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Permaculture at AMI: Moving Towards Better Design

By Alli Greenberg

When I decided to attend the Allegheny Mountain Institute (AMI), I was excited by the fact that I would be getting a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC). I have been working on international agriculture programs for the last few years and through that work, spent a lot of time thinking about what sustainable food production actually means. In my previous jobs some people focused on intensifying production so that land would not need to be converted to agriculture, others on organic inputs and still others thought it was just about using technology. Sometimes there was crop rotation or double cropping and other times no tillage. The word sustainable seemed to mean something different to everyone and in turn started to mean very little to me. I read about permaculture and other forms of sustainable agriculture, but without the context of a specific landscape it was hard to grasp the differences and tradeoffs between different systems.

I hope to develop this understanding over the course of my time at the AMI farm and particularly as we delve deeper into permaculture design. During the first week of the program we completed half of the PDC in Staunton at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind.

One of the designs from our first week of Permaculture.

During this week we learned that permaculture is an ecological design principle based on landscape observation and planning. Permaculture is sometimes hard to define because there are no prescribed solutions or inputs that can be applied indiscriminately across all farms that are practicing it. There are some common features, but as a whole it is about developing a deep understanding of a specific landscape in order to implement diverse, low input, optimized production systems using the natural energy and resources of the land. A good permaculture farm does not just maintain production or natural resources, but also works to regenerate the land. The goal is not just to sustain, but to improve.

During our first week of orientation we took a field trip to Dancing Star Farm which is implementing full permaculture design. In this photo 2015 AMI Farm Fellows Lindsay Dowd and Jason Astroth are using an A-frame to mark out the slope line where a swale will be dug. The swale is a common permaculture feature that helps to slow and sink water.

The tools and ideas associated with permaculture design that we learned in the first week have been hard to maintain in the last month as we began work on the AMI farm. The farm here is not a permaculture farm and with new fellows coming in year to year, it is hard to implement the sort of long term planning that true permaculture design would follow. While this can be frustrating, it also presents a great opportunity. As the farm tries to move towards better design, the cohort gets to learn different systems and challenge ourselves to rethinking the landscape. This past week we continued with our PDC course and began a design project that will continue for the next several months: designing the AMI village area where we live. Currently the village has our cabins, a few garden beds, a tool shed, a small chicken house, and a lot of grass. Only a small portion of our food is grown here and part of the design challenge is to create a space that could grow all of the food we need.

Entering the AMI Village area where land is not currently optimized for production and only some food is grown. There is a lot of design potential on the field below these cabins.

The design process begins with careful observation of climate, landform (geology, slope, etc.), water flows, land access, vegetation & wildlife, microclimates, infrastructure, usage patterns, social needs, soil fertility, and aesthetics. These features are listed generally in an order from hardest to easiest to change[1]- climate and landform need to form the bedrock of design while features like aesthetics can be adjusted and soil fertility can be managed. Smart design needs to follow the parameters that nature sets and should optimize around existing features. In the AMI village, this could mean that irrigation follows natural slopes of the hillside or that the compost pile is placed next to a covered garden bed that needs extra warmth. The village is bordered by forest which is an edge that could create microclimates and give shade to bee boxes and mushroom logs. While the elevation and mountain climate gives us only a short growing season, the landform and vegetation could provide many opportunities to get the most out of the time we do have.

[1] Features list is known as the ‘Scale of Permanence’

AMI Village Kitchen Garden where there are currently a few garden beds for growing food. This is some of the land we will be redesigning for our PDC project. It slopes towards the forest and already has some infrastructure to design around.

Through studying permaculture principals and thinking about how they may apply to the AMI farm, the word sustainability has begun to take on some new meaning for me. It makes more sense that it takes on different forms in different farms and landscapes. Sustainability is about creating a thriving environment that is resilient, and permaculture is a design principal that gives practitioners a framework for making decisions about land use. Putting this into practice here at the AMI farm is both the opportunity and challenge not only for the 2015 cohort but for all future cohorts who will continue to manage this land.

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