The Local Scene

I am pleased to report that there is quite the local sustainability scene in the Upper Midwest. I’m going to focus on activities in Minnesota and Wisconsin, since I live on the northern section of Mississippi River.

The Permaculture Research Institute – Cold Climates

This non-profit organization located in Minneapolis was established in 2003, and has since grown into a major local hub for sustainability education, demonstration, and implementation. This organization certifies individuals in Permaculture Design and Urban Farming, and also hosts many other educational workshops throughout the year. Topics include residential site analysis, the design process, understanding complex living systems, soil fertility and management plans, record keeping, seed starting, crop rotation and companion planting, mushroom cultivation, urban beekeeping, aquaponics, and many other related ecological topics. Members of the organization are also involved with Nature’s Edge Design, a firm that implements permaculture designs for private home owners an business owners. Along with these projects, PRI also works with Twin Cities’ Back Yard Harvest, a project that connects urban farmers with food shelves. As if they don’t do enough already, PRI also holds community design competitions, constantly networks with other similar organizations, businesses, and people, maintains their own blog, their own newsletter, and an independent ecological plant database. The founder and director, Paula Westmoreland, also owns her own business Ecological Gardens.

Southwoods Forest Gardens

Southwoods is a business in Prior Lake operated by Dan Halsey, a teacher at PRI. Dan works all around the US designing landscapes of various sizes, from a single garden to whole communities. Southwoods also provides many learning opportunities for students. Last November I took a course from Dan, and it was a very informative, hands on experience. You can read more about my time at Southwoods in a prior blog post here.

Stone’s Throw Urban Farm

“Stone’s Throw Urban Farm is a new urban farm that is redefining local, sustainable food in the Twin Cities . We convert vacant lots in St. Paul and Minneapolis into beautiful, productive micro-farms and grow food for a CSA, the Mill City Farmers Market, and various local wholesale accounts.” (According to their blog). This group of young people have recently become fully funded through their Kickstarter campaign, and have helped encourage new laws in Minneapolis legalizing urban farming and local produce sales. The Urban Agriculture Policy Plan was passed unanimously in Minneapolis, and the new laws will help encourage other farmers and gardeners in the city to put down some roots.

Crazy Rooster Farm

This local farm in Mondovi, Wisconsin gained quite the attention last year when their Permaculture Course was mentioned in the New York Times article “Permaculture Emerges from the Underground”. (The next project is also mentioned in the article). These nice midwestern folks are not your typical farmers! Check out their website here, or sign up for a class, internship, or some WWOOFing.


 Kinstone, mentioned in the New York Times and in a previous post of mine, is (to my knowledge) the closest permaculture project to Winona. Located on top of the beautiful limestone bluffs of the Mississippi, this place has just begun to take form, but it quite captivating. This location is not yet open to the public, but when it is completed it will be a place for education, spiritual growth, and possibly research. Check out these photos, courtesy of Kris Beck (owner) and Wayne Weiseman (designer). This summer, there will be green building workshops held here to build one of the structures on site.

So there’s 5 local projects for all of you! I know I did not exhaust each and every local sustainability effort, but at least this gives you a place to start. (I feel like I should at least link you to the USDA’s Minnesota Grown and non-profit organization The Land Stewardship Project, as well). If you live in Minnesota or Wisconsin, there is so much to tap into. And with just a little bit of Googling, I’m sure anyone can find something going on near them, no matter what part of the globe you inhabit.

Efforts Around the Globe

So who’s working on sustainability in the framework of permaculture?

A great place to get an overview of what’s going on in the world is through The Worldwide Permaculture Network, a social platform that allows members to post projects online. At the time of writing this post, there are around 800 projects listed worldwide (see map), most concentrated in The United States, Europe, and Australia. Members of the network can edit their profiles, showing what kind of skills they posses and what kind of training they’ve gone through, and then link up with projects in their area. In Minnesota, there are 7 projects listed near the Twin Cities.

