Revisioning Sustainability Conference 2014

by Haley Mahar ’16 and Sasha Langesfeld ’17

The motto for the Revisioning Sustainability conference is “Campuses as Catalysts for Regenerative Food Systems.” Hosted at UMass Amherst, this yearly and internationally known conference immerses attendees in workshops, sessions, talks and dinners, allowing those interested to learn exactly what regenerative food systems are as well as how to better incorporate sustainability into everyday life. Earlier this summer, from June 22nd-25th, three Zilkha Center summer interns were given the opportunity to see exactly what the Revisioning Sustainability Conference was all about.

Attendees coming from Hawaii, Tennessee, Canada and everywhere in between all congregated in the Marriott Hotel on UMass Amherst campus on Sunday evening to begin the conference. As the orange sunset glowed into the windows of the 11th floor of the Marriott Hotel on UMass Amherst Campus, a keynote address by renown teacher and speaker Pandora Thomas kicked off the next three days. Each day began early and ended late; both Monday and Tuesday offered us a full day of activities. We discovered things we’d never known about gardening, about the Real Food initiative, and met people interested in the same things that we are. Some highlights of the conference included a trip to and tour of the Paradise Lot permaculture garden in Holyoke, and breakout sessions such as “The Permaculture Design Process” and “Composting: From Backyard to Small Farm.” A particularly memorable event was our trip to Sirius on Tuesday evening, an ecovillage located just half an hour from Amherst.

After overshooting the entrance to the Sirius community by many miles, and then doubling back to find it, our exciting bus ride ended with a stalled engine and a final trek on foot. We were late for our tour and instead got a shortened version of it, but what we did see was very impressive. Listening to the lectures about what people had achieved was informative and interesting, but seeing people actually living lives molded by the principles of permaculture was even more inspiring. The community hosts about 30 families that live in various eco-buildings on the property. Some of the buildings are made of cob, a material made of sand, clay and straw, and others are powered by wind and solar energy. The community aims for sustainability, and they have permaculture gardens, orchards and greenhouses. The tour of the property was great, but we couldn’t leave until we had tried the famous cob oven pizza, which was accompanied with music and did not disappoint.

The conference finally came to a close on Wednesday, June 25th following a tour of Paradise Lot. An urban permaculture garden that inspired a popular book, Paradise Lot is half an acre of heavily planted and well-designed greenery amidst the concrete of Holyoke. The permaculture design principles were carefully applied to craft a complex ecosystem out of what was once just a plain backyard. Understories of strawberries and leguminous native plants share a small area with berry shrubs and fruit trees in a delicate balance of sunlight, nutrients, and space. There were berries we had never even heard of and fruits such as hardy kiwis and Asian pears. The small plot of land was an extraordinary example of how much diversity can be achieved by anyone with permaculture knowledge.

We all had a great time at UMass and highly recommend the conference for those seeking new and innovative ways to incorporate sustainability and permaculture into their schools, workplaces or daily lifestyle. Four days was not nearly enough time to pack in everything there was to learn. We ate deliciously prepared local food, attended workshops, and explored Amherst. Thank you to UMass for putting on such a wonderful conference and we can’t wait for next year!


Haley Mahar ’16 and Sasha Langesfeld ’17 are the 2014 Summer Garden Squad Leaders. They mentor students from Mount Greylock Regional High School while maintaining five gardens in Williamstown.