Erik Ohlsen: Permaculture for a Regenerative Economy

This is the second installment of Bioneers Restorative Food Systems Director Arty Mangan’s Q&A with longtime Bioneers community member Erik Ohlsen. To learn more about Erik’s work and approach to permaculture and activism, check out the links to other posts in the series below.

What have you been up to recently?

I have been working in permaculture and activism for almost 20 years, and I find myself running two companies. One is Permaculture Artisans, a landscape contracting company which has about 20 employees. We design and build ecological landscapes all over Northern California. We also work with schools, cities, counties and resource conservation districts to develop these kinds of systems for communities.

One of the things that’s beautiful about this contracting company is it really focuses on our people, how we care for our staff and generate opportunities for people to get paid a just livelihood. That’s a core tenet of the work that we do.

What I’ve discovered in my experience with Permaculture Artisans is that we can actually create businesses that not only provide the vital and necessary services to regenerate the planet, but also create a job market to bring a diverse set of people into a healthy work environment, a safe work environment, where they can get paid fairly, where they can get trained in how to regenerate ecological landscapes, and really be in a place of community.

We’ve been operating this organization for the past 10 years and I’ve had some amazing discoveries, like our ability to plant trees and harvest water, which has been much more potent through our business model than in the nonprofit sector where I worked for many years prior to starting my business. While I love what a lot of amazing nonprofits are doing on the planet, I’m also concerned that building a regenerative movement solely on nonprofit organizations is inherently unsustainable because there’s so much effort to fundraise and get donations and such. The financial stability seems tenuous.

So creating a business model that has a clear fee-for-service type structure where it can generate its own financial stability while regenerating the planet has been an amazing experience in seeing what’s possible. We’ve been able to plant more trees, harvest more water, build more soil, hire more people and give them a living wage than in any nonprofit organization I worked with in the past.

That was such an exciting model that we decided to launch our new company, the Permaculture Skill Center. It is a vocational training hub that focuses on advanced-level training for people who want to create careers in regenerative design, landscaping, community organizing, farming, and related industries and businesses.

Part of what I’ve noticed over the years is that, especially youth and a lot of folks coming out of permaculture design courses, or people who go through natural resource management programs at universities, they’re passionate and they’re committed, but they can’t find a job anywhere where they can implement their passion and commitment. I have noticed that a lot of folks who are getting into this work are doing it as a hobby and then having to wait tables or work office jobs or whatever they can get to pay for their rent and put food on the table.

We saw that there was something missing in the education structure for permaculture and regenerative agriculture, and that was real, advanced career training, and not only training people in the how-to, for instance, how to install and design a rainwater harvesting system. People are actually putting the parts together, placing the tank and plumbing it, and hooking up the distribution system and such. That kind of education is important and necessary.

We created the Permaculture Skill Center specifically for those individuals who want advanced training to develop career paths in these fields, and have business and personal development mentorship so that they can work on whatever personal obstacles they have to being successful and learn the organizational needs, structures, and operations to be successful in starting their own endeavors.

I believe that we live on a planet that is so quickly degenerating, and we have so many millions of acres of landscape that have been destroyed, and so many billions of people who live in poverty, the work we should be doing to pay for our own basic needs, to pay for our rent, or mortgage, or car, or our food, or to send our kids to school could be in the regenerative economy. That work could be healing the planet, supporting communities, bringing people together. If everyone who works a 40-hour week were actively on a career path that had these regenerative qualities, I think we would see a rapid transformation of our economy.

The Permaculture Skill Center is creating a family of businesses that of go back to the John Todd model that I originally got inspired by at the Bioneers conference; not only does the family of businesses support each other, but we’re creating more and more career pathways for people to enter into the regenerative economy that we’re building.

Read the Full Series with Permaculturist Erik Ohlsen


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