What I’ve Learned About Permaculture After a Dozen Interviews and Half a Year of Podcasting: Part 1

Nov 14, 2021 | Blog, Permaculture

“Ask yourself who you want to serve, figure out what they need, and find a way to get it to them.”

That was the advice that I first received when I first began my adventures into starting an online business.  

Throughout the contemplations that followed, I looked deeply into my life and considered; if all my responsibilities were stripped away, where would I go, and what would I do?

The answer that came was that; I’d find some land project in the tropics and find a way to do my part, in benefit of the whole.

What kind of part would I play?  

One archetype that I’ve always related with is the stay-at-home wizard.  In one dream scenario, I’d be one of the local wellness practitioners.  I’d offer Thai massage and other wellness services and advice.  

At the same time, I might find myself at the community round table with other members considering what our next moves might be toward realizing our collective vision. 

I’d likely take on some additional organizational responsibilities, as the needs arise.  

Chances are, at some point though, that familiar feeling would stir up inside me, and I’d want to reach out and help the region as a whole.

I fell in love with rural living in my 20’s, and I can relate to the growing number of people leaving the cities, looking to experience life differently.  

I’ve also been around long enough to see an unfortunate number of these pioneering ambitions fail and fall to the wayside.  

In my opinion, we can’t afford to have this courageous portion of our population continue to fail for lack of guidance.

I imagined that some good might come from visiting veteran projects and seeing if there might be some continuity to their success.

So I set out on a journey to find out!


My Journey Visiting with Permaculture Veterans

permaculture lifestyle

I launched the Regeneration Nation Costa Rica in December of 2020. Although many of the locations that I contacted had closed with the pandemic, many were able to keep their programs open.

Several were even full of students the entire year long.  That intrigued me.  

Many of us identify as being victims of current global circumstances. It’s effectively influenced the chance-based elements of our sustenance like tourism traffic, economic stability, and even social norms.  

Some places, however, were able to keep the doors open and classes full.  I don’t believe it was by chance, though, or because these places had substantial marketing budgets.  

I believe it’s more likely due to designing resilient systems based on a clear vision, efficient operating procedures, quality of service, and, most importantly, customer relationships.  

With these elements dialed in, mixed with a willingness to respond to change creatively, success is less a matter of chance, as it is a matter of design.

I intended to capture an overview of the different activities that each landowner was working on and see what practices might make sense to me and others, including you.

While exploring, I noticed something. That we tend to take what we know for granted.

And it’s not what we know that matters. It’s putting the knowledge into practice that counts.

Listening back through these recordings that took place half a year ago has been humbling.

It awakened a curious sense of investigation into the continuity of mind, for me, and the qualities of self-image.

My experience going back through these podcast recordings brought my focus to lots of things that I’d missed before. 

Even if you’ve listened to the individual episodes, I’m sure you’ll pick up something new in this review that might have eluded you before.

If you haven’t listened to the podcast, I hope that my review might inspire you to check out more of the story.

In this first part of our 3-Part series, recounting the journey that’s brought us the podcast’s stories, we uncover insights on the topics of:

  • Hosting guests and volunteers
  • Creating schoolhouse garden projects for kids
  • Sharing our passions and cultivating them in others
  • Composting, bioferments, biochar, and other organic soil-building techniques
  • Seed sharing
  • Application of permaculture principles & sustainable construction techniques
  • Designing healthy competition into our communities’ cultures
  • and more!


The Challenges of Learning a New Trade

As much as I love how this podcast has brought me to meet so many great people and get to know their projects better, each time I set out to do a new recording, I had to deal with several things simultaneously – both internally and externally.

Things like;

  • the nervousness of arriving at a new place
  • meeting my soon-to-be guests 
  • simultaneously respecting that I’m actually arriving as a guest, in their home
  • ensuring that my day is well planned
  • being polite while taking charge
  • staying attentive enough to pick up on useful details
  • resisting being self-conscious while ensuring that I capture as much value as I possibly can without being over-consumptive of my guest’s time

Setting up equipment and hoping that things work out the way they’re supposed to, is another challenging part of the podcasting process. 

