Our PDC Grad Interview Series is back!
Our hope is to convey what a life-changing opportunity the Permaculture Design Course can be, while learning more about what first attracted these former students to sustainable design and how they have applied those principles since taking a PDC.
We’re continuing this series with small-business owner Michael Wolfert of Symbiosis Regenerative Systems – read more below.
1) How did you become interested in sustainable design? Please describe to us any moments in your life that piqued your interest in sustainable, regenerative, and holistic systems.
I had a deep feeling of despair in my late teenage years and early twenties. At the time I was mostly seeking ways to reduce my footprint and be an activist for policy change and reform. One day a friend of mine, Joshua Adair, called me up and said that there was a potential scholarship for a permaculture design course. I said, “what the heck is permaculture.” He said “It’s like gardening, natural building, community building and learning to live more sustainably!” and proceeded to give the details of the event. I said I would have to think about it. We hung up. I thought about it for literally 1 minute, called him back and let him know I was really excited to learn about this and incredibly grateful that there was a scholarship because I would not have been able to afford it at the time. I started to do some research and prepare for the PDC, though I still had no idea the rabbit hole I was about to enter.
2) What were you looking to learn when you signed up for a permaculture design course?
I didn’t have many expectations, having just stumbled upon the concept with very little time to consider the implications and the impact they could have on my outlook and life.
All Images © Symbiosis Regenerative Systems 2019
3) Who taught your permaculture design course and when? What did you appreciate about that course, and what would you have liked to have learned more about?
Kirby Fry, Gary Freeborg, Jenny Nazak and Ted Norris.
This course was a real turning point for me. Kirby led the majority of class time and he did a great job introducing me to the idea that we might actually strive to have a positive footprint instead of just trying to eliminate our negative footprint, and that in this practice we could aim to set up positive feedback loops, modeling our designs after ecosystems.
From that point forward, I knew what my driving focus would be. I would try my best to become a mutually beneficial symbiote with my ecosystem. An agent for making connections between the correlating outputs and needed inputs of the systems around me. Nudging ecological succession forward. Taking more responsibility for my family’s needs, consumption, and outputs. Striving to leave a legacy of regeneration in my wake. It’s a lifelong pursuit that I hope future generations will be able to carry forward.
4) What other courses, if any, have you participated in that have helped you to learn more about and implement sustainable design systems?
Working at Morning Glory Farm with Gracie Brousard and Richard Lindley was my first real-world continuing education. These folks were real eco-pioneers and all-around fantastic mentors. I was very lucky to find them and to be allowed to study farming with them. I worked there for nearly 2 years as a farmhand. During this time I lived primarily in a school bus with no running water or power. The meals Gracey would make from the produce they grew and goods they traded other farmers for really opened my eyes to what eating fresh and seasonal produce would be like. they were both extremely patient and kind. I learned a ton about gardening, farming, community building, and being a mentee.
Cypress Valley Farms was my second continuing education course where I worked as a co-farm manager in an attempt to start a profitable regenerative farm. I learned so much from this experience and the property owners that it’s hard to summarize. Some of the main takeaways were to focus equally on the business and marketing of your farm as you do on the growing of produce. Make clear agreements with all decision-makers – 1 hour of energy input here on the front end could easily save 10 + hours of confusion on the back end. Establish a healthy work-life balance and don’t let being a business owner consume and burn you out.
Hill Country Natives was my third continued education course. Here, I worked with Mitch Mitchamore to cultivate an intensive food forest in Leander, Texas starting with 6 inches of topsoil sitting on hundreds of feet of rock shelf. Mitch runs a fantastic nursery for natives and fruiting adapted plants but often says the main yield of his business is education, conversation, and connection. He takes as much time as needed to work with each client personally. He gave me a lot of freedom and trust to come up with experiments and implement them on the grounds at Hill Country Natives. Some days, we would be working at the potting trailer for many hours having wide-ranging discussions and being eaten alive by mosquitoes. I learned a lot about leadership and problem solving from Mitch and a lot about food forests and native plants from the work we did together.
I worked for Paige Hill-Oliverio of Urban Patchwork as I was just getting my business started, doing landscaping installation and maintenance gigs in Austin. I learned about being a contractor, spreadsheets, and integrating art into a functional design. Paige does great work and I still enjoy collaborating with her on projects to this day.
Teaching a food forest workshop with Caroline Riley-Carberry, Food Forests For All, three years in a row was a powerful learning experience. We taught people the basics of food forest design and the underlying principles, lead them through a design process, and implemented the design over the course of three days. Some of the results are on display at the Whole Life Learning Center, where a field has been transformed into a thriving food forest that is managed by Caroline with help from the whole life-learners. Seeing the iterations and receiving critical feedback from the systems this course worked to design and install furthered my understanding of food forestry and permaculture in general. Caroline taught me a lot about facilitation and design. I believe some of the initial collaborators that started the permablitzes and eventually Earth Repair Corps first began putting heads together at FFFA 1. I love seeing a ripple effect of positive actions after good people get together and get inspired by a common goal.
I traveled to Michigan to learn from Mark Shepard with Pete VanDyck. I learned from Mark that the economics of large scale permaculture farming are tricky and that you have to be creative and strategic to make your way in this space. I learned that small farmers can leverage their power as co-ops to compete against big ag and revitalize agricultural communities. I learned about designing systems that can be managed by machines at scale in order to compete against big ag without compromising the regenerative metrics of success we strive to meet. I also hosted Mark to teach a workshop at our homestead when we had just started renovating the place and learned not to host workshops until your infrastructure is in good shape. The workshop was a success and I learned more from Mark about his philosophy, and made wonderful connections with local like-minded folks.
I was a participant in TexRex with Darren Doherty, where we learned the Regrarians method of property design. This was Darren’s adaptation of the Keyline Scale of Permanence, based on years of experience designing large scale regenerative properties. This method has been a huge help in systematizing my design process and presenting information to my clients in a clear, digestible package. I learned a lot about rotational grazing, mapping, keyline design and much much more. This is one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended in that I took home more practical advice and methodology than any other, had a lot of fun between classes, and the food was delicious! I gained a ton of inspiration from Darren, Lisa, and the other participants.
I’ve learned from the Permablitzes, and seeing the updates from those systems installed has helped me to have more iterative feedback to improve the designs that I create.
I’ve been running my own permaculture/regenerative design and installation business for nearly 6 years now. We have worked on over 100 individual projects, and being able to monitor these systems gives me even more data to draw on for improving the design, installation, and maintenance methods we use for all things regenerative.
I’ve been living on my own homestead for nearly 4 years and am constantly learning from observing ecosystem succession in outer zones as well as the inner zone experiments and systems we’re running out here. One standard question I have to ask myself when installing a new system is: will I be able to maintain this with my 3 kids in tow or even better get them to help me with it? How can I make this accessible and fun for our family flow? That’s a pretty fun design lense to look through.
5) Have you been able to apply what you learned from a permaculture design course to your life, and business endeavors? If so, please elaborate.
Yes! As you can probably tell from my list above, I dove in headfirst and never looked back.
I’ve been doing permaculture professionally for nearly 6 years. We have 8 full-time employees including myself and a great network of independent contractors we can call on for collaboration. We’ve continued to gain momentum and improve our methods each year. Although it is a marathon of hard work, I love it. The projects we work on, the team we work with and the clients who have chosen to lead the charge in this effort keep me constantly inspired, learning, and growing.
For the last 4 years, I’ve been living on a 25-acre homestead with my family. Even though I grew up in cities and suburbs, as I got older I never really felt like I could relax when I lived in the city. The frenetic energy, constant background noise, light pollution, air pollution, the heat island effect, it all just got under my skin and made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want to raise my kids in a place where we were so reliant on seemingly fragile systems. I wanted them to grow up with the freedom to roam in the woods, get muddy, grow food and see the magic of nature unfold over many years. I don’t know if they’ll thank me for it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way and the turning point was my PDC. Each year we are more self-sufficient as we find our place within this context and ecosystem.
6) Have you had the opportunity to teach, mentor, and/or pass on information about sustainable design to friends, family, or employees?
Yes, I’ve worked with hundreds of clients, taught at least 100 students in workshops, have taught some co-workers, and worn out my mom with my ecovangelism. I’ve also learned a lot from these interactions and continue to meet really cool folks from all walks of life who all agree that sustainable design is a good idea.