil,” said Gahn. “You’re actually creating top soil with these [nut] trees and their leaves.”

Fellow restoration agriculture farmer-in-training Kathryn Hardage lives in Texas, but owns property in southern Missouri, where she and her husband plan to establish a sustainable summer camp.

“Those of us who are taking permaculture design [courses] are looking at ways of living sustainably and contributing to the environment,” she said.

“Our land is completely different from this. It’s a different ecosystem. It’s a different habitat. It’s completely forested. So I’ve been corresponding with Mark [Shepard] to find out the first steps that we can take.”

Permaculture is the ecological design system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor, according to the www.Perma Culture.org. The concept instructs people how to build natural homes, grow their own food, restore diminished landscapes and ecosystems, and catch and store natural water resources while building communities.

To learn more about Shepard and restoration agriculture, go to www.Restoration Ag.org.