All the while, being conscious of the fact that something may very well go wrong, anyhow.

With all these considerations in mind, I go on to do the interview and keep my fingers crossed.

It’s been a lot to deal with but it’s been worth it. These stories and insights have been well worth sharing!

Half a year and over a dozen interviews later, with change-makers from around the globe, I’ve discovered a few interesting things.


Hosting Guests or Volunteers Can Bring Richness to One’s Life and Project (When Managed With Care and Passion)

suzanna Leff from Finca Amrta

Suzanna Leff, from Finca Amrta, was my first interviewee.  Suzanna is someone I’ve known for as long as I’ve been in the country. 

She has a generous heart and was a perfect person to have that first recorded conversation with.  

Suzanna’s superpower is helping guests and volunteers find their passion and guiding them toward opportunities to express themselves through.  

Suzanna is one of those people who does no marketing yet has a successful program that consists of a small number of volunteers who help her grow, harvest, and process a handful of locally-sold products, like vanilla, chocolate, and tea herbs. 

They also produce the majority of food that they all eat.

Suzanna and her land partner, Miguel, have been operating this way for over 30 years and live a relatively peaceful and sufficiently abundant life while making a meaningful impact on the lives of those who come through.

Farm life comprises different activities intertwined together to achieve an ultimate goal. Getting things done alone can be a real challenge.

The idea of employing laborers may sound logical but can be expensive, especially if you’re just starting out or live in an area with high labor costs.

The good news is that, with some contribution to your guests’ personal growth and education, you can ethically host guests on your land project, while requiring sufficient payment to cover your expenses.

The cost should be relative to the experience and education that you’re offering participants.

Your guests will get to learn many things about farming, ask different questions about what you do, and get to immerse themselves into your land-based project, and ultimately save you more work than you put into it.

In return, the skills and experience they gain will serve them in so many ways, including how to grow food or inspire them to embrace permaculture practices.

Volunteering is an invaluable experience for people, and farming places can be excellent sources of practical learning.


The Key to Hosting Guests Successfully

the key to hosting guests successfully

The truth is that hosting guests or volunteers come with some challenges.

But this should not deter you from giving it a try. It can be done, especially if you’re genuinely passionate about your project.

The key to successfully launching a volunteer program is to train yourself to get better at teaching others.

In other words, learn to become a better trainer at what you do. 

Armed with this skill alone, you’ll be able to transmit your knowledge to others successfully.

Just like any other business enterprise that strives for customer satisfaction, guest-hosting is no exception. 

Besides the training you offer and the lodging that goes with it, your relationship with your guests can make or break your success.

The three tips below may seem simple but can be valuable if put into practice.

  • Checking in with volunteers during regular conversations can help strengthen the spirits and minimize tension, stress, or misunderstanding in the program.
  • Take the time to identify unhappy volunteers, engage in conversation with them to understand their passion, and strive to help them explore it by sharing your experience related to what they’re going through.
  • Try to integrate a fun activity into your guest-hosting or volunteer program. It could be singing, yoga, fitness class, etc.

If you own a land-based project and are looking to monetize your project, guest-hosting can be an excellent method.


The Passion for Growing Plants and Teaching Others

Ed Bernhardt

Ed Bernhardt of the New Dawn Center was next.  Ed is Suzanna’s neighbor and, as we hear in her backstory, the gentleman that helped her find and purchase her property.  

Ed is another delightful person. When he came to Costa Rica as a young man, he began teaching ecological gardening practices to his new neighbors. 

Ed worked with the woman in the pueblo and helped to create gardening programs for the kids.

He taught organic practices to the recently misguided Costa Ricans before the word “organic” was even a thing.  

He was surrounded by people who were only a generation or two away from natural land management being the standard. 

Like most of the world, however, they had gotten looped-in by the promises of modern agriculture and its monocropping chemical-dependent standards.

Ed’s superpower is a humble passion for growing plants and teaching others how to discover and nurture their love for doing the same.  