The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia is probably the most well-known organization worldwide. It is here that Bill Mollison (the ‘father of permaculture’) and Geoff Lawton (director) have taught many courses, conducted research, and constructed demonstration/conservation projects. This organization was recognized by the 2010 Humanitarian Food & Water Award given from the Faculty of Life Scientists at LIFE. Students from all over the globe can come and take classes or fill internship positions. This summer, the Institute offers the basic Permaculture Design Certification, along with more specialized topics, including soil biology, earthworks, green construction, urban landscaping, seed saving, saw milling, and teacher training. Since its establishment, PRI USA has been founded, and PRI Jordan, Canada, Chile, Turkey, and Afghanistan have been launched.

In England, Permanent Publications puts out a quarterly magazine Permaculture: Inspiration for Sustainable Living. This magazine serves as a great resources to disseminate information to the underground community working to create a better place by sharing how-to guides, stories, challenges, and solutions. Here in Winona, you can pick up your copy at Bluff County Co-op downtown on second street!

Next post, I’ll be highlighting the projects (that I am aware of) that are in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Holmgren’s Principles

Before I introduce the original 12 Permaculture Principles, I’d like to touch on a quick idea. Like good science, any sustainable design system must be able to change through time, it must be adaptive, and have the capacity to evolve within different contexts. Such is the nature of life, and so it must be the nature of successful design. This poses a minor issue: how can one define something that is dynamic, always changing, and a little different everywhere you go? To understand a holistic design with adaptive capacities, it is helpful to organize the necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, conditions upon which such a system is built.

The original philosophical model was articulated by a student-teacher pair (not unlike Aristotle and Plato, or Mozart and Bach, I’d like to think), Australians David Holmgren who was a student of Bill Mollison, the man usually thought of as the ‘father of permaculture’. From my understanding, Holmgren was more of an academic, the half more interested in ‘why’, while Mollison took a more applied approach, the half more interested in ‘how’. Most people associate permaculture with gardening or farming, but the idea is interdisciplinary; the main components are agriculture, horticulture, architecture and ecology, but also economic systems, land access strategies and legal systems for businesses and communities. Since the original idea was published around 1980, other permaculture enthusiasts have added to or slightly altered their interpretation of the principles.

According to Holmgren, “The 12 permaculture design principles are thinking tools, that when used together, allow us to creatively re-design our environment and our behavior in a world of less energy and resources. These principles are seen as universal, although the methods used to express them will vary greatly according to the place and situation.” 

  An illustration of a flower can help organize the ideas surrounding permaculture:

The ethical foundation lies in the center, and guides the use of the design tools, ensuring that they are used in appropriate ways. Remember, the ethics are:

1. Take care of the People

2. Take care of the Planet

3. Redistribute Profits

From these ethics stem the various principles. In the flower, the principles lie at any and all points along the red spiral, applying to any one of the “petals” or domains. The 12 original Permaculture Principles are:

1. Observe and Interact

2. Catch and Store Energy

3. Obtain a Yeild

4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept/Respond to Feedback

5. Use/Value Renewable Resources

6. Produce No Waste

7. Design from Pattern to Detail

8. Integrate Rather than Segragate

9. Use Small and Slow Solutions

10. Use and Value Diversity

11. Use the Edges and Value the Marginal

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

By having these goals in mind when designing, we can begin along the path to sustainability. It is good to note, however, that not all people who are working on sustainability identify with permaculture, or have even heard of the concept. Sometimes it is unnecessary to identify with a movement if that person or organization has the same goals and operates under similar principles. A famous example of this phenomenon is author, farmer, and designer Sepp Holzer from Austria. It wasn’t until long after Holzer had begun implementing ecological farming practices that he begun to identify with the concept, eventually publishing his own book about his experience with the local ecological niche (“Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture”). Whether the systems are called by name or not, permaculture systems commonly include diverse, multifunctional polycultures, edible forest gardens, an emphasis on perennials, rainwater catchment, nutrient recycling, integrated pest management, and non-linear borders. The idea also commonly embraces urban farming, rooftop farming, aquaculture, habitat conservation, and natural building.

In my next few posts, I’ll be highlighting different people/places from around the globe that are identifying with permaculture and using it to inform the design of their environments.