“Our Fire Circle Reformation”- Interview with Erik Ohlsen, The Permaculture Skills Center & Permaculture Artisans, Sebastopol, CA by Willi Paul, Planetshifter.com Design
The Permaculture Skills Center is a 5-acre demonstration site and educational institution dedicated to sharing regenerative land development and management practices. They are located in the Laguna de Santa Rosa watershed just south of Sebastopol, in Sonoma County, California. The site is also the home of our partner organization, Permaculture Artisans.
The Center offer diverse programs for everyone, from those who are interested in home gardening to professional farmers, landscapers and land managers. Some of our offerings include: the Ecological Landscaper Immersion, Farm School, Open Design Consultation, and Day-long workshops.
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Interview with Erik by Willi
Question on naming: ecological landscape design sounds like farming that relates to permaculture? Help!?
Regenerative landscape design? Restorative landscape design? Natural landscape design?
One of your missions is to create local livelihoods. Do you mean just the Permaculture Skills Center community or in other towns in your area? Any examples?
Let’s first look at individuals who come to our center. A key part of our mission at the Permaculture Skills Center is to develop career pathways for people in the realms of permaculture, ecological design, and all the subsets of those. At this startup organization we are developing models that integrate education with business incubation (Ecological Landscape Immersion program, and the Farm School).
To support people in developing their right livelihoods, it takes responding to inherent design challenges in personal, economic and social relationships. Part of what we would like to show over the next five years is an education to career model and runway that empowers individuals through a vocational learning environment that engages their dreams, passions, strengths and helps them get through obstacles to their success. In an environment like this we can support budding new leaders and entrepreneurs in developing a right livelihood for themselves and others.
It has become clear that the success of someone’s endeavor to create a livelihood for themselves in regenerative relationship to the planet rests in that persons willingness to do the personal and community work necessary to advance their plans into reality. Our goal is to provide the tools that help people get there.
In the development of our vocational education and business incubation programming we are working towards providing livelihood models that can be replicated around the planet. Many of our students are coming from out of our region and we are providing training through mentorship for them in developing the businesses they’re creating. Our lofty goal is to have a global reach in the design and development of regenerative economies that are rooted in local bio regions and developed and implemented locally by those communities.
At this time we are only working in the phase one of our successional plan with last year’s implementation of the training programs described above. For phase two we are currently working on an affordable and online educational platform that will provide the same types of advanced training and services to people all over the planet. Launch date is tentatively expected fall of 2016.
From a community and bioregional point of view we have developed the beginnings of what I like to call a “Permaculture Business Guild, PBG”. Between the Permaculture Skills Center, Permaculture Artisans, LEIP LLC(property owner), and a host of joint ventures that we are hosting at our five-acre site, we are creating a family of businesses that share resources, personnel, and generate marketing opportunities for each other.
This dynamic integrated business model that we’re forming is providing new opportunities for people to find meaningful work in the regenerative economy. We are developing this model through self-experimentation and working the kinks out within our pilot business guild. The PBG model is another aspect to our general goal of creating right livelihoods and a regenerative economy all over the planet. Our hope is to eventually model a successful PBG structure that has potential for replication elsewhere.
As you can see we are very much still in experimentation, research and development. So far over the last three years we’ve experienced a lot of great successes and quite a few failures in this startup phase. This is a natural process of discovery as we work towards the development of regenerative economic models that are viable and implementable for other individuals and communities.
What is your policy on recreational growing and use of marijuana?
At the five-acre Permaculture Skills Center we are not growing cannabis either for recreational or medicinal use. That is not because we have any ethical issue with doing so. The only real reason is because the laws are too interpretive right now and the risk would be too great. Additionally, it’s not the kind of business model that we are developing although we are happy to see so many viable business models for the growing industry in cannabis developing throughout California and the United States.
Personally, I’m 100% against the drug war, it’s unethical, unnecessary and destructive to our communities. Especially as it relates to incarceration rates for nonviolent crimes most notably associated with marijuana, it’s an unjust, unfair and vile system of racism and oppression that needs to end now.
