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Featured on “AASHE Student Diary Series: Permaculture Pioneers”

Today’s post features an installment from the AASHE Bulletin Sustainability Student Diary series, written by committee member Meg Little. AASHE, or the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, provides resources, professional development, and a network of support to enable institutions of higher education to model and advance sustainability in everything they do. The student diary series offers students a chance to share their on-campus initiatives in their own words.

This installment of the AASHE Bulletin Sustainability Student Diary series features Meg Little, member of the award-winning permaculture team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. For its pioneering efforts in campus permaculture, the Permaculture Committee was named Student Group of 2011 by the Real Food Challenge. Read on to learn about the committee’s inception, inspirations and inner workings. We hope to see questions and feedback in the comments area! Submit diary entries of your own for consideration to

As I look out onto the dormant January garden in front of Franklin Dining Commons at UMass, I can’t help but feel a sense of utter amazement at how much we accomplished in the past year and a half. In September 2010, this 12,000-square-foot plot was an unused patch of grassy lawn, unappreciated and overlooked by the campus community. Just one year later, it was transformed into a highly productive, beautiful permaculture garden; a space for students, staff and faculty to slow down and appreciate the wonderful smells, colors and unusual plants dwelling in the garden.

In September 2010, the word “permaculture” was practically unknown to the campus community. By September 2011, the word was almost commonplace among students, and our UMass Permaculture group was joyfully celebrating its accomplishments in the dedication event, “From Grass to Food in Under One Year” (featuring internationally acclaimed author Frances Moore Lappe).

The story begins in the fall of 2009 in a class called “Sustainable Agriculture.” The final project for this class was to “come up with some way to change the world.” Quite an overwhelming task for a class project! A group of students got together and decided to focus on what they believed had the most potential to change the world: local food. This led them to an idea: what if we had students growing food for students right here on campus? They dove into this project, focusing around the idea of establishing a permaculture garden adjacent to one of the Dining Commons to produce super-local food for students. Some students researched plants and design, and some looked at finance, interviewing administrators and chefs to see if there was actually funding interest in the project. It turned out that there was, and these students continued to push the project through administrative channels even after the class ended.

Later that spring, the project took a blow when discussions arose of building a temporary parking lot on that site. The project seemed defeated, along with the sense of empowerment students had felt in the process of establishing the project. However, Dining Services listened to student concerns and when the parking lot proposal fell through, Executive Director of Auxiliary Services and Enterprises Ken Toong began talking with Ryan Harb, a certified permaculture designer and recent graduate of UMass’s Green Building masters program. That fall, Harb was hired to oversee the project and put together a student committee to organize and plan for the successful implementation of a permaculture garden.

“…permaculture is the most promising solution to reverse the downward spiral of our current circumstances. It is systems thinking, it is gardens, it is communities, it is sustainable economies, it is rewriting our human impact to be regenerative for all living things by changing the way we relate ourselves to the world around us.”

That’s where I come into the picture! As an environmental science major entering my junior year, I was run down and pretty downright depressed about our global situation. Having spent two years learning about the despondent state of our climate and the devastating impacts humans have had on it, I was desperate for a positive solution. In my first week of classes, I received an email looking for students to head the implementation of a permaculture garden on campus. “Permaculture?” I thought, “what is that?” So I started investigating. And the more I learned, the more I fell in love. This was the solution I had been searching for!

For those unfamiliar with the term, there are many definitions for permaculture. The Permaculture Institute defines it as an ecological design system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor. It teaches us how to build natural homes, grow our own food, restore diminished landscapes and ecosystems, catch rainwater, build communities and much more.

For me, permaculture is the most promising solution to reverse the downward spiral of our current circumstances. It is systems thinking, it is gardens, it is communities, it is sustainable economies, it is rewriting our human impact to be regenerative for all living things by changing the way we relate ourselves to the world around us. Needless to say, I was hooked, and I was ecstatic to hear I had been selected as a member of the eight-student UMass Permaculture Committee. We got right to work, focusing first on our mission statement:

“To offer education about sustainable living to the UMass Amherst community by creating model, edible and low-maintenance landscapes that are both highly productive and aesthetically pleasing.”

