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Green Grass and High Tides Forever

Can Permaculture Save Our Environment from a Throwaway Future?

Michelle Gienow
Homegrown: Cromwell Valley Park hosts a Community Supported Agriculture program that provides members with organically grown produce
Michelle Gienow
Heathcote resident Charles Curtiss says permaculture is a set of principles whose application varies according to individual circumstances and needs
Michelle Gienow
Heathcote volunteer Elana Snyder hoists an armload of weeds onto one of the community's many compost heaps, which are key to Heathcote's waste-management system
Michelle Gienow
Field of Greens: Cromwell Valley Community Supported Agriculture workers Stephanie Reph (right) and Matt Hicks weed rows of kale and Swiss chard

By Augusta Olsen | Posted 5/3/2000

Imagine a world in which McDonald's serves organic beef and Nike weaves its sportswear from organically grown cotton. It's not just an ecologist's fantasy: Environment magazine reported last June that McDonald's restaurants in Sweden not only serve organic beef and dairy products, but about half of the country's 160 McDonald's also run on renewable energy sources. Nike's part in this ecological vision is also based in reality: The company now blends organic cotton into its T-shirts. The amount -- 3 percent -- might seem negligible, but Nike maintains that even this small change prevented tens of thousands of pounds of agricultural chemicals from being released into the environment in the last two years.

These corporations are adopting the principles of sustainability, a philosophy that allows the current generation to meet its consumer needs without reducing the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It is increasingly gaining supporters in both the private and public sectors. In the past year, legislators in Connecticut, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Wisconsin have begun to discuss adopting sustainability principles. In January, Oregon's Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber, publicly vowed to issue an executive order this year requiring the state to conduct business in an environmentally sustainable manner. Though he has not yet issued the order (at press time, he was slated to do so May 17), and the details of its enforcement are still being worked out, Kitzhaber's mandate would be the first such commitment to sustainability principles issued by any U.S. governor, according to Matthew Buck, education and outreach coordinator of the Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit group Sustainable Northwest.

As we grow more dependent on modern conveniences, more people are questioning how sustainable our modern lifestyles are in a world full of threatened resources. And some Marylanders -- adherents of environmental philosophies such as permaculture and the Natural Step -- believe they have a least a few solutions to the challenge of living consciously in a consuming society.

Mare Cromwell is a Baltimore-based sustainability consultant trained in the Natural Step, the ecological theory that led corporate leaders at McDonald's and Nike to change their ways. Cromwell consults with organizations in the Baltimore area as to how they might become more efficient and more ecologically sound.

"None of this is new," she says. "People have lived for thousands of years sustainably. Only in the past 300 years . . . have we started to see our environment decline."

The Natural Step is a guide for thinking and acting in harmony with the earth's cyclical processes. Conceived by Swedish oncologist Karl-Henrik Robèrt in 1989, the philosophy was embraced by the king of Sweden in 1989; a document outlining Natural Step's sustainability principles was distributed to every school and household in the country. As a result, more than 70 municipalities and 60 corporations in Sweden have converted their operations to deter environmental destruction, and now the Natural Step movement is gaining ground in the United States.

All decisions based in the Natural Step must meet four guidelines:

· Substances from Earth's crust must not systematically increase in the ecosphere (the portion of the atmosphere in which it is possible to breathe normally without assistance).

· Substances produced by society must not systematically increase in the ecosphere.

· The physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically diminished.

· The use of energy and other human resources must be fair and efficient with respect to meeting human needs.

While the precepts outline a rather grand overview, Cromwell maintains that the Natural Step trickles down to countless daily decisions.

"At Home Depot they have options in types of light bulbs," she says. "You can buy a basic light bulb, which is your standard one that will burn out in a year, or you can buy a light bulb that will last 15 times longer. If you buy the one that lasts 15 times longer, you're actually using a more efficient bulb, one that uses less electricity. If you know what efficiency means and you know what your options are, then you can make an educated and conscious choice."

Cromwell consults with everyone from ecological-restoration companies to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Through the auspices of Earthome, a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization that addresses sustainability issues in the Chesapeake bio-region, she has spoken on the topic of voluntary simplicity to groups ranging from the Towson Unitarian Universalist congregation and Johns Hopkins University classes to the Baltimore Ethical Society.

