I recently began working for Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture with Cornercopia Student Organic Farm at the University of Minnesota.
My days are spent with Courtney Tchida, Cornercopia’s farm manager, MISA’s student programs coordinator, and long-time permaculture advocate. For this interview, we decided to take our lunch at Campus Club, the University’s exclusive bar and dining service and the farm’s biggest customer. Over my locally sourced caprese with butternut squash and tortellini salad, I asked Courtney what permaculture means for her and how she got interested in it.
Sophomore year of college at the U, Courtney was taking a cropping systems class with Bud Markhart, who now regularly teaches the spring semester “farm class” with Courtney – “Organic Farm Planning, Growing and Marketing.” She was going to miss two days of class for a feminist spirituality conference, so Bud gave her an alternative assignment: to find out what a feminist spiritual crop system might look like. Courtney had already read spiritualist writer Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, a dystopic novel set in California in 2048, in the midst of ecological collapse – and searching the author’s website for inspiration for the assignment, she discovered permaculture. Now she defines it simply and sweetly –as a design system that works with nature rather than fights nature.
How did she get involved with PRI?
Courtney was a part of PRI since the very beginning. Around 2001, Courtney met Paula Westmoreland at the Minnesota Landscape Association Annual Meeting. They were sitting next to each other during a presentation – one of those where you have to stop and talk to a person next to you – and it was Paula. After that, Paula, who worked at Ecological Gardens, would pick up from the Native Landscaping nursery where Courtney was working at the time.
“The Permaculture Collaborative” was later formed from a group of people, including Courtney and Paula, who attended an introduction to permaculture workshop at Bruce Bacon’s farm and decided to meet every few months. Courtney was the events coordinator for this collaborative, which would later become PRI.
Now, Courtney is an important part of PRI’s urban farming certification program. I asked Courtney what classes she’ll be teaching this time.
It turns out she will be teaching quite a few: the first will be an overview of crops and tips for successful growing, the second on preparing, planning, and planting your site, the third will look at companion planting, rotations and successions, and the fourth will be on business planning. In addition, she will hold a few practicums on the farm during the summer, and will teach a class with her husband Don about building farm tools, which participants will take home.
What are the differences between working with urban farmers and working with U students?
One feeds the other. Everything she learns from working with students and the farm she shares with the general public – through PRI. It makes a good match, because part of MISA’s mission is to share resources and information with the public. Teaching PRI classes is how Courtney does that.
Courtney told me that in previous year she’s done various presentations on specific methodologies – organic, biodynamic, SPIN – but that in her classes now, all of these methodologies will be incorporated rather than separated. This led me to my next question: How does permaculture as a methodology fit into the larger local/sustainable agriculture movement?
According to Courtney, permaculture is so deeply engrained that it’s hard to separate it. She sees permaculture as more of a context – more of the ethics played out than a strict set of guidelines or rules. “The guiding principles can be interpreted in so many ways. In a lot of ways everything we’re doing is permaculture.”
Permaculture embodies that there is no one right way to do things. In contrast, organic farming tends to be more prescriptive (think of those strict organic certification standards). “Permaculture is looking at your situation from all the different angles, making the connections from all the pieces.”
What about Courtney’s permaculture plans?
At the farm, she wants to implement an effective perennial guild system. This will start happening this spring.
On a personal level, she wants to keep finding ways to integrate permaculture into her life, and would be really interested in engaging her three-and-a-half year-old son in permaculture in a semi-structured way.
My last question was: Do you have a favorite permaculture principle?
The answer: The problem is the solution – the solution is embedded in the problem, you just have to look at it in a different way.
Asked for any last thoughts, Courtney said, “Permaculture is one of the few world-views you can have that embraces the ‘we’re doomed’ idea but also has a positive message that you can only do what you can do, and that’s all you can do. Some days that’s a lot and some days that’s a little, and it just has to be okay.”
She then left me with a quote from Andrew Light, an environmental philosopher at NYU. “Having hope and trying to do something, even in the face of disappointing odds and tremendous problems, is not naïve optimism. It is our best choice. It is our only choice.”