He refers to the “back-to-the-land” movement as a silent revolution. Yet, he’s authored several books and years worth of gardening articles for the Tico Times, La Nacion, and other publications.  

He’s reached a vast number of people with this silent revolution.

Local children got the chance to work with Ed through a school gardening program. 

At lunchtime in school, the children were so excited to see their effort pay off when served with the vegetables that Ed taught them how to grow.

Fermented gardening recipes are some of the incredible goodies that Ed has to offer.

We’ve made a PDF to describe his fermented gardening recipes, like his “Kombucha for the plants” & kitchen-made insecticide.

A question that’s regularly thrown at him is, “How do we get started?” His answer has always been the same – “Get dirty!”


Do Not Overlook Waste Recycling

do not overlook waste recycling

Ed advises that we do all that we can to recycle our waste. It helps minimize the amount of waste that is sent to incinerators and landfills. 

Most of all, it helps conserve natural resources, including water, minerals, timber, forest, etc.

He suggests that we begin with composting and asks city dwellers to consider getting a compost drum. They’re space-saving and time-efficient. 

You can even add newspaper shredding into the mix. A Paper has natural properties that help it wick moisture away from decomposing organic materials. 

This helps increase moisture absorption and water retention in the process. It also speeds up the breakdown of materials.


An Incredible Ecological Advocate Wearing Many Hats

Justin Dolan's photo

Next, I visited Justin Dolan.  What a character!  

Justin is yet another one of these folks whose passion for ecological wellness and the intriguing path toward its restoration has driven him to do more and be more.  

His project, St Michael’s Permaculture Country Club, is designed to grow into a small ecovillage focusing on healthy food, natural medicine, alternative building methods, and a healthy community competition mixed in with the cooperation.


Do This Before Buying a Piece of Land

Justin advises that you do your due diligence and have your land surveyed before buying it.

If you think this will be an additional cost, you’re right. But you can negotiate the cost of surveying the land with the seller.

Another critical thing to do is a biodiversity study upon buying the land. It will help reveal what you have living on your property so you can educate yourself about it.

If you own a piece of land, it’s wise to exploit it to the fullest so it can produce enough profit to cover its maintenance and legal costs.


Games: Tools for Community Design, Unity & Cooperation

games for community design unity and cooperation

Justin believes that games are enriching elements of community design. They help bring community members together, promote healthy competition and initiate cooperation among them. 

Hatchets, throwing stars, chess, and bow & arrow are some of the games that can be introduced in a community.

The Permaculture Country club has an eighteen-hole disk-golf course as one of their attractive highlights!


Seed Collection: A Passion for Enriching the Environment

seed collection

Every time Justin finds a new plant, he tends to develop an impulse to get some seed for propagation.

What if more people did this?

It would revolutionize and restore our planet’s biodiversity & forest ecology.

We’d probably find ourselves in a much healthier society of people using food as their medicine.

While it’s good to collect seeds, the best way to keep a seed bank going is to keep them living in the ground.

It could help preserve lots of plant species and serve as a source of income if you decide to sell some.

Getting in the habit of sharing seeds is a great way to create personal, as well as regional, resilience.

Tap into the medicinal powers of plants by planting herbs to serve as a living first aid kit outside your home.

The benefit, here, starts with the very shift in mindset shift for what we include to consider medicine.


Plant-Based House: A Tool for Communal Space Enhancement

Plant your house and build it with bamboo. Besides adding to the beauty of the environment, when designed properly, bamboo has proven to be a superior building material for many uses.

Justin realized long ago that people tend to protect and contribute to beautiful communal spaces.  So design with beauty in mind!

With a few interviews in the bag, I recorded my episode 000, got everything off to the editors, and set out on a 2-week tour of the country, where I recorded another eight conversations that have now all been published.

If you’d like to get a snapshot of what that trip looked like, be sure to check out Part 2 of this 3-part adventure story. 

Of course, nothing can be better than listening to the stories, one at a time.

If there’s anything that you loved about any of the interviews, be sure to share your thoughts in the comments section!


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