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Permaculture Education and Research in USA: Expanding Connectivity Between Islands of Fertility

Giving opportunities for young people to make a living improving the world
is the great need of the hour

As more and more people in developed nations (and the USA in particular) become aware of the effects of their personal decisions on ecologies and economies at local and global scales, both the supply and demand of permaculture design education has seen a dynamic increase over the past decade. With a whole-systems solutions-oriented design concept that encourages practical application, the permaculture movement is poised to provide a positivistic world-view and skill-based design platform for the development of a society that actively improves ecosystem health while meeting human needs and improving quality of life at a community scale.

With the stage set for a fast-tracking of permaculture design education, action and implementation, I believe that there exist both social and economic bottlenecks that are being addressed through creative solutions to provide permaculture career opportunities and shifts in local governmental policy to incentivize eco-literate communities and ecologically beneficial developments and retrofits.

One representation of these efforts is occurring in the US through collaborations between permaculture practitioners and the public and private education systems, which can play a diversity of roles that facilitate both the development of islands of fertility by establishing permaculture demonstration and research sites and business incubators and connectivity between permaculture applications through sharing information, networking, trainings, and outreach.

The theoretical yield of potential synergies of collaborating with higher education systems and local organizations and companies is unlimited; however to obtain practical results we can identify goals to focus our relationships and roles to support our efforts. Applying a functional analysis to the spectrum of educational opportunities in permaculture provides us with a list of needs and products:


  • To provide access to the growing number of people interested in permaculture education across all scales and demographics;
  • To address an increasing ecological imperative to implement regenerative systems;
  • To increase credibility of permaculture as a design science through demonstration, research, and collaboration;
  • To clarify career trajectories and opportunities that can be pursued utilizing the permaculture concept;
  • To shift public policy and funding towards one that supports application of permaculture systems across a wide range of scales;
  • To resolve and improve the financial and business models of permaculture in practice.

Products (desired)

  • Improve the rigor and credibility of the practical application of the permaculture concept;
  • Sharing a whole-systems world view based on core ethics, inspiring an action-oriented, positivistic mindset;
  • Increasing access to quality information and training in permaculture design to the spectrum of society;
  • Implementation, and testing of whole-systems design of human agro-ecosystems;
  • Assessment of non-fuel intensive, labor saving systems at urban, rural, and broad-acre scales;
  • Development of enterprises that focus on local production to meet human needs:
    – Matched to improve ecosystem health by being soil-generating, appropriate-scale, and community-based;
  • Engage local communities as stakeholders in the procession of development:
    – Increase opportunities for meaningful careers and a sense of ownership in their community;
  • Assess the economic viability and opportunities of applied permaculture design to whole-farm planning and the food and resource supply chain.

Intrinsic Characteristics

  • Presents a complex whole-systems design concept which draws from modern science and traditional land management strategies;
  • Provides a suite of ethics and principles that can be applied to any socio-ecological context;
  • Includes a world-wide group of grass-roots practitioners and educators but lacks a systematic assessment of their experiences and results of applications over time;
  • Increasing interest as a pathway towards regenerative cultures;
  • Open to the continued expansion and increased connectivity of the concept and its applications.

As we strive to meet these needs and achieve the desired product goals, permaculture educators and practitioners are now identifying the necessity and synergies of collaboration with organizations embedded within communities and linkages to public agencies. To facilitate these developing relationships, I would like to present some potential roles that higher education and research institutions can play for mutual benefit. Research institutions have multiple resources that can be leveraged, including:

  • Access to land;
  • A cycle of interested students;
  • A variable flow of capital;
  • Physical and intellectual infrastructure with the capacity for quality research and development in a range of disciplines; and,
  • Relationships with policy makers, extension services, and other community groups and members.

These qualities provide capacity to both improve the social-ecological fertility of a region and act as nodes for connectivity between communities and regions. As permaculture educators we bring the intrinsic qualities of permaculture to the table with the inspiration and vision of whole systems design as a pathway to regenerative farm systems, local supply chains, and socio-ecological responsibility. Potential roles for Colleges and Universities to engage in collaboration are:

  • Employment of a sustainability coordinator who collaborates with facilities, departments, and administration to improve effectiveness and interconnectedness of the food, energy, and waste systems on campuses;
  • Community Supported Research and Development (CSRD) which engages the local community in selecting and financing research pathways for design and implementation of agroecologies, sustainable building practices, ecological waste recycling, watershed management, innovative financing, and socially-responsible business models:
  • Demonstration sites that test proposals and claims of permaculture design, engage and inspire participants and visitors, facilitate eco-literacy, and provide resources for the local food system;
  • Career development and job training in land-based enterprises and the supply chains that connect them to the rest of the community, including incubators and internships;
  • Provide a forum for integrated dialog between community members, researchers, agencies, and entrepreneurs;
  • Support of producers through testing and development of new plant varieties and animal breeds, interactions between plant and animal systems, and technologies, and identification of and access to markets; and,
  • Training in monitoring and planning methods to complete feedback loops that identify the effects of our actions on ecosystem health and economic development.