I’m encouraged to see the cannabis legalization successes that are happening across our country. I’m hopeful that legalization will come to California in 2016. I think it’s becoming more and more clear that the cannabis plant is one of the more important plants to human civilization. Humans evolved with this particular plant for thousands and thousands of years. It provides a medicine to so many of our ailments almost as if it’s meant to be in partnership with us. We have to remember as well that hemp provided the basis for great evolutions of human civilization throughout history as it provides a rich source of food, fuel, and fiber.
In both cases cannabis can be grown and processed easily in peoples yards and farms(unlike fossil fuel and pharmaceutical products). This kind of empowerment could devastate the fossil fuel and pharmaceutical industries that run our economy. I think years from now we will look back at this era of cannabis prohibition for what it is, a divide and conquer, profit over people attempt at controlling and capitalizing on people and the environment.
Please give us one or two lessons from your ongoing Open Design Consultation, interactive consultation course?
The open design consultation program has had limited success so far. It’s a really great program for building community, making design consultations affordable, and educating folks around permaculture design strategies and techniques.
The structure of our open design consultations are such that we first choose one or two members of the community who are looking for an affordable design session as our subjects. We hold an evening event where members of the community can come and pay very little to experience a couple hours of discussion and professional consultation around somebody’s property. Often the consultants focus on incorporating advice that benefits all of the observers.
We’ve only had a couple of these and although they worked really well, the time it took to prepare for them and the return on the investment financially didn’t make sense for us to continue doing so this year. We’re still in a startup/growth phase and have limited capacity for endeavors that are not going to pay the bills. As our main programs solidify and we feel a stronger level of financial security we will bring the open design consultation program back as they provide great value to the community and make professional consultations affordable to folks who may not be able to afford them otherwise.
Is the current pace or expansion of the permaculture movement good enough?
The first response to that question is no. Clearly the permaculture movement itself has failed to make a viable case for its adoption in mainstream society in the United States. This is troubling as Permaculture offers a design frame that could seriously help implement solutions to current crises at large scales. That’s my first reaction to this question but that’s not the whole story.
A deeper look shows me that in fact in the last 10 years, many people in the permaculture movement have been actively developing an enormous diversity of platforms to implement permaculture design in social, ecological and economic systems. I believe we’re in a research and development phase in the movement and in the next few years we will see many more scaled solutions and new permaculture models become implemented and adopted throughout different levels of our society. It’s sort of like we’ve been in deep planning mode and the fruits of our labors haven’t quite been realized yet. I think many seeds of permaculture have been planted throughout the planet and like a young fruit tree just we need just a few more years before they will bear large yields.
It’s a very exciting time, and much is going to emerge and when it does it will happen very quickly. So although the movement has been slow in its first three decades my guess is in the next 5 to 10 years it will speed up exponentially. With that in mind I think it’s important that people position themselves for success in this work and try not to get discouraged if ideas and planning doesn’t work out at first. The Permaculture wave is still coming and when it does it’s going to be fertile and it’s going to be massive.
Do you see as many female students as male students in your courses?
Unfortunately we are not seeing the same amount of interest with women as men in our programs. In general an approximate average would be about two-thirds men and one-third women. It could be worse. We are actively researching how to make our programming more accessible to women and people of color and as were are still in beta form we’re very open to critique and feedback to help us offer programs that are accessible and desirable to everybody.
We have a pretty well gender balanced teaching staff and have a clear and strong sense about equality and respect of all people. If I was to speculate as to why more women were not taking our programs it would be that for one, the landscape program sounds like it has a “trades” focus to it. This is partly true. The reason why that may turn some women off is because in the United States trade industries are heavily patriarchal and sadly not always healthy and safe feeling environments for women. Hopefully, we can help make change on that front through more openness and discovery and development of new women driven businesses.
Will the profit-motive remain in place at the Center for the foreseeable future? Do you have a vision of an alternative economic system?
The term “profit-motive” can be misleading. While we are not officially a nonprofit organization our LLC business structure provides for the opportunity to develop social benefit based ownership and services business models. What’s key to the model we are creating is that we understand it’s going to take money to incubate and develop a regenerative economy. We feel strongly that focusing on financially viable business models allow for those businesses to thrive, and therefore care better for the people involved.