As our site is located in a central area on campus, the educational aspect was incredibly important to us. Not only were we growing food, but with that we were changing paradigms on a local scale; changing the way UMass thinks about food production.

That fall we organized over 130 volunteers to help sheet mulch (a common permaculture practice to prepare the soil for growing) the entire 12,000-square-foot site, bringing in numerous campus and local groups including Big Brother Big Sister, Living Routes, and Amherst Regional High Green Action Club. We also started a blog, tabled and spoke at town and campus events, hosted a documentary screening, and had several media appearances. In the spring we pushed ourselves even further, adding on a few more committee members to assist in media outreach, enabling previous members to focus on designing the garden, participating in more local tabling and speaking events, hosting another documentary screening, and organizing a highly successful design charrette, which included over 100 students, faculty, staff and local community members who had the opportunity to take part in the design process, create their own designs for the garden, and voice their opinions on what they would like to see from the garden.

At the end of the spring semester, we put together an enthusiastic new summer committee and finally started planting. We worked diligently over the summer to make the garden as productive as possible, planting over 1,500 plants of more than 100 different species. All the while we strived to make it accessible to everyone by blogging about our struggles and successes, incorporating informational plaques throughout the garden, creating a self-guided tour for visitors, and hosting over 300 K-12 school children to come work, play and learn in the garden. By the time September rolled around, the garden was looking wonderful, and we produced 1,000 pounds of food for the Dining Commons. When students returned for the semester we were bombarded with compliments on the amazing transformation that had taken place over the course of the summer, which was extremely rewarding for all of us who had worked so hard.

For this academic year we’ve remodeled the student committee. Last year’s committee members now have the opportunity to both teach and learn alongside other students as facilitators working to assist new members. I work with other students to host events with the goal of engaging students and local community members in our project and creating space for them to learn about new permaculture-related topics, have fun, and participate in the processes of UMass Permaculture.

“…not only does permaculture grow food, it also heals and remediates degraded landscapes.”

Which brings us back to today: a cold January morning in 2012. As we reflect on the past year and look forward to the one ahead of us, I feel incredibly fortunate to be a part of this amazing project. Due to the success of this garden, we’ve been granted land next to another Dining Commons on campus: neglected land that has compacted, rocky, dead soil, where even grass can barely grow. We’re all pretty excited about the challenge this presents, as we hope to use this site as an educational tool highlighting the regenerative capacity of permaculture; not only does permaculture grow food, it also heals and remediates degraded landscapes. We will also be hosting a “Permaculture Your Campus” conference this June. From colleges around the country, we invite student groups, dining services, sustainability committees and any other interested groups/individuals to come to UMass and develop their own unique action plans for how they will design and implement permaculture gardens on their own campuses. Interested schools can register beginning this month. Registration fees will contribute to our project’s financial sustainability as we move ahead with our own gardens and assist in the development of other projects across the world.

The work I’ve done for this group has without a doubt been one of the defining experiences of my undergraduate career. I have grown more from this experience than I could have imagined and have learned more than any number of classes could have taught me. Above and beyond my own personal gains, the project and the garden itself have become a visible example of student empowerment and shifting paradigms on campus. Students drove this movement, and students are helping it grow to new heights all the time. The Franklin garden’s location, in a highly visible and highly trafficked area for students, enables it to be seen by thousands every day and to begin to change the way UMass Amherst thinks about food. Our project may not be capable of feeding the 16,000 students on meal plans, but it can demonstrate different ways of thinking about how land is used, where food is grown, and who grows food. Our gardens are a site of education and student empowerment – and what a beautiful sight that is.

Originally posted on AASHE Student Diary Series: Permaculture Pioneers
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