These are powerful roles that have a high potential for beneficial change at a local, regional, and societal level. These are not necessarily new roles for universities, just recalibrations of intention, interconnectedness and desired outcomes. As a design science, permaculture offers a tool for improving the fertility and connectivity in the relationships between community, universities, and ecologies.

In a response to the emerging markets for permaculture education and design, several models of trainings have been developed, trialed, and refined to provide access to interested students and diversify niches for educator career opportunities. Permaculture education has expanded from private educators and groups to integration with the public school system, junior colleges and universities, and public agencies. What began as the 12-day intensive PDC developed by Bill Mollison has evolved into multiple formats for courses ranging from weekend and year-long classes to accredited college courses and beyond.

The most fully developed models for a career path in permaculture have been developed in Europe and Australia. For example, the Accredited Permaculture Training (APT)(1) program in Australia, which meets the Australian Quality Training Framework (AQTF) standards (2) and operates through organizations such as Permaculture College(3) in Nimbin. The APT curriculum provides vocational training and competency through working on real world projects with registered teachers and allows one to earn a diploma in permaculture which is recognized by Australian institutions and government agencies.

Over the past 5-10 years college and university level programs have been developed in the USA as well and vary from individual courses to graduate degrees. Some examples of this work are Gaia University(4); Oregon State University(5); the University of Massachusetts at Amherst(6); and Santa Barbara City College(7). To accelerate succession of these programs, the APT core and elective unit topics could be adapted to match USA accreditation criteria. These topics can also stack functions as a filter to select teachers, mentors, and site hosts specific to the program. Through the efforts of passionate groups of people permaculture design is being integrated into curriculums and demonstrated on-site at nationally accredited institutions. How else can we assess the context and design programs to leverage, propagate, and connect these opportunities?

That we are on the brink of a phase change in applied permaculture education and application in the US, is evidenced by the increased focus of research and science using combinations of experimental stations and assessments of working farms(8,9), the explosion of the local food movement and interest in Polyface style farming, and the USDA “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program (10). Our society is now recognizing the value of relocalizing the resource and supply chain, which is restructuring markets. These new markets represent the demand for local products and services which will bring us face to face with the results of our industrialization of production. At this edge, we can identify alternatives such as the ecological production model and if universities embrace the suggested roles, they will be poised as catalysts of beneficial socio-ecological change towards healthy people, communities, economies, and ecosystems.

With the list of PDC graduates growing, there is also a demand for advanced trainings and hands-on experience in topics such as water harvesting earthworks, stream restoration, Keyline Design, Holistic Management, natural building, and business planning and management of permaculture systems. Since the pressure is mounting for access to a wide range of regenerative education and training opportunities, we can embrace the principle of cooperation and work diligently together within the permaculture community to build bridges to private entrepreneurs, public institutions and agencies, researchers, policy makers and any role imaginable in a resilient bioregional community.

As representatives and delegates it is our responsibility to provide access to this synthesized information and to identify areas where research is needed to qualify and quantify the claims of permaculture. By acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses, we can interface with people and organizations working towards similar aims and provide higher quality education and training opportunities that integrate the wealth of information and experience from a wider sector of society. These collaborations can increase our capacity to provide quality pathways towards regenerative careers for those seeking them.

One of the main bottlenecks for young agrarians interested in production farming as a career is access to land. Often the initial returns are small and the cost of land is high. This challenge is being met head on by many in the permaculture community, and we are partnering with people and organizations from the sectors of private business, non-profit, and government agencies to make it happen. The Greenhorns organization (11) has done great work compiling land access sourcebooks and training manuals and advocating for young agrarians. They continue to document efforts of young agrarians and work diligently to improve connections between farmers, aspiring farmers, and markets.

Another great example of momentum in this direction is the 2013 Financial Permaculture and Local Business summit (12) in Homestead, FL where permaculture design was applied to both business practices and site development. This summit brought from the local community, business sector and permaculture movement a strategic plan for Earth Learning, a local organization developing a farm, commercial kitchen/café, and food distribution hub, in efforts to improve food sovereignty of the Greater Everglades region. To gain credibility and increase investment in development of sites and livelihoods, we need to demonstrate success on all three spheres of ethics — care of earth, care of people, and reinvestment of surplus (or ecological, social, and economic). This summit focuses on pathways to economic and financial success that maintain the integrity of caring for earth and people.

