Earth-Based Education

The back-to-the-landers of the 1960s tended to be heavy on
idealism and light on practical know-how. Armed with little more
than coveralls and a few dog-eared guidebooks of the age, they
headed to the country with mixed results. Today’s practical
pioneers may be just as committed to good land stewardship, but
they’re not likely to be quite so naive. Lucky for them, they don’t
have to start from scratch.

An earlier era’s hard-won knowledge didn’t just fade away with
flower power and bell-bottom jeans. It’s waiting in schools and
programs across the country where you can study up on the ABCs of
rural life before you make the leap. Whether you’re planning a
complete off-the-grid farmstead or just hoping to make yourself a
little more self-sufficient, there are now seminars,
apprenticeships, and even four-year degree programs to help you
make your earthy dream a reality. Here’s just a taste of what’s out
there.

Growing (and Finding) Food

Going back to the land doesn’t have to mean going hungry. For
the pioneer born without a green thumb, there are programs designed
to teach you about gardening, farming, and finding food that’s
waiting to be dug or plucked out of the wild.

Permaculture: Permaculture is a farming method
that emulates the diversity and resilience of natural ecosystems.
By raising crops and animals that provide the likes of shade and
nutrients for each other, growers can reduce the need for the
costly artificial inputs that sustain the mainstream farm. Offered
across the country, permaculture programs run 10 to 14 days and
involve equal parts classroom time and dirty work. Students learn
how to balance factors like weather, waste, and water in designing
gardens that will eventually maintain themselves. For a look at
programs worldwide, look up the International Institute for
Ecological Agriculture,
(www.permaculture.com)
or check out Permaculture Activist magazine: $23/yr. (4
issues) from Box 1209, Black Mountain, NC 28711.

Foraging: Fresh produce doesn’t always grow in
rows. Wildcrafters prefer to skip cultivation and hunt for edibles
in the wild. Classes like those offered at the School of
Self-Reliance in Los Angeles help hungry foragers tell pigweed from
poison ivy, then prepare and preserve their harvest. Wild Food
Adventures in Portland, Oregon, joins the local Native American
population in an effort to ‘revitalize traditional foodways’ by
offering workshops and expeditions. Look for similar programs that
can teach you about the wild food and other resources in your local
ecosystems.

Farming: Farming is often a family affair that
involves a lifetime of learning, but there are programs that give
newbies a chance to catch up. The Farm School Practical Farm
Training Program at Maggie’s Farm in Massachusetts, for example,
offers the hands-on practice and mentoring that were once a vital
part of coming of age on a family farm. The one-year curriculum
explores all aspects of crop production and readies future farmers
with skills as varied as chain-saw repair and mental endurance in
the field.

The Rural Arts

Mainstream education has a way of drawing students away from the
land at the expense of the deep satisfaction you can find by
working closely with its bounty. A number of new programs are
designed to put you in touch with the manual skills and crafts that
for thousands of years were the warp and woof of human life.

Folk Schools: Inspired by the Danish
folkehojskole, or ‘folk high school,’ the new American
folk schools are built on the principles of cooperation, community,
and students’ natural curiosity. The North House Folk School in
Grand Marais, Minnesota, for example, teaches yurt building,
mushrooming, and sausage making, along with many other land skills
and handicrafts. Students at John C. Campbell Folk School in
Brasstown, North Carolina, learn and preserve the local land-based
crafts and techniques of the Appalachian mountain people.

Rural Skills Old and New: Tending draft
animals, timber framing, and blacksmithing were once crucial skills
in rural America. The workshops and internships at Tillers
International in Kalamazoo County, Michigan, are designed to help
students learn and preserve such skills in the hope of sharing them
with rural people in poorer countries, where they can be of vital
use. Tillers teaches new tricks like solar electricity and the
basics of running a community-supported agriculture program.

Higher Education

If a weekend or a season on the land has left you wanting more,
there are programs for turning your passion into your life’s work.
Agronomy and agriculture have long been taught in state schools;
now new schools, and new classes within old ones, are
available.

In response to the lack of business skills that hurts many
back-to-the-landers, new programs are being designed to give them
the professional tools they need. Earth University, a private,
nonprofit university located in Lim?n, Costa Rica, helps students
develop an ‘entrepreneurial mentality.’ In addition to a four-year
degree, it provides financial assistance to graduates who need help
starting up new enterprises. Eco-Versity, a continuing education
center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, offers courses in permaculture
design, rain gardens, adobe building, and ‘growing wealth
sustainably.’ Its earth-based vocations certificate program fuses
disciplines like deep ecology, bioregionalism, and biomimicry into
a program for future ‘planners, designers, builders, gardeners,
educators, and activists.’

Numerous other public and private institutions offer programs in
going back to the land. For a list of opportunities in fields
related to sustainable agriculture, visit the Alternative Farming
Systems Information Center,
www.nal.usda.gov/afsic

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