She is currently working with the Committee on the Environment (part of the American Institute of Architects' Baltimore chapter) and the Maryland Green Building Network to organize a seminar on sustainability and "green building." The daylong workshop, scheduled for October, will introduce business owners to the precepts of the Natural Step, and offer more in-depth sustainability practices for construction and design professionals.

"The hope is that a business-minded person can walk away with ways to think about incorporating [the Natural Step] with their business practice," Cromwell says. "They can consider how efficient they are with resources. What kind of materials do they rely on, how can they shift their operations? What is the service they provide, and how can that be provided in a way that is more sustainable? The perception historically has been that being green was more expensive, but what tools like the Natural Step have helped businesses learn is that they are actually saving money."

After working for environmental groups in the '70s, Roger Telschow wanted to put sustainability ethics into practice in his own business. Since its founding in 1984, his Silver Spring-based printing company, Ecoprint, has maintained an environmentally friendly business stance. The company has broken ground in the field of ecologically sound printing while offering competitive prices to its customers, Telschow says. "Comparing apples to apples, from what we can tell, we're probably a little below the average price of a print job in the marketplace," he says.

Eight years ago, Telschow received a $25,000 grant from EPA to develop a vegetable-oil-based ink free of petroleum compounds and heavy metals. In addition to its custom-made ink, the company now uses specially manufactured paper made from 100 percent recycled fiber. While Ecoprint must buy this paper in larger-than-normal amounts (40,000 pounds at a time), it is cost-effective in the long term, Telschow says.

"If you have a conservational ethic in a company, not only does that mean you conserve resources, you conserve materials, you conserve electricity and the like, but the ethic flows through the operation of the business, and you also conserve labor," he says. "We find that we are much more productive because employees are aware of what they use, so waste is lower, but they are also aware of their time and if it is being used efficiently."

Telshcow says the commitment to operating a sustainable business requires scrupulous attention to detail, and flexibility. "You have to be vigilant," he says. "Any new product coming in the door has to be checked. Just because the EPA says a chemical is OK doesn't mean that it is for us; we operate above mere compliance. Also, changes in habits require some flexibility, when considering how [we] can be more energy efficient, how to re-use waste. I don't consider it a burden, but some companies do."

But he is convinced the payoff is worth it. "We're producing a good product for a good price. People like working for a conscious company -- we have a low turnover in our employees and a low turnover in our customer base. That works out well for any business."

Ecoprint has perfected the type of business operations that will carry it into the 21st century, according to the Center for a New American Dream (, a nonprofit sustainability-education organization based in Takoma Park.

"After all the resources of the earth have been extracted, companies will have to find new ways of producing their goods," says Eric Brown, the center's communications director. "Companies that are already making products well and efficiently and educating their consumers about sustainability will have the advantage. They know what they're doing, they have already designed their production processes profitably -- these are the ones to watch."

However, to operate sustainably today is still pioneering work, Brown acknowledges. "One of the biggest drawbacks is it can be more expensive to produce environmentally sound products. There still aren't the markets yet for this level of product," he says. "Consumers don't know enough about products yet to know the difference between one sustainably produced and one that is not. Also, our structures -- be it the way we tax or the way we enact business policies -- don't benefit the green producer. The government still subsidizes the use of fossil fuels and that level of production. . . .

"But when consumers realize the advantage of buying locally or buying organic, as people begin to realize how good it is to make these changes, they wouldn't go back," Brown adds. "Green businesses make customers for life and they make people feel good about what they are buying."

If the Natural Step offers a framework for understanding how we can operate sustainably within the earth's cycles, then permaculture, in many ways, provides the nuts and bolts to hold that frame together.

"Permaculture," a term coined in the 1970s by Australian environmentalist Bill Mollison, means permanent culture through permanent agriculture. The 11 adult residents and six children of Heathcote, an "intentional" community near Freeland in northern Baltimore County, have based their way of life on permaculture principles. In direct rebuke to most Americans' throwaway lifestyle, their lives combine aspects of voluntary simplicity, ecological technology, and communal efficiency to "live lightly on the land," as they describe it.