We will continue to grow our companies in order to provide a larger economic base for people to get paid right livelihoods while healing the Earth. This is why I think “profit-motive” can be misleading. Yes, we seek to make profit(generate funds beyond breaking even) but not for the sake of filling up some bank account coffers. But for the intention to quickly develop more and more viable regenerative businesses to scale up the implementation of solutions across the globe.
Which is more important to you? Promoting the Center community itself as the hero or individual leaders as heroes?
At this point in time we have to promote the center itself otherwise there will be no center. Being that we are still in the startup phase we haven’t yet reached the place where our programming and other offerings are covering all of the financial needs of the center. We are being as generous as we can and we see the success of anyone who comes through our programs or works with us as part of our success.
Part of our longer-term planning is to developed a business incubation fund that we can actually provide startup capacity level grants for people to start their new program, businesses or new endeavor. If we are able to get ourselves to a place where we can provide this kind of support then our focus will shift to promoting individual efforts as the heroes.
I’m constantly asking myself the question about how we can get ourselves to a wider audience in order to speed up the process by which we can offer our programming and business incubation models. When you’re in a startup phase you often have to reach for the low hanging fruit to keep going. Right now we’re using whatever we can to get our name out there and get our programs filled because every time we run a program there an opportunity for incubating the next leader. This is the kind of momentum that will help us get to that goal of having the financial base to provide startup capacity for individuals.
How does immersion relate to resilience? How does Transition relate to permaculture?
When we talk about immersion as part of our programming we are describing an experience where students spend a significant amount of time together with mentors and each other over long periods. What this does is create an incubation period, wherein students can have life-changing and life-affirming experiences. This also allows for competency building within the subject matter and a sufficient amount of time to develop a new life plan for their future.
We are creating sustainable communities during these immersions and this I believe is a foundation for resilience. Relearning how to work, interact and play together in society is a vital part of creating communities that can care for themselves and their surrounding environments. To do this work collectively with others creates an unforgettable skill set of learning how to facilitate oneself, learning how to work towards consensus and learning how to support your friends and family when times get tough.
This is part of the fabric of creating a resilient society. I like the concept of transition because it gets very real about the kind of times that were living in. It’s a very practical way to describe the need to transition out of the current economic and social paradigms that are so destructive to ecosystems and human communities and move towards a more egalitarian, peaceful and ecologically based human civilization. In order to get to that ideal though there is a transition time which we are in now. This requires a set of pioneers, a lot of courage, risk-taking and ability to survive and thrive during times of major change.
Permaculture provides us with the design frame to get us through the transition towards an ecological and peaceful society. This is why transition and permaculture are hand-in-hand concepts. Permaculture provides a design approach wherein we look at the status of our current design situation be it social, economic or ecological, and utilize resources in an efficient manner to re-organize elements and systems in a way which increases health, relationship and resilience for the planet Earth and human civilization. This is the kind of transition we need and are implementing now.
Are you creating a small town at the Center?!
I’d call it a village and a business guild. LEIP LLC is the company that owns the property. LEIP’s property management model is to create a community of tenants, joint venture and incubation projects that model closed loop symbiotic ecosystems. Already a higher level of efficiency and diversity of yields is being experienced between the various companies, farmers, and students operating on-site.
Another beautiful pattern that is emerging now is that the site is really turning into a “cultural center” as many different groups and individuals, school classes, and other associates of the site use the space for cultural and educational experiences.
We’re open to the public so the goal is to provide an experience where people feel welcome and at home and they can autonomously relate to the space within a set of respectful conduct guidelines.
Looks like a family vibe there. Yes?
We want this to be a family centered place in many ways. Myself and many staff onsite have young families. There is also a wonderful family living on-site who provides care taking services to the center and works with Permaculture Artisans.
To go a little bit deeper, we identify that the only truly sustained shift we can make in transitioning to a regenerative culture is to bring the children into that culture now. We also have to make a concerted effort to make the center a place where all kinds of different people feel welcome and engaged. It would be great if folks felt like they were coming home when they visited the Permaculture Skills Center.
Our goal is for people to use this as a place where all kinds of communities and families can join together, celebrate, learn from each other and share skills and resources that build our local economy and strengthen our networks.
