Josh Beniston, who is helping to teach the ongoing Permaculture Design Course(PDC) at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes, grew up in ideal circumstances—it turns out—for participating in a nature-based revolution. On the one hand, the contraction in steel and other industries in Youngstown in the 1980 and 1990s squeezed his family and others around him. On the other, his mother’s family took a special pleasure in nature, and would often go on walks in nearby parks. It was thus no accident that Josh decided to major in botany at Ohio University and then embark on a series of “alternative” jobs: Internships as a VISTA in forest management in Southern Ohio and then again in Belize on the agroforestry center run by Mark Cohen (also an instructor in the current PDC course). There followed a PDC course at the world famous (at least among permaculturists) Regenerative Design Institute in Northern California in 2002, managing an off-the-grid property on a California mountain, starting a landscaping business, working at a Bay Area native plant nursery, and, finally, returning to Ohio in 2006 to study for a PhD. in Soil Science at Ohio State University. Currently, he and his wife, Kat, run their Habitats Landscaping business out of Columbus. The PDC at the Nature Center is the third he has helped organize in Ohio since he has been back.
Q. How would you gauge the level of interest in Ohio for permaculture?
A. There’s been a huge increase, especially in the last 5 years. When I was in Ohio in the late 1990s, the only place I heard about permaculture was in the Athens area from people who were doing homesteading. But in the last five years there’s been a two-fold trend in increased permaculture outreach in the state. There have been a number of permaculture design courses and workshops and permaculture groups, or guilds, have sprung up in a number of communities in Ohio.
Groups of long-time local food activists in Ohio like the George Jones Farm and OEFFA have been doing a lot more permaculture outreach and education. Then there are people who have moved back to Ohio from other places and have become active in promoting permaculture in the state. . Braden Trauth moved back home to Cincinnati from the West. He and several friends had been away studying permaculture, and now they’re about to start their third PDC in Cincinnati in 3 years. Peter Bane and I have now collaborated on 3 design courses. The fall of 2007 when I moved to Columbus we put on a design course there. George Jones Farm has hosted Darren Doherty for 2 design courses. Coming out of many of the classes, people have started local permaculture guilds. All the major cities in Ohio now have active permaculture groups. In Columbus, the permaculture group has been very active. We set up an e-mail list and during the warm months we get together once a month and work on projects in people’s homes and yards. Many times during the spring and summer there will be work parties almost every weekend and our list serv now has close to 100 members. There are also very active permaculture guilds in southeast Ohio in Athens and Meigs counties, where community members work together on weekends doing projects at one another’s homes.
Q. Do you also see interest on the part of people who want to see their yards landscaped? Is it pure permaculture or a combination of native plants or what?
A. Yes, everything across the spectrum. We tend to do the whole spectrum of landscape design work---from purely ornamental gardens to landscapes that are almost entirely edible. Last year in particular was our biggest year for people who wanted a permaculture-focused edible landscape. For me, last year was a significant increase in the number of people who called the business interested in permaculture design. I think that word is getting out about permaculture and that there is a big increase in people interested in gardening and food right now.
Q. How do people find you?
A. Many clients I’ve found through speaking publicly about permaculture. I gave a talk last year at the Ohio State Arboretum. Eighty people showed up at 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning, and we ended up doing a permaculture design for a couple of them. I also gave a talk at a weekend workshop in Youngstown last year and ended up doing a couple of permaculture designs there. The common denominator among many of our clients is that they are interested in creating a more functional and resilient future. They are all people who share a sense of economic and political foreboding and want to do positive things and set positive examples. They have a real desire for change.
Q. How about change at the academic level? Do you see much recognition of permaculture there?
A. I haven’t heard many people in academia using the term “permaculture.” But there is an increasing interest in ecological design and land management . There’s an increasing awareness that our production systems must also sustain healthy ecosystem processes. I think most academics who are studying soils and forest ecology have come to the point of view that, in addition to managing food production systems, that we have to sustain healthy ecosystem processes in our cultivated landscapes. With so much of the planet being used for food production, there’s just no alternative.
Q. What about politicians?
A. I haven’t heard of many polititicians being interested in permaculture. Athens has the only one I’m aware of---its mayor, Paul Wiehl. They have a Transition Athens group down there that he’s been a big supporter of the Athens transition movement, but he is a community activist who has gotten involved in city government. Cleveland’s recent passage of the ordinance legalizing bees, chickens, and small animals in city neighborhoods is a very positive example of a good policy that should be commended.