Heathcote's 37 acres, which have supported everything from a hippie commune in the '70s to a women's community in the '80s, now serve as a bucolic testing ground for permaculture's basic ideas: care for the planet, care for people, and sharing of surplus. Following these tenets, residents examine the sustainability of their shelter, energy consumption, food production, and waste management.

While some permaculturists' ideas are reminiscent of those touted in the homesteading movements of the '70s, they insist their answer is not to return to an agrarian past.

"We need to be made aware of our interconnectedness [with the environment]," says Charles Curtiss, a Heathcote resident. "But we shouldn't get stuck in this idea of reverting back to some earlier era in history when supposedly things were all great, because they weren't."

Instead, permaculturists suggest that ecological harmony comes from analysis of each individual environment and each person's needs within that environment. Thus, the ecological efficiency of any site may be improved. Clearly, the Heathcote residents' rural communal living isn't for everyone. But, they insist, everyone can consider the decisions they make about their homes, be they rural, urban, or suburban.

"Permaculture is not supposed to be like a certain model of life," Curtiss says. "It's a set of principles, a set of ethics that you use to go about setting up your daily life. And it's going to vary depending on your situation."

At Heathcote, many decisions center on the three vegetable gardens. Not only do the gardens provide most of the community's food during the summer, but they are the points of daily connection with the earth. For example, the gardens also provide effective means of waste management. All food scraps are shoveled into one of the community's compost heaps where. Combined with straw and manure from a neighboring dairy farm, they decompose and result in rich black soil six months later.

To permaculturists, this is one of the most basic life cycles broken by modern farming techniques and trash-removal systems. "When we put food scraps in plastic bags and send them to the landfill, we are taking those nutrients from the earth but never returning them," Curtiss says. "Then commercial agriculture tries to put the nutrients back in with chemical fertilizers," which are most often petroleum-based nitrogen fertilizers that break the first tenet of the Natural Step.

Most of Heathcote's composting occurs in homemade boxes: two 5-foot-square containers made from old metal barn roofing and covered with screen to keep out field rats. In a perfect circle of recycling, the gardeners reuse metal scraps in order to reuse their food scraps. Amazingly, these manure and food heaps do not give off even the slightest odor. Similarly, Curtiss keeps in the Heathcote kitchen a worm box, a specially manufactured bin to house hundreds of little squirmers that process food scraps into soil -- with no apparent unpleasantness for the humans cooking and eating in the same room.

Curtiss, a Montessori-school teacher in Baltimore, also kept a worm box in his class of 2-year-olds last year. "A lot of mothers and fathers -- well, it was mostly mothers -- who would come in would say, 'Eeeww, worms.' But the kids were crowding, they couldn't wait to get their hands in there."

The squeamish reaction to his classroom worm box is an indication of permaculturists' biggest challenge: changing people's minds. "There are a lot of attitudes that bring up our connection, or rather our disconnection with things natural, and mentally our lack of connection with how this all works," Curtiss says, sweeping his arm over rows of kale, beets, onions, and herbs during harvest season last year. "We'd be in trouble without the worms."

For Heathcote residents, permaculture principles stretch beyond merely growing things and composting them. The community also carefully examines its use of other vital resources. The residents have installed rooftop water-collection systems -- gutters on the roofs of two buildings send runoff into 50-gallon plastic barrels, providing water for the garden.

Residents also carefully wield their purchasing power. Heathcote's members have formed a co-op to pool their food money and spend less than they would individually, and there are only four refrigerators and two washing machine among the 17 residents.

For each community purchase, environmental concerns are weighed. Last year, Heathcote needed a new washing machine. After investigating water usage, the co-op bought a front-loading machine rather than a typical residential top-loader. "This machine uses 15 gallons [of water] per load," Curtiss says, "compared to up to 50 gallons for a top-loader."

As might be expected, product recycling is a key part of permaculture. "Recycling is the end of the process," says Heathcote resident Karen Stupski. "First, we look at ways we can reduce: buying items with less packaging, consuming only what we need. Next, we try to reuse anything we can, like plastic containers. Finally, we recycle what is left." Containers are labeled not only for glass, cans, plastic, and paper, but for plastic bags, batteries, aseptic containers (such as milk and juice boxes), and aluminum foil.