What rituals and traditions have sprung up at the Center?
A few ongoing cultural connecting themes have come up over the last couple years. We have a lot of Latin style barbecues, parties, fire circles and community councils.
I would say the fire circles and community councils became a foundational piece of the last Ecological Landscaper Immersion program. These were opportunities where we came together not to learn about things but to deeply connect with each other, provide a space for listening cultural mentorship, healing and celebration. In many ways it's the glue that keeps these communities together and moving forward on their collective paths.
We recently purchased an amazing Italian brick oven on a trailer. It’s very high-quality and lovingly named “La Rossa.” We have been having a lot of amazing wood-fired cooking gatherings, and farm to table dinners utilizing La Rossa and the land, it’s been fabulous.
We hope next year to host a series of farm to table dinner nights and movie screenings to develop consistent cultural experiences here.
Have the hard times proven to be just as important to your growth as the good times?
I look at the hard times as important and strategic indicators of the health of the companies, an assessment of the direction we’ve taken and an opportunity to tweak the design for viability into the future. Hard times reveal the most important data for making the business successful. That being said, sometimes the hard times are bad enough that you start questioning whether you’re on the right path at all. These are the toughest times to get through because you start to lose morale and wonder if it would just be easier to stop what you’re doing. In those times of deep reflection I’ll often find some golden gem idea where I can apply some sort of least change for the greatest effect approach to utilizing the resources at hand to create something successful. To make that shift it often requires pruning attachment to something that’s not working anymore.
The great challenge as designers that we have is to be creative and innovative enough to push through the truly difficult tasks that are ahead of us. Often in permaculture we want to design systems that work for the planet and people and end up doing it while inside of an economic and political structure that controls many facets of people’s lives. The design challenges may seem insurmountable and impossible but one thing history has taught us is that change can and will happen eventually. The best we can do is continually receive feedback, input, and look at hard times as ways to constantly redesign, adjust, and tweak. Accepting feedback will reveal pathways to successfully restoring the planet and creating healthy thriving communities for everyone.
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Bio - Erik Ohlsen
Erik is the Executive Director of the Permaculture Skills Center, a vocational training school which offers advanced training in ecological design, landscaping, farming and land stewardship. He is also the Founder/Principal at Permaculture Artisans, a fully licensed contracting firm specializing in the design and installation of ecological landscapes and farms throughout California.
Erik is an internationally renowned certified permaculture designer/practitioner and certified permaculture teacher. He is a well-known and seasoned activist organizer, and has been working within permaculture and activist movements since 1998.
In the field of ecological land development and management, Erik has extensive experience with projects that range from small urban lots to 100+ broadacre design and implementation. His many years of experience observing and listening to landscape patterns, and managing installation crews and design teams, have led to an extensive knowledge of all aspects of ecological land development and planning. He is a specialist in water harvesting systems, food forest design, community organizing, facilitation, vocational education and much more.
Erik is known for his ability to inspire masses of people through his teaching style and ability to weave together complex issues into cohesive narratives that can be acted upon. Erik has worked throughout the world and currently resides in Sebastopol, California; managing his homestead, running his businesses and raising his young family
Willi Paul’s Bio -
Willi is active in the sustainability, permaculture, transition, Nature, and mythology space since the launch of PlanetShifter.com Magazine on EarthDay 2009. Willi’s network now includes multiple blog sites and numerous list serves with a global presence.
SF. Mr. Paul has released 23 eBooks, 2306 + posts on PlanetShifter.com Magazine, and over 350 interviews with global leaders. He has created 73 New Myths to date and has been interviewed over 30 times in blogs and journals. Please see his cutting-edge article at the Joseph Campbell Foundation and his pioneering videos on YouTube.
In 1996 Mr. Paul was instrumental in the emerging online community space in his Master’s Thesis: “The Electronic Charrette.” He volunteered for many small town re-designs with the Minnesota Design Team. Willi earned his permaculture design certification in August 2011 at the Urban Permaculture Institute.
Willi’s current focus includes the integration of permaculture, mythology and the Transition Movement with the Myth Lab.
The Permaculture Skills Center
erik at permacultureartisans.com