During the summit, Rafter Sass Ferguson (9) presented the use of Yeomans Scale of Permanence as a tool for assessing economic and social contexts by organizing elements of site development, enterprises, markets, financing, and collaboration based on relative effort needed to change, develop or access these elements. Building on this work and 2-dimensional representation of the Keyline Scale of Permanence developed by Owen Hablutzel (13), I have attempted to map out some of the beneficial relationships between permaculture education, the modern US education system, and a variety of local and regional stakeholders. To demonstrate my thought process, I have included three versions of the map.

Permaculture Education in the USA systems map 1-D
Click for larger view

Permaculture Education in the USA systems map 2-D
Click for larger view

Permaculture Education in the USA systems map 2-D Expanded
Click for larger view

The first map has the products affected by permaculture and the modern US education system, organized based on high or low malleability, and the stakeholders organized by range of influence and relative adaptability and longevity (14). This one dimensional organization does not capture the range of variability inherent in broad categories such as demonstration sites or community groups. To address this issue, the second map adds the dimension of range of influence to the products affected by permaculture and modern US education (15). The third map further expands on this line of reasoning and attempts to capture the variability of both adaptability and range of influence in broad groups of stakeholders (16). The current maps are my subjective attempt to organize this information, and I hope that they are both useful and can be further refined and developed to identify cooperative opportunities for applying permaculture to regenerative research and development.

A pathway towards land access and successful business management is being pursued in Reno, NV by Urban Roots (17), a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to change the way we eat and learn through farm-to-table education. What began as an after-school garden education program has expanded to a developing 2.5-acre campus demonstrating permaculture design and a diversity of partnerships with local schools and organizations. Current programs the Urban Roots is facilitating are school gardens at four high schools and four elementary schools, an urban farm home-schooling program, summer art and garden camps, and providing AmeriCorps volunteers with experience in environmental education and program development. Starting this year, Urban Roots is developing a partnership with the local University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), to implement a FarmCorps program through the federal AmeriCorps program. Volunteers who participate in the FarmCorps program will assist the university in the site development for a proposed Small Farm Incubator program which is part of a Center for Sustainable Arid Land Agriculture, and they will continue to develop the farm-to-school programs to integrate school gardens and local food producers’ products into school lunches and class curriculums.

As one component of the FarmCorps program and developing partnership with UNR, Urban Roots is promoting permaculture design as an essential component of a regenerative agriculture and is hosting their first Permaculture Design Certification Course(18) this March in association with local farmers, landscape professionals, professors, permaculture teachers, and researchers. Their goal is to lay the foundation for a program that utilizes FarmCorps as a stepping stone to permaculture design and Small Farm Incubation in an effort to springboard young agrarians into experience-based, financially viable businesses. The interconnectedness of these programs can be a win-win proposition positioning aspiring farmers in direct contact with novel research into integrated plant-animal systems, specialty crops, and niche markets.

While there is still a long way to go on the path to integrating permaculture design into existing education and research institutions, progress is being made and the benefits of these relationships are becoming clearer. By organizing in our communities and connecting with educational institutions we can increase accessibility to education and land for the increasing number of people interested in pursuing an agrarian lifestyle. Through collaboration, we will also be in a position to connect with many existing farmers and collaborate to create viable business models and tools that assist in the complex planning necessary to create a viable farm business that applies permaculture as a framework for design.

Neil Bertrando is a permaculture designer and educator who lives in Reno, NV, whose primary interests are whole farm ecosystems, Keyline Design, and permaculture as a tool for community development. He is the primary teacher for the PDC facilitated by Urban Roots this March and will be joined by many special guests. His personal goals in this space are to directly affect the implementation of regenerative land management and resilient bioregional communities through a combination of education, consulting, design, and demonstration.

To register for the March PDC, visit the Urban Roots’ website.

  1. Accredited Permaculture Training:
  2. Australian Quality Training Framework:
  3. Permaculture College:
  4. Gaia University:
  5. Oregon State University Permaculture:
  6. University of Massachusetts, Amherst:
  7. Santa Barbara City College:
  8. Restoration Agriculture:
  9. Liberation Ecology:
  10. USDA:
  11. The Greenhorns :
  12. Financial Permaculture Institute:
  13. Planning for Permanence with Yeomans Keyline Scale by Owen Hablutzel:
  14. Permaculture Education in the USA systems map 1-D Please download this graph if you can use it, and use under a Creative Commons Share-Alike license, 3.0
  15. Permaculture Education in the USA systems map 2-D Please download this graph if you can use it, and use under a Creative Commons Share-Alike license, 3.0
  16. Permaculture Education in the USA systems map 2-D Expanded Please download this graph if you can use it, and use under a Creative Commons Share-Alike license, 3.0
  17. Urban Roots:
  18. Urban Roots’ Permaculture Design Course:


  1. I want to acknowledge the amazing work of Michael Becker at Hood River Middle School in Oregon, USA. Unfortunately, I did not mention him in my article, so am posting it here.

    Also, Rafter Sass Ferguson has posted a further description of using the scale of permanence for ‘ordered constraint analysis’

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