What is Permaculture?

And why is the Hudson Valley suddenly home to this burgeoning eco-movement?



There’s a movement afoot right here in the Hudson Valley. It’s green, it’s growing, and it goes by the ungainly name of permaculture.

Never heard of permaculture? Andrew Faust has. He’s been teaching it for about two decades, and his Brooklyn-based Center for Bioregional Living recently bought property in Wawarsing, Ulster County, so its students would have a rural space to practice permaculture ideas.

Jamie Manza and Ermin Siljkovic have heard of permaculture as well. They are turning the historic Hathorn Farm — a highly visible, nine-acre plot of land right on Route 94 in Warwick — into a permaculture center and working farm.

Maybe it’s time the rest of us got up to speed.

A more permanent culture

Back in the 1970s, two Australians named Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, furthering research that had begun at least 60 years earlier, published a series of papers and books outlining their ideas on agricultural and ecological design practices. They believed that modern industrial/agricultural methods were creating poisoned, permanently damaged ecosystems. They proposed practices that would create stable, self-sustaining, low-energy-use farms. They called this permanent agriculture, or permaculture.

And they didn’t stop there. Their movement quickly expanded from just agricultural ideas to individual housing units, community designs, and social engineering to create sustainable human habitats. Permaculture is now understood to mean permanent culture.

The movement — fueled by more books, lectures, and design courses given by the two founders — grew and spread internationally over the next few decades. And as environmentalism has exploded into mainstream culture, permaculture has gained even more followers.

Because it is such a big and broad school of thought, permaculture is rather hard to describe in 100 words or less. But here goes. The goal is to design and build gardens/farms/entire communities as nature would. These ecosystems have built-in efficiencies: they use energy and resources to sustain themselves naturally, and if we can replicate those systems, we can exploit those efficiencies, cutting down or eliminating our need for artificial and carbon-heavy resources.

Here’s a simple example: Why mow your fields with a tractor when you can let sheep do it? And now one that’s more complex: A vast, free-standing, agribusiness-model cornfield needs lots of artificial energy — in the form of fertilizers, irrigation systems, and pesticides — to produce crops. But a small cornfield — which is part of a larger ecosystem that includes native woodlands (to harness and transfer the sun’s energy); native pest control; and natural, gravity-fed water sources — is self-sustaining.

Now take that ideal beyond the farm or garden. Permaculture preaches that entire communities can be designed using these principles. Houses are built with indigenous materials and self-sufficient labor. Villages are constructed with natural water and energy supplies. Communities of like-minded people work together, use their own skills in harmony, and sustain their environment for their offspring.
In a sense, it’s going back to life as it was lived two centuries ago. That may sound impractical, but permaculturists believe it’s the only way to save the planet.

digging a pondFaust’s class digs a pond (above) and works the fields (below) in Wawarsing

working a field

Why here? Why now?

Andrew Faust has been teaching permaculture design and related courses for 17 years, first in rural settings all over the East Coast and now in Brooklyn, where he is adapting his ideas to urban living through his Center for Bioregional Living. But Brooklyn isn’t known for undeveloped green space, so he bought a 14-acre farm in Wawarsing for his students to work on. He also lives there, when not in Brooklyn, with his partner, Adriana, and infant daughter.

Why Wawarsing? Accessibility, mainly. Most of his students are from New York, so direct public transportation was needed, and a short bus ride from the Port Authority terminal to Ellenville does the trick. He was also won over by the beauty and fertility of the land.

Faust, 40, defines permaculture as “meeting human needs by increasing ecological health. We are designing settlements that cooperate with natural principles — we use biology to supplement and back up technology. We need to meet the needs of the population more passively and low-tech, and reduce our energy-hog infrastructure.”

He’s helping spread the permaculture gospel to Valley residents by giving a five-session introductory course this fall at historic Hathorn Farm. The farm was bought in 2008 by PTM Realty, a Warwick-based real estate investment company owned by Paul Manza. Paul’s son Jamie, 30, a vice president with the company, saw this then-delinquent plot of soil and, as a permaculture disciple, decided it would be the perfect spot to practice what he preaches. He is working with Ermin Siljkovic, 28, a friend since high school, who introduced Manza to permaculture a few years back.

Both have full-time jobs — Manza with PTM, Siljkovic with the Council on the Environment of New York City. For the past year, they have devoted nights and weekends to restoring the Hathorn farmhouse and planting crops with the goal of making the farm a local center for permaculture education and practice.

Why Warwick? “This is an agricultural town with forward-thinking, progressive people,” Siljkovic says. “And the farm is just one minute outside the town center and very visible from the road. We thought it could be a showcase for permaculture.”

“We aren’t in it to make money,” Manza says. “We just want to raise awareness about self-sufficiency.” The project is a work in progress, to be sure. But Manza and Siljkovic have a clear vision of what they want to do. “We have a big responsibility to be better stewards of the planet,” Manza says. “The future of society is natural building practices using local materials. It enables everyone to be self-sufficient.”

“We hope to offer a compelling, beautiful vision of what we would like to see,” Faust agrees. “It’s not anti-anything, it’s pro-this is what we want: beautiful, simple systems that meet people’s needs in simple ways.”

 

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