Daily Collegian | Education | Environment

UMass Permaculture Spreads to Local Elementary Schools

The University of Massachusetts Permaculture Initiative was recognized in March as one of President Barrack Obama’s Campus Champions of Change, an honor shared by just four other community projects from colleges across the nation. Now the group is spreading its sustainable agriculture movement off campus.

To do that, Ryan Harb, the Permaculture Academic Program Coordinator at UMass, has been awarded a grant from the Creative Economies Fund. The Fund is offered by the UMass President’s Office to support programs that “benefit the State’s economy and improve its quality of life,” according to the UMass system’s website.

“He won some money to essentially take the idea of permaculture and sustainability education out into the local community,” said Tripper O’Mara, an Auxiliary Services employee who recently graduated from UMass.

“The way he wanted to do that was by working with the elementary schools.”

O’Mara and Harb are working with a new community group called Grow Food Amherst, which was created by the town’s Sustainability Coordinator, Stephanie Ciccarello.

The first part of the project involved planting fruit trees at three Amherst elementary schools, including Wildwood, Fort River, and Crocker Farm. O’Mara said he was pleasantly surprised by the response from the students.

“I was absolutely blown away by how much even the kindergarteners knew,” he said. “They were telling me what I could and couldn’t put into the compost. And that was just really inspiring and exciting to know that these kids were already being taught at such a young level.”

O’Mara said he will be working with the schools individually during the winter to design their own permaculture gardens, similar to the ones outside Franklin, Berkshire, and Worcester dining commons at UMass. The gardens will then be planted in the spring.

“My main thing right now is just to get kids to understand why we’re doing this, why local food is really good,” O’Mara said.

He added that there is already a lot of excitement about sustainable agriculture at the schools. One of the goals of the partnership is to build on that excitement and integrate permaculture education into the classroom.

The term permaculture is actually a combination of the words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture.’ Josefine Nowitz, Chief Marketing Officer for the UMass Permaculture Initiative and a senior business major, said that’s an important thing to know to really understand what their group hopes to teach the young students and the community.

“Permaculture is not just about designing gardens, it’s about designing a culture and teaching people how to live more sustainable lifestyles,” Nowitz said.

Nowitz and O’Mara said one of the hallmarks of permaculture gardens is that they make the most of the space they’re given. That means you don’t need a lot of land to create a high-yield, low-maintenance garden.

“In our orchard, we have 5 or 6 trees,” O’Mara said. “In industrial agriculture, they would try to fill that area with as many trees as they could.”

Instead, O’Mara said they use the slight shade casted by the small trees to grow annual plants underneath them. As the trees grow and cast larger shadows over the orchard, they’ll be able to grow more “shade-loving” plants.

Agriculture permaculture also focuses on building the soil by providing it with the nutrients it needs to foster new plants, Nowitz said.

“It’s kind of like planning ahead, looking at the long-term succession of the space and how it’s going to evolve and how people are going to need to evolve with it,” O’Mara said.

Nowitz said it’s important to consider the ecological needs of our community as well as the people needs. The permaculture system is one way to “benefit both.”

Although growing food locally can be good for both the earth and the people who live on it, Nowitz said many communities are not currently set up that way.

“We need to take a step back about 100 years and realize that we need to go down to our local bakery to buy our bread and go to our local farm to get our eggs,” she said.

The UMass Permaculture Initiative will be sponsoring an event on Nov. 29 led by Guy McPherson, professor emeritus from the University of Arizona. The event is called “Power-Down and Permaculture: Paths to An Ambiguous Future. For more information, visit umasspermaculture.com

A version of this article appeared in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian on November 15, 2012. }

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