There is an increasing interest in ecological design and permaculture among city planners. Various planning associations around Ohio have all come to the point where they’re concerned about the way that we’ve set up our communities, with design based primarily on cheap energy. They can all see the writing on the wall that energy is going to be more expensive in the 21st century. They understand that people need to have access to food and basic services within walking distance of their homes Most urban areas in Ohio now have fairly progressive planning departments. Numerous people who work for cities take workshops and are committed to learning about permaculture in a serious way. The issue is putting public pressure on elected officials to actually go about implementing some of the more progressive planning strategies that have been proposed.
Q. Where are the most developed permaculture sites in Ohio?
A. I say “Athens’ purely out of bias, because that’s what I know. I haven’t been to the George Jones Farm in Oberlin, but I know that they have done a lot of permaculture work.
Around Athens, I think Mark Cohen has a really beautiful permaculture site. He has a lot of systems working together in a relatively small area of land. He caches and processes all of his own water. He catches all of his own electricity and hot water. He has a big food production area. He has a great system in place.
Another nice example is a farm called Integration Acres in Albany, Ohio. That’s Chris Chmiel’s farm where he grows and processes processes paw paws and paw paw products. Chris has developed a whole commercial farming operation around using goats to do the mowing in his paw paw orchards. He started out just doing pawpaw products and is now selling very nice goat cheeses; getting additional productive yields out of the same space. It’s really a brilliant example of using tree crops and integrated animal systems to make a living as a farmer in an ecological way that is really instructive.
There’s another place outside of Athens called greenfire Farm. Dick and Mary Hogan have done a lot of permaculture education in Ohio over the last 20 years. They have a cob cottage that was built during workshops with the Cob Cottage Company . Mary has a small goat dairying operation and a beautiful vegetable garden. They have a nice water catchment system in place. Their goal has been to grow the farm as an ecovillage.
Three Sisters Farm is just across the border from Ohio, in northwest PA. They have been working with permaculture since the early 1980’s. They have a really wonderful bioshelter (kind of half building, half greenhouse) that they use to raise food year round without external energy inputs. The bioshelter is a wonderful model for our region. Their farm is very nice and they have permaculture classes there regularly.
Q. Bill Mollison famously defined permaculture as mimicking the processes of nature to produce the maximum amount of food with the minimum of effort. But from all I can see, permaculture implementation still requires a lot of work. What kinds of lives are possible with permaculture? Do people become 60% self-sufficient and then integrate themselves somehow with the work of the wider community?
A. It’s a whole spectrum of things. What permaculture gives us is a tool that enables us to move towards that idealized life of being more self-sufficient; i.e., having a design to work through and taking steps toward our long term goals. “Home” and “Livelihood” take on different forms for everybody that gets into this kind of work. Some people are able to make a living solely from food production If you want to work at home as a farmer, you have to figure out how to make a living doing that. The key is having access to land that you can use for production, and becoming savvy enough about business that you can make a living. Other people try to develop robust home spaces with gardens, water and energy catchment systems, and also make a living in the wider world. A lot of permaculturists have a diversity of livelihoods. When your money stream is diversified, you have one thing that is your bread and butter and then other skills that you can fall back on. So much of making a living on your own is being able to step into opportunities as they come.
What permaculture offers us with a future of uncertain climate, energy, and economics is a basic education on how to catch energy and meet our basic needs. A well designed permaculture system can get to a place after a few years where much of the work of food production has evolved to harvesting, pruning, mulching, and moving animals around. It’s pleasant work, but it’s still work. You also have initial investments of time and money to get things going. People are attracted to the idea of “no work” food production, but I would agree with you that it isn’t a reality. There is always work involved in getting food on the table, whether you do that with gardens or on the career path. My advisor, Rattan Lal, is always telling us that “There’s no free lunch”; he means that ecologically, in reference to agricultural systems. It’s a basic principle of ecology that you can’t just harvest or take, you have to give some effort. Permaculture gives you a way to move toward autonomy and to not be as dependent on all the outside systems. Our goal is to work with the natural systems around us, to direct their energy into creating beautiful and productive landscapes around ourselves. With good design, work in permaculture systems can be enjoyable, less strenuous, and good for the earth.