UMass Amherst Permaculture Conference 2013

by Lucy Bergwall ’15, Sara Clark ’15, Robin Gimm ’14, and Josh Morrison ’16

On a Tuesday in late June, Zilkha Center interns Lucy Bergwall ’15, Sara Clark ’15, Robin Gimm ’14, and Josh Morrison ’16 along with Brent Wasser, manager of the Sustainable Food and Agriculture Program, piled into a college van and headed off to UMass Amherst’s award-winning permaculture garden for the 2013 Permaculture Your Campus Conference. While most of the interns had heard the term permaculture thrown around, we hoped to gain a deeper understanding of the alternative agricultural technique though the workshops, speakers, and interaction with the garden during the day. Permaculture is a term that is often heard but only vaguely understood, so the conference strove to demonstrate how the principles like holistic planning, multifunctionality, and biodiversity could be applied both traditionally to gardening and to larger community development efforts. After a delicious breakfast replete with local and organic items, our small group went to talks that ranged from permaculture garden implementation to the effective presentation of an idea to college administrators. From these sessions, we gained a new outlook on and a much better understanding of permaculture.

Lucy Bergwall ’15, Sara Clark ’15, Robin Gimm ’14, and Josh Morrison ’16 learned about permaculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in June, 2013.
Lucy Bergwall ’15, Sara Clark ’15, Robin Gimm ’14, and Josh Morrison ’16 learned about permaculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in June, 2013.

One of the most interesting insights we gained from the conference was about the different structures through which schools run their garden programming. We were surprised to learn that UMass offers class credit to the students that run the permaculture and food activism organizations. This alternative structure made us realize how beneficial it may be to have paid interns during the school year continuing the work that Zilkha interns do now, specifically managing the garden and coordinating Real Food efforts such as running the Real Food Calculator. To have dedicated positions would ensure that these important tasks are performed in times such as exam periods when student involvement can falter. While these new roles should not alter the egalitarian structure of the student groups, they would offer stability and help keep projects on task. This is an idea that may well be realized in the fall, so stay tuned for future updates.

The greenhouse at Sirius Ecovillage uses solar exposure, a shared wall with a house, and thermal mass to stay warm in the winter.
The greenhouse at Sirius Community uses solar exposure, a shared wall with a house, and thermal mass to stay warm in the winter.

The conference also gave us great perspective on the importance of collaborating with members of different aspects of life at the College on our initiatives. UMass Permaculture has a great collaboration with UMass Dining Services;  students maintain gardens right outside of each dining hall to insure easy access to fresh food for school meals. Staff and faculty are also involved in the permaculture committee, bringing in new ideas and resources that students may not have. We were encouraged by the network of relationships at UMass, where stakeholder engagement led to a central position of the gardens on campus. Lucy Bergwall and Josh Morrison, the two garden interns this summer,  have witnessed this type of community engagement firsthand. As Lucy stated, “I have loved talking to and sharing produce with the many staff members who stop by and are curious about what is happening there. It would be wonderful to expand the garden community and involve more people in its development and harvest.” UMass is doing a wonderful job with this, and Williams could hopefully follow their lead. One method to increase engagement would be to make the garden more visible to those who might not seek it out voluntarily. At the conference we spoke to a Cornell alumna who worked to create a permaculture garden in a busy area on campus to expose passersby to permaculture principles and food production. Creating a garden plot on our own campus in a more central location, perhaps near a dining center, could be a great way to involve more people with the Sustainable Growers and encourage community members to connect with food production. In addition, we are currently building a trellis and arbor entryway for Parsons Garden that will help to establish and draw attention to the space.

The cobb oven at Sirius Ecovillage produced some mean pizzas.
The cobb oven at Sirius Community produced some mean pizzas.

At the end of the day, the conference relocated to the nearby Sirius Eco Village, an intentional community, for a homemade dinner. While the community uses permaculture techniques, the visit transcended permaculture and focused equally on the potential for alternative living and sustainability. The village inhabitants showed off their solar power, low impact building design, composting toilets, and diverse gardens and cooked a delicious meal of salad, homemade cobb oven pizza, cobbler, and tea. The experience was such a success that a few of the interns were even evaluating the pros and cons of moving in!