Despite the tight-knit nature of their community, these permaculturists are generous in sharing their experience with the public. They host a visitors' weekend each month, allowing guests to tour their facilities, observe permaculture principles in action, and inquire about adopting those principles in their own environments. People can call an information line to sign up for the weekends and to learn about the occasional one- and two-day seminars on everything from organic gardening to building water-collection systems (see "Getting Green").

Heathcote residents formed te Greater Baltimore Permaculture Group (GBPG) about two years ago in an effort to address the possibilities for permaculture outside their own community. "We did an urban permaculture workshop about two years ago in Govans," Curtiss says. "We showed how you can garden in a postage-stamp backyard, and different techniques you can use like planting into straw bales, which you can do without soil on a rooftop or balcony."

GBPG's educational efforts now reach even further. High school interns work at Heathcote for school credit, and Stupski, a Heathcote resident since 1993, has brought permaculture to the Johns Hopkins campus. Along with fellow permaculturist Kim Erickson, the graduate student is teaching the class Introduction to Sustainable Systems Design this semester. The two instructors designed and proposed the four-credit course last year.

"[Students are] looking at energy use, water usage, waste management, building construction, food production, and landscaping," Stupski says. "Within those arenas, they learn strategies for sustainable designs."

For one of their term projects, students are analyzing the sustainability of an existing campus environment: a fraternity house. Class member Jeffrey King suggested that the class consider his home, the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at 3906 Canterbury Road.

Though a house full of fraternity brothers might not seem like an obvious site for an environmental study, King says it's a prime candidate. "It seems like a lot of permaculture involves community living. We already have a community structure, with 14 brothers in our house," says King, Phi Kappa Psi's vice president. (Disclosure: King is also a City Paper intern this semester.)

To carry out their project, the Hopkins students first became familiar with the quarter-acre Phi Kappa Psi location, using site plans and elevation drawings to make base maps indicating building infrastructure, microclimates (variations in temperature and humidity within the building), and other details.

In late April, the class presented its findings to the fraternity members, reporting on where the brothers can make efficiency improvements in energy use, food production, water use, and waste management. As a result of the study, the Phi Kappa Psis are re-insulating their windows to improve energy efficiency, working with the school to recycle cans and bottles from parties, and switching to an organic food distributor for their in-house meal plan.

"I don't see full sustainability as an option," says King, nothing that the fraternity did not accept all of the class' suggestions. "But I do think we can improve our energy efficiency and improve our waste management."

While education is key to understanding sustainability principles, purchasing power is perhaps an urban or suburban dweller's greatest opportunity to practice permaculture. It might not be realistic to expect every family in Towson to start farming their backyard, but each household has the option of joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. CSAs are an answer to fossil-fuel-based agriculture, in which commercially fertilized and grown food is shipped long distances for sale. Instead, community residents give local growers financial support before the season begins in exchange for fresh organic produce throughout the growing season.

On Cromwell Bridge Road near Loch Raven High School, four farmers and two interns begin their day early at the Cromwell Valley CSA. Working about six acres of food crops, they weed the carefully planted rows of spinach and scallion plants, feed the chickens, and plan their planting and harvest schedule.

Their work provides produce to about 300 people in the Baltimore area. From June to late November, CSA members travel to the farm each week to pick up their share of freshly picked food. This season, members will pay $380 for a share to feed two people or $680 to feed a family of four; they also agree to work five hours on the farm over the course of the season for a single share, or 10 hours for a double share. If members opt not to work the farm hours, they can pay an additional $35 for a single share or $60 for a double. With about 22 weeks in the growing season, a family of four pays an average of $30 per week for a bounty of organic food. A typical single-share weekly ration from last season included two cucumbers, three pounds of beets, four sweet peppers, two eggplants, unlimited collard greens and kale, one pound of mizuna and arugula salad mix, one pound of beans, a half-pound of basil, four hot peppers, two yellow squash, one and a half pounds of tomatoes, two bunches of parsley, four pounds of apples, and a bunch of fresh flowers. Weekly offerings vary depending on which crops are ready to be harvested when.

The Cromwell Valley CSA, now in its third year, is the brainchild of Earthome, farmers Brian Hughes and Jenny Siebenhaar, and Bob Stanhope, the head naturalist for the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks. Hughes says he and Siebenhaar were interested in organic farming for health and environmental reasons. The two completed a permaculture-design course at Heathcote five years ago. Inspired by permaculture principles, they formed their first CSA in Glen Rock, Pa., in 1996.

Meanwhile, Earthome was interested in forming a CSA in the Baltimore area. Ultimately, the group contacted Stanhope, who had founded the Oregon Ridge Nature Center and was interested in expanding his department's focus. "My feeling was a teaching farm is perhaps a better place to learn about nature than a nature center, because everyone has to eat," he says.

Stanhope orchestrated the county's purchase of the Cromwell Valley property in 1994. The property, which was designated exclusively for farm use by former owners Francis Sherwood and her son Arthur Sherwood (a founder of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation) to discourage encroaching housing development, seemed the perfect site for the teaching farm Stanhope and his colleagues had in mind. Two years ago, Earthome leased the 70-acre property from the county and contracted Hughes and Siebenhaar to farm the land. The farmers and Earthome hope to expand their crop cultivation to nearly 20 acres in the coming years, using permaculture planting principles such as agroforestry -- planting perennial, food-producing plants to simulate the natural layering of the forest. This year, they planted blackberry and raspberry patches; next year, they hope to begin harvesting last year's asparagus plantings.

The benefits of the Cromwell Valley CSA for the consumer extend beyond fresh, affordable organically grown food. Members also garner the more subtle benefit of becoming intimately familiar with the place where their food is grown. Stanhope and Earthome members see the farm as an excellent teaching device for nonmembers as well, with field trips from local schools scheduled nearly every day during the spring. And the mere fact that this suburban land is producing food for local residents rather than supporting another strip mall is an environmental victory.

The Cromwell Valley CSA employs state-approved organic growing practices, but has not applied for organic certification from the state. Hughes acknowledges, "We're torn on the subject. Since our members come and have such a personal attachment to the farm and a personal relationship with the farmers, we feel that we don't need to [become state-certified] because they know us, they know we're not cheaters. I think 'certified organic' really works for assuring people that food that they don't know where it came from has been grown using organic practices. But I think ideally people should know where their food is coming from, and then it really isn't a concern."

For the farm, the benefit of working in the CSA format is a secure income for the season. Bad growing conditions or competition from large commercial farms do not threaten their livelihood -- their crops are paid for before the season starts. Last summer's drought did affect some of the harvests, Hughes says, but members did not seem to feel the pinch. "The members sometimes seemed overwhelmed by the amount of food" they received, he says. "I guess we eat a lot more here on the farm than average people."

Earthome is still accepting people to the Cromwell Valley CSA membership list. Membership the past two years has been a diverse mix of people, says Hughes: "We have everything from suburban families to individuals and couples who live in the city. One member rode his bike out from Hopkins last year every week to pick up his share."

But for those city dwellers who can't or won't drive to the county for fresh, environmentally sound produce, there is always the Waverly Farmer's Market. Every Saturday morning, workers from Shaw Farms and One Straw Farm put their organic produce out for sale at the market at Barclay and 32nd streets. While both farms have operated organically for years, each organized a CSA last year. City members can arrange to make their weekly pick-ups at the market.

Or Baltimoreans can grow their own food. If they live in an apartment, or a rowhouse where the backyard doesn't satisfy a gardening jones, city residents can rent a garden lot in a city park for a mere $14 a year. The City Farms program, a division of the Department of Recreation and Parks, has provided lots to green-thumbed city dwellers for more than 20 years. The 150-square-foot plots are available in Carroll, Clifton, DeWees, Druid Hill, Fort Holabird, Leakin, and Patterson parks. (This year, only Clifton, DeWees, and Fort Holabird still have vacancies.)

The challenge for permaculturists, though, is not just making sustainable-living opportunities available, but changing general perceptions about how we relate to our environments. Cromwell says it helps to think of environmental awareness as a spectrum and to be optimistic about any shift in public opinion, however incremental.

"It's called the Natural Step," she says, "not the Natural Leap."

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