Permaculture Committee dubbed ‘Pioneers’

By Josh Steinberg

The University of Massachusetts Permaculture Committee was recently awarded the first annual Real Food Award by Real Food Challenge [RFC], an organization based in Boston aimed at promoting “real food” amongst college and university campuses, according to University a press release.

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian
Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

The award highlights accomplishments by individuals or student groups who are leading the RFC movement and improving the amount of “real food” purchased on campus, according to RFC’s website.

“Real food,” according to the website, can be divided into four categories – local, fair, ecologically sound and humane. Real food is then broken down into two subcategories: Real food A and Real food B. The former must have at least two of the four attributes and Real food B is anything that only has one, according to the website.

RFC hopes to shift $1 billion that universities and colleges currently spend each year on industrial food towards locally based agriculture, grown under ecologically sound conditions and meeting the requirements of real food, according to the press release.

Students from across the nation submitted their nominees for the Real Food Award on RFC’s website this past fall. Over 100 nominations were submitted, which was chiseled down to 19 finalists. Over 2,000 votes and comments were reviewed by RFC students and staff, who then picked a winner based on the feedback, according to the release.

The UMass Permaculture Committee received the most votes and its members were recognized as Permaculture Pioneers by RFC for their innovative work on one of the nation’s first student-led permaculture gardens, according to the release.

The 12-member UMass Permaculture Committee was started as a project for a class taught by UMass professor of plant, soil and inset sciences John Gerber. The sustainability-minded class introduced the students to a concept called permaculture, which was the inspiration for their project.

Drawing inspiration from nature, permaculturists strive to take advantage of the given environment. It is possible in any climate under any conditions. The idea of permaculture is to self-sustain for an indefinite period of time, according to regenerativedesign.org

The students eventually came up with an idea, which they proposed to Executive Director of Auxiliary Services Ken Toong. Toong said he recognized the potential in the students’ idea and gave the approval needed to go forward with the project.

Rachel Dutton, a 2011 UMass graduate and is a former member of the UMass Permaculture Committee, still works with the group as the sustainability coordinator at auxiliary services.

“The way it works, especially when you work with perennial plants like we are, is over time as the gardens develop and mature the amount of produce you create increases tremendously,” said Dutton. “In the first year we were able to supply 1,000 pounds of produce in just that one plot in front of Franklin.”

Since its establishment in 2010, the committee has been recognized for two national awards, including the 2012 NASPA Excellence Award. The group has recently begun phase one of a three-step process to transform a designated patch of dirt located in between Berkshire Dining Commons, the Southwest horseshoe and Hamden convenience store into a self-sustaining haven of agriculture, according to its website.

The three-step process is the same approach that has proven successful with the Franklin and Worcester gardens, the first two projects of the group. It begins with a process called sheet mulching, which loosens up tight, depleted soil and allows water and nutrients to absorb into the earth through freshly layered compost, cardboard and wood-chips. This process reduces labor and maintenance costs, as well as enhances soil structure and improves future plant health, according to stopwaste.org

The second phase, which is where the committee currently stands, is the design phase. After collecting samples of soil from the garden, the group is beginning to develop a design that will allow the garden to flourish under the given conditions and benefit the campus most effectively, according to the website.

The planting phase will begin on April 23. The group plans on mostly perennial plants for the new garden, which are self-sustaining and bloom every year, although it is too early for the specifics.

Summer is the busiest season, according to Dutton, and people are needed to maintain the garden throughout the hot, threatening months. Dutton said it is crucial to ensure crops remain healthy until next fall, when she expects they will begin harvesting.

Josh Steinberg can be reached at [email protected]