By Sue Wasserman
Peeking into Meredith Leigh’s email inbox is not for the faint of heart. On a daily basis, it’s brimming with questions and comments from people around the world concerning countless topics ranging from soldier flies and biochar production to food fermentation and no-till farming.
While she sometimes feels overwhelmed, Leigh couldn’t be happier knowing that Living Web Farms is accomplishing its mission of providing food to the hungry (the farm donated approximately 16,000 pounds of food last year) and pathways to the future through classes in farming, food preparation and the creation of alternative energy sources.
Living Web Farms, which functions on several parcels of land in Mills River, is one of many farms and agri-businesses in the region focused on providing practical education and inspiration to help individuals understand how to tend both the land and themselves. “So many people are feeling powerless in the world,” Leigh says. “They don’t feel healthy. When they see what organizations like ours offer, they become feverish to get as much usable technical information as they can.”
Builders-to-be, for example, can hone their skills at the Women’s Basic Carpentry Class or Tiny House and Natural Building Intensive classes taught at Weaverville-based Wild Abundance. Founder Natalie Bogwalker, who built her own timber home on the organization’s grounds, waxes philosophical about the diverse classes she offers such as humane slaughtering and butchering and hide tanning.
“I want my programs to demonstrate what living in an earth-centered way looks like and how that can influence the decisions individuals make,” she says. Permaculture Design for Land Stewards, a five-day intensive geared towards landowners who want to better understand how to design their property, is one such program that helps individuals make a direct impact on their quality of life and the health of their surrounding environment.
Like Wild Abundance, Black Mountain-based School of Integrated Living (SOIL) also offers a permaculture certification program. The program is taught on the grounds of Earthaven Ecovillage, a 330-acre intentional community dedicated to learning and demonstrating ecologically responsible forestry, agriculture and living.
“Our flagship program is a three-month residential intensive offered here in conjunction with the Ashevillage Institute,” says Earthaven resident and SOIL instructor Zev Friedman. The permaculture design certification curriculum is offered on its own but can also be incorporated into the larger program.
“Earthaven is a great living laboratory,” he says. “The program culminates with small groups working to design for sites we’ve chosen within the community. A nine-month distance mentorship follows.”
A personal vision process helps participants focus on how they want to apply what they’ve learned to their daily lives. “The process is a transformative one,” Friedman says. “We’re intent on creating change agents in the world.”
Never Too Early to Learn
Of course, it’s never too early to transform lives and instill a healthy understanding of our natural environment. Cedar Mountain-based Green River Preserve, which offers a summer camp as well as outdoor learning opportunities for students throughout the year, is focused on using nature as the classroom. One of its signature programs, Kids Agriculture Learning Experience (KALE), takes place at the nonprofit’s nearby farm.
“Over the course of the halfday, we talk about producers, consumers and decomposers as we explore the five learning centers we’ve created,” says farm manager Rachel Meriwether. “One of the activities my husband Phil and I involve them in is planting strawberries and digging and eating carrots.”
Meriwether loves when kids tell her they didn’t know freshly dug carrots tasted so sweet. “It’s exciting to see their faces as they explore in the stream, meet the farm animals, get their hands dirty,” she adds. “Our goal is to expand their ideas of what farming is, help them understand how a farm impacts the ecosystem and how they can make choices that have a positive impact on the environment.”
While KALE offers a taste of environmental learning, The Outdoor Academy, located in Pisgah Forest, provides a residential semester school for sophomores and select freshman and juniors. “Our environmental education curriculum is informed by the intuition that the environment may well be the biggest issue confronting our students’ generation,” says Roger Herbert, Outdoor Academy director. “We empower our students to find their place in the world, create practical and sustainable solutions, and effect positive change.”
Through wilderness trips, students develop technical skills, practice leadership and learn teamwork, and gain a sense of responsibility for sustaining our unique Blue Ridge Mountain environment. By helping produce the seasonal fruits and vegetables they eat, students learn about the art and science of horticulture and gain a better appreciation of how food gets to their plates. In creating a close-knit residential community, students learn to live well together and be their best selves.
Since change is a constant, participants can count on seeing all of these existing offerings shift and new learning opportunities being added. Friedman puts it best. “The programs evolve as we evolve.”
Choose Your Learