Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Permaculture Design Course at Ragmans Farm

The bunkhouse steps
September has crept up on us and here we are teaching the Permaculture Design Course at Ragmans Lane Farm. This two week residential course has evolved over the past 20 years with Patrick Whitefield (and associates) and Ragmans Farm working together to create an inspiring and informative learning experience within a beautiful environment. I've been working here with Patrick for 7 years now, and even in that time I have seen the course evolve and grow into something ever more refined and useful for the participants who attend. Our students come from all over the world and from all walks of life. I have seen an interesting change in the kinds of people who come - a change which I find very reassuring.
Ragmans Lane Farm in the Wye Valley
When I first came here as a student in 2007 we were a collection of earthy gardeners- hippy types who cared about the earth and felt connected to nature. In recent years the participants have represented a broader cross-section of society - often professionals, businesspeople, students or scientists. They too are motivated by a respect for nature and a positive way forward, which indicates that permaculture may be becoming less marginal as more of us become aware of and concerned about the environment.
A hen in the market garden
 I hope so, because my biggest motivation as a teacher is to spread the word and empower individuals and communities with the knowledge and skills they need to look after themselves and their environment. Communities are made up of every kind of person! I hope to see this trend continue and see permaculture reaching ever more diverse groups of people.
Our course text book - The Earth Care Manual by Patrick Whitefield
This course is a particularly special one for us as it will be Patrick's last. He'll be retiring from face-face teaching at the end of this PDC and we will continue his work at here at Ragmans, passing on his particular brand of permaculture design to inspire and do good in the world. I will continue as the lead teacher, and will be co-facilitating with Morwenna Lewis.  Morwenna is a facilitator of the 'people-care' aspects of permaculture. She specialises in self-awareness and self-care, group communication and community building; putting a strong focus on the importance of the emotional health of the humans in a permaculture system.
Morwenna Lewis and Matt Dunwell
 She has worked as a facilitator in the arts and sustainability fields for 15 years and runs her own small training consultancy, Carbonhalo, facilitating workshops that range from carbon management through to deep ecology. She is currently training to be an eco-psychotherapist and hopes to work with nature helping people heal from trauma.  As well as working as a facilitator and a therapist she also works as a cook for retreats and permaculture courses and teaches vegetarian cookery at Demuths Cookery School in Bath. A woman of many talents who brings great energy to the course.
low-tech surveying
I will be bringing all of the gems of wisdom and experience that Patrick has passed on to me in these last 7 years, along with my own experience in organic horticulture, smallholding, animal husbandry, permaculture and design. As always we'll be supported by Matt Dunwell, the owner and director of Ragmans Lane Farm who has a wealth of experience acquired from years of running a permaculture farm on top of a background in soil science.  Sarah Pugh is another long-standing contributor who trained with Patrick before going on to run the Bristol permaculture group and her one year permaculture 'Shift' course. Sarah brings an urban and community perspective to an otherwise land-focused course, illustrating how permaculture principles can be applied within towns and cities. This includes a day trip visiting sites around Bristol, and a day teaching here at Ragmans. We often have other contributors who can bring their particular knowledge and experience to the melee.

Wholesome course food grown at Ragmans
There are many Permaculture Design Courses available to choose from these days, and each of them has its own flavour and focus. The basic syllabus is the same on each - teaching the principles of permaculture and the particular skills required to create a permaculture design. These including site surveying, mapping, interviewing, and various very useful design methods which make it possible to create an efficient and functional design using the core principles that make permaculture distinctive. There is also space to learn more relevant subjects which are in alignment with the principles.
Helping students with their final design
 This is where teachers have the opportunity to choose exactly what to include and how to present it. It will usually include specific methods and techniques such as gardening methods and water management. There is then a good range of theory sessions to give a foundation of understanding on which to base decisions and approaches. We include basic soil science, an understanding of biodiversity, microclimates and energy.
Then there is the peoplecare aspect of permaculture. However effective your design is, it will never work without happy and harmonious people - in fact the reason for the failure of many projects and communities is a breakdown in communication and relationships between the people involved. This is why we teach an introduction to 'Non-violent Communication', an exercise in active listening and Open Space Technology (a self-organising conferencing technique for knowledge sharing). Its a rich and varied mix of tools to take you through life!
When the PDC is delivered as a two week residential course the group soon begins to feel like a community in itself, and often longstanding friendships and connections are formed between students. It always feels like a very special thing to be a part of, and although I am very sad to be doing this with Patrick for the final time, I am also very excited about the future - the people we will meet, the inspiration we can pass on and the learning that is shared between all of us.
Photographs by Jules May

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