When we took the permaculture course
we heard about keylining,
or forest agriculture.
I know—
forestry and prairie
don’t seem to go together.
So I went recently
to a keylining field day
near Hulbert
in northeast Oklahoma.
I know—
much wetter, forested
ecosystem.
But permaculture teachers
had told me that keylining
is an answer to the drought-flood-drought
prairie cycle.
So I went to learn.
Mark Shephard,
whose been practicing forest agriculture,
and teaching it,
for 17 years
tells me it will work.
Five inches of rain annually,
he says, and trees will grow here.
Trees that produce food.
Trees that bring clouds.

I watched as the group gathered
and continued to keyline a farm
owned by Kathy and Mike Lawless,
friends from the permaculture course.
Mark taught us how to find the key
in a piece of land—
the center from which the contour of the land
falls.
With a laser,
we marked the contours,
taking into consideration
how the Lawless family
will use livestock and machinery
to maintain the pasture in between
the rows of tree plantings.
Then, with a bulldozer,
a shallow trench is dug along the contour line—
a swale—
and the soil piled to the downhill side of the swale—
a berm.


Trees will be planted along the downhill side
of the berm,
the berm seeded with grass,
and, if livestock is a part of the plan,
a fence built along the row of trees
until they are mature.
Animals can graze in the alleys
between the swales and berms.
Full-fledged ponds can be built
in spots where the swales
will direct water.
Or a series of “pocket ponds”—
water collection spots about a foot deep
at the end of swales—
can be dug throughout the system.
When it rains,
water is captured and held,
the tree roots watered
and overflow directed slowly
and held longer
in the pools or ponds.
Other plants—
perennial food crops for instance—
can also be grown
in the alleys.

Every farm is different, of course,
so it was interesting
to go “next door” (down the road a bit)
to the Clear Creek Monastery
where the monks and brothers there
are keylining their farm.
Again, we found the key,
marked the contour
and laid out their keylining system
based on their farming
and pasture-management practices.

Next fall,
Mark will return to Oklahoma
to continue to teach and help farmers
build their keylining systems.
We’re planning his visit here,
on the prairie,
for an introduction to forest agriculture
and a keylining field day
at Turtle Rock Farm.

To watch and be in conversation
with the Lawless family
as their keylining system develops,
here is Mike’s blog.
It’s great to see his photo
of rain captured and resting
in the new swales.

Photo by Mike Lawless
Rain water in new swale and new pond at the Lawless farm