Goldies 2012—Going Green: University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Permacuture gardens provide food and community service opportunities for campus.

By Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

The Franklin Dining Commons permaculture garden.

No 2012 Goldies Award winner embraced its category more literally than the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. UMass Dining has been going green with its permaculture garden ever since it was planted last year. Permaculture, according to Ryan Harb, auxiliary services sustainability supervisor, is all about designing ecosystems that are intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.

“It almost takes care of itself because of what you plant in the garden,” Harb told FSD for an article last year. [Click here to read previous article.]“Growing more food on campus in a sustainable way is part of reaching our campus goal of carbon neutrality. [With this garden] students can be part of the entire food system: working in the garden, watching it be cooked in the dining commons and eating it.”

Harb says the first permaculture garden has produced about 1,000 pounds of food for the dining commons. The garden has been such a success that the department has already planted a second garden and has pledged to create one new permaculture garden every year.

Most recently the initiative won first place in the Campus Champions of Change Challenge, a national award sponsored by the White House that invited college and university students from across the country to demonstrate how their student-led projects are improving their campus communities. The UMass permaculture garden was chosen as one of 15 finalists from 1,400 applications. Online voting determined the winner, and UMass collected 59,835 votes to secure the win and a trip to the White House.

“Basically the contest was built to drive students and universities to come up with their best proposals about what they were doing in regard to community service,” Garett DiStefano, director of residential dining, says. “Our permaculture garden fit right into that because we bring in many different school systems to the university to learn about agriculture. We bring in students from inner-city programs who may have never seen what a farm looks like or how plants interact in the environment. So it’s a really great learning lesson for students.”

Harb says the contest application consisted of three essay questions, which basically told the story of how the garden was created and how it contributes to the community.

“We talked about what [the garden] has done for our community and campus,” Harb says. “From there I felt really confident that we’ve created something really unique that is very innovative. When we won we got a tour of the White House as well as an opportunity to participate in a panel discussion about the project. What we didn’t know was we were going to get a three-minute debriefing with President Obama. So we got to meet him and tell him about the project before he gave a little speech and we proceeded with the panel discussion. It was very cool.”

Conference: With all the interest in the permaculture garden’s success, the department has heard from a lot of different schools that want to learn about UMass Dining’s experience.

“We thought instead of answering all these questions [from other colleges] one on one, let’s bring all these schools here and create a network of the schools that want to start permaculture gardens,” Harb says. “We’ve created a conference called Permaculture Your Campus. The conference takes place June 20 to 22. We are going to be talking about what we’ve done, what our successes have been and any obstacles that have come up.”

Harb says the aim of the conference is to help schools wherever they may be in the process of designing or building a permaculture garden. He hopes to draft an action plan for each participating school with the goal of creating at least one permaculture garden on their respective campuses in the next year or two.

Going forward: As for UMass’s own permaculture gardens, the next step, according to DiStefano, is sticking to the pledge to create one new permaculture garden each year.

“[The important thing to remember is] this isn’t just a one-department measure,” DiStefano says. “We’re working with student affairs. We’re working with the physical plant and the chancellor’s office. Our campus is committed to sustainability right from the chancellor’s office on down. UMass is a land grant university so that means we are committed to supporting our local communities and this plays right into that.”

Harb says the main focus is to identify locations where the gardens can do the most good.

“We are working with facilities on what spots make the most sense, and even better what are some of the problem areas on campus?” Harb says. “That is something we are really interested in because that way we can show how permaculture can not only grow food, which it obviously can, but also how it can help regenerate space on campus that might be really difficult for the maintenance crew to maintain. Where we are heading in the future is looking for sites that make the most sense locationwise and educationwise but also that can help make the facilities department’s job easier.”