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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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New Mexico’s Permaculture Institute Sees Undisturbed Ecosystems as Models for Sustainable Ag Systems

March 26, 2012 |

Scott Pittman, Founder of the Permaculture Institute. Photo courtesy of Permaculture Institute.

Scott Pittman has spent over 27 years traveling the world and teaching permaculture, a holistic approach to sustainable living that sees agricultural and societal structures as integrated components of the natural ecosystem. The word permaculture is a contraction of “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture”. Pittman’s Permaculture Institute defines permaculture 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.’

The Permaculture Institute, headquartered in Santa Fe, New Mexico, also emphasizes the care of the earth and the care of people as equally important and intertwined imperatives. “It sounds simple enough. But when you really look at the implications, it requires a huge amount of study and understanding,” Pittman says. “Before one can care for something one has to know how it operates.”

Lessons from the Land

Pittman teaches his permaculture students to look to undisturbed ecosystems as the only models of sustainable systems that we have. “These are systems that have existed for thousands of years without intervention and they’re doing quite well,” Pittman says. Part of permaculture design suggests maintaining a portion of virgin land for continual analysis and study as untouched ecosystems can serve as a model for understanding how to make orchards, fields, and kitchen gardens more sustainable. For example, soil samples from these pristine environments can help farmers to understand the fungi and biota that enhance the soil and in turn help plants and crops to flourish.

Examining the diverse plant life that crops up in virginal ecosystems and the various ecological niches that each of them fills can provide vital information about crop management. By understanding how each of these crops interacts with one another and the ecosystem as a whole, farmers are better able to replicate a complete ecosystem – one that is capable of continually replenishing itself without the need for added fertilizers.

The Permaculture Institute also encourages students to view agricultural challenges such as weeds and insects as messages from the land. Pittman says that as a culture, we have developed a “war against ecological systems.” Farmers and gardeners see infestations and think in terms of eradication. Instead, Pittman says that they should be asking why the weeds are there in the first place. In a natural ecosystem, weeds signal the beginning of succession, the process by which the ecosystem changes in response to a disturbance. In a garden or on a farm, Pittman says that most often weeds are an indication of soil deficiencies. The ecosystem no longer has what it needs to continue as is, so it begins to change.

Similarly, insect infestations can indicate an imbalance in the ecological system. During natural succession, plants that are vulnerable to insects quickly die off. However, those that sprout up alongside other plants that happen to repel insects are able to flourish. Understanding these companion plant relationships can provide a valuable model for natural pest management among crops.

Sowing the Seeds of Permaculture

Pittman taught with permaculture co-founder, Bill Mollison for 10 years with the Permaculture Institute of Australia in the 1980s and 1990s, traveling the world and giving lectures and hands-on training. In 1997, Pittman founded Permaculture Institute in the United States aiming to serve North America and South America and take some of the burden off the increasingly overwhelmed Permaculture Institute of Australia. Original funding for the institute came from a portion of Pittman’s fees collected for courses as well as some private donations. Pittman says that since then, the non-profit has been self-sustaining.

Permaculture Institute responds to requests from a variety of individuals and organizations looking to host a course for several days or several weeks. Some are designed for a specific audience; such as a program in New Mexico teaching National Guardsmen irrigation techniques so that they may bring those practices to their work in Afghanistan. Others programs are open to the general public interested in studying sustainable communities on a commune, watershed management on a Navajo reservation, or sustainable farming on a working farm and ranch.

Permaculture Institute also offers a track to become a certified instructor. After completing a two-week certificate course and two additional years of practice, students can apply for a diploma in a field of their choosing. Pittman says that education and design are popular concentrations but students can choose to focus on just about anything, including law, finance, as well as land arts.

After 27 years, Pittman says that he is tired of living out of a suitcase for much of the year. He looks to his students—there are six or seven generations of them now—to continue teaching, leaving him time to write and focus on specific trainings for teachers and designers. Just as Pittman’s Permaculture Institute evolved as an offshoot of Permaculture Institute of Australia, more localized organizations are sprouting up around North American and South America. In the United States, several regional organizations have been established. Pittman says that he has been training someone in Costa Rica that will be ready to handle Costa Rica by herself within a year. Pittman says he hopes to train enough students that he does not have to travel anymore. “We’re finding a more regional approach and it’s more appropriate that way. Though I think it has to be even smaller than that. We really need to just work in watersheds almost.”

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