Permaculture in the Pioneer Valley

Greenfield

My final few days in the Northeast were a permaculture grand finale. I was in the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts. Agriculture and post-secondary education are the two main industries there, so it’s no surprise that this region is a hub for permaculture in higher education.

I2014-10-29 12.09.06 began at Greenfield Community College. Abrah Dresdale teaches a two-year degree in Farm and Food Systems that she helped to develop at GCC. The permaculture design course is an elective for this program. Abrah leads a weekly permaculture club, where students help to tend the permaculture demonstration garden. They grow vegetables for the campus dining hall and the food bank. Their next stage will be to restore a large lawn adjacent to the garden with native plants. Colleges seem to have much more freedom to experiment with things like permaculture, probably because they are smaller and don’t have the same research pressures as universities.

Joining the permaculture club under an unseasonably warm October sun, I struggled to tidy up the grass pathways with the push mower. I swapped for a job planting garlic in neat rows, and chatted with the students. A few explained that the Farm and Food Systems program was their second shot at higher education: they’d started in more traditional disciplines or had even acquired a conventional degree, but had since discovered their passion for growing food while regenerating landscapes. In one gal’s program, the college students and inmates from the local prison share courses together in sustainability. She appreciated the chance to learn and connect with people who brought very different life experiences to the table.2014-10-29 12.11.45

Stopping at the co-op market, the produce section was virtually completely local. There was even local ginger and turmeric root! I loaded up on fresh veggies and locally made seitan to make a stir fry for my next hosts. Seitan is a fermented soy product that Mónica told me about in Boston, and I wanted to try it. It turned out to have a very strange spongy, slimy texture and it didn’t really taste like food, but it was worth a shot. My hosts seemed grateful for the meal regardless.

2014-10-30 13.40.55My hosts, Isabel, Jenna, and Fiona, were all in their early twenties.  Isabel has spent time on a few farms and is thinking about taking the Farm and Food Systems program. Jenna’s interest is holistic health and Fiona is a conventional horticulture student at UMass. Fiona asked me what permaculture was and I got really excited, geeking out on what I know and sharing some resources so they could learn more. They listened with interest about where I’d been and what I’d seen on my trip. Being at the end of it, I felt like I was coming full circle. After learning from so many teachers and communities who’ve been at this for a long time, I was able to share my modest knowledge and my passion with some folks who are just starting out. They invited me for lunch at UMass, and we ate at a student-run, nonprofit café that prepares meals with seasonal ingredients from local farms. Afterward, we took a journey up to the 26th floor of the looming library tower, where we looked down over UMass and the community beyond.

2014-10-30 13.36.32

UMass Amherst, looking west

UMass Amherst

I had finally made it to the “it” university of permaculture: the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a huge sprawling land grant institution. The students have put it on the national map with their precedent-setting work. Several years ago, they convinced the administration to allow them to transform a quarter-acre lawn beside one of the dining halls into a garden. 2014-10-30 13.35.19Sheet mulching over the grass, they installed vegetable beds, an orchard, pollinator habitat, a cornucopia of medicinal herbs, and many perennial edibles like Malabar spinach, Chinese yam, and Sylvetta arugula. The garden is a place for learning and connection with nature right smack in the middle of campus, where food is grown for the dining hall and the university restaurant.

The initiative now includes five different gardens, including one at the Chancellor’s house. The fact that the Chancellor of the largest public university in New England invited these undergrads to transform his yard, which is frequented by top administration and international bigwigs, is pretty huge! The students have won numerous awards, including President Obama’s national Campus Champions of Change Award. In 2012, they started an annual student sustainability conference called Permaculture Your Campus – and students across North America converged to talk about how to use permaculture ideas and practice to transform the education and landscapes of their own institutions.

franklin 4

Photo credit: UMass Permaculture Initiative

UMass students can receive credit for taking care of the gardens, including harvesting and delivering food, as part of the UMass Permaculture Committee. I got a detailed tour of the garden from Lilly Israel and Nathan Aldrich, former students who are now employed managing the gardens. The dining halls are run by Auxiliary Services with a revenue stream separate from the university’s academic budget. They’ve chosen to put this money toward the UMass Permaculture Initiative, hiring students like Lilly and Nathan. Lilly leads the permaculture committee, showing students how to maintain the garden and teaching them about the uses of different plants. I wandered around with my camera, filming the students and asking them about their degrees and their interest in permaculture. They were mostly weeding the woodchip paths, which is a bit ironic: permaculture gardens tend to be more wild and embracing of weeds, as they have many uses too. But like at GCC, the students are required to keep the garden looking tidy and presentable. Good permaculture design must, above all, reflect the unique needs of the site and the community.  

franklin garden 2

Photo credit: UMass Permaculture Initiative

I was invited to sit in on an Introduction to Permaculture course by Lisa DePiano. It just happened to be a guest lecture from Jonathan Bates, co-owner with Eric Toensmeier of the famous backyard called Paradise Lot. The story of their transformation of this 1/10th acre lot into a highly productive, diverse, and interconnected system of plants and animals is told in their book, also called Paradise Lot. I’d been really hoping to visit this permaculture site. I was probably scribbling notes faster than anyone in the room as Jonathan talked about bioshelters, micro-livestock, and aquaponics, with examples from Paradise Lot. Like a starstruck fan, I approached him timidly after the talk to ask about stopping by. He graciously agreed.

Paradise Lot

2014-10-29 12.03.04

Inside the bioshelter

I drove down to Holyoke. In this little town directly south of Amherst, I first visited Lisa’s home, ogling their tiny house in the backyard with natural plaster finishes. They’ve ripped up the cement walkway to create a permeable pathway for water to recharge into the ground, upcycling the slabs into a retaining wall for a berry bed around the perimeter. There’s lead in the soil from the bygone days of lead paint, so tall raised beds are the food growing medium of choice. 

2014-10-29 12.00.08

American persimmon tree

At Jonathan’s, I tasted an American persimmon, a crabapple-sized sweet and fleshy orange fruit that is native to North America and so much tastier than the Asian persimmons in the grocery store. It’s a popular species for food forest design along with the pawpaw, the native tree with the largest fruit in this temperate climate. Pawpaws have yellow flesh and large pits, their flavour is like a delicious combination between mango and banana and they boast lots of healthy fats like avocados. Paradise Lot is truly a lush paradise – with a bamboo grove and a multistory community of berries, vines, and fruit trees, it feels like an abundant tropical forest, even at the end of October. I spotted a tiny purple flower and Jonathan identified it as saffron – as in the most expensive spice in the world. We also geeked out on the ground potato: it’s a native starch crop with a vine that was a staple food of the Indigenous peoples of the region. It’s also a perennial that makes nitrogen available to other plants. There are over 40 species of fruit and 70 species of perennials in a complex web of relationships at Paradise Lot.

2014-10-29 12.15.25

Jonathan’s aquaponics system

Jonathan’s bioshelter was definitely the coolest part. Using recycled billboard vinyl and nearly all recycled materials, Jonathan had built a south-facing greenhouse filled with tropical plants like turmeric, ginger, and even an avocado tree! Catfish darted around inside huge recycled water containers, working in a closed loop system of mutual nourishment with the plants. To my surprise, Jonathan lifted up the floor under our feet to reveal an ingeniously designed worm bin, where they throw food scraps for their “micro-livestock” to turn into high quality compost. Their other composting system simply involves spreading spent plant stalks and other fibrous garden material in the chicken coop, and feeding them kitchen scraps. The chickens naturally scratch, mixing the material with their manure. Every once in a while, the guys will shovel out the coop with ready made compost. I’m definitely going to try this at home with our ducks!

Coming Full Circle

2014-10-29 12.19.57

Worm composting in the bioshelter

It was almost time to return to Boston for my flight home. But I had one last stop to make. I was to meet an individual whose work was a direct inspiration for my own research. I first encountered Ryan Harb in a video produced about the UMass Permaculture Initiative. There was a whole ecology of students, volunteers and administrators who helped to make the permaculture stuff possible at UMass. But Ryan was a key driver and spokesperson. His bright eyes and excited energy as he talked of the transformation of a bare lawn into a productive and diverse garden immediately drew my interest. Watching what was happening at UMass and the fact that they were being recognized as the premier student sustainability initiative in the US was, in part, what made me realize that permaculture seems to be at a tipping point. My research has only reinforced this feeling and my fascination with what I see as permaculture growing into a new successional stage of widespread acceptance.

There are interesting parallels between Ryan’s story and mine. He was a grad student at UMass who took a permaculture design course for university credit at Sirius Ecovillage and became hooked. He decided to tailor his master’s research around the design and transformation of his cooperatively-owned suburban home into a lush landscape yielding food, fibre, medicine, habitat, and community connection. Building on his huge success at UMass, Ryan now works as a sustainability consultant. He poured me a blend of herbal tea that he had grown and prepared, and gave me a tour of his garden. His house was covered in solar panels; his garden rife with berry patches, fuzzy chamomile groundcover, and monstrous kale mountains.

2014-10-29 11.01.07

Ryan in his garden

Spreading in all directions was the Sylvetta arugula I’d become acquainted with at UMass. I can’t eat enough arugula. I simply had to find this perennial variety back home and plant it in my garden, and I said as much to Ryan. Then Ryan offered me a gift that was more meaningful than anything I could have purchased at a nursery: a one-gallon pot containing a beautiful leafy arugula plant. He assured me this hardy specimen would make it back on the plane alive. I’ve since planted it between an apple tree and a patch of strawberries, and I can’t wait to harvest some of the tender, spicy leaves next season. Just as Ryan had helped to plant the seed in my mind about researching the growing trend of permaculture in higher education, he was helping to plant a new seed of abundance in my garden.

2014-10-29 11.05.22

Ryan’s cooperative house

With my arugula safely tucked into my carry-on, I watched the sunrise pierce through a landscape of clouds as my plane lifted off over Boston. Thinking back over my trip, if anything stood out to me most about this enriching adventure in community, it was the sense of that abundance that rose to the top. Too often amid the gloomy headlines, the storyline of fear and scarcity dominates, instilling paralysis and eco-despair. What has drawn me to permaculture from the beginning is its recognition of the incredible abundance all around us and our ability to make a big impact by cultivating that abundance. This abundance is cultivated every day by people like Ryan and all those who opened their homes and hearts to me on this trip, sharing their gifts, talents, insights, food, and cozy beds. I have one last post to write about my time in Oregon, and I can tell you already that the story there is the same: people using the practical tools of permaculture to shift radically into a community-centred vision of sustainability.

2014-10-31 07.10.16

Sunrise on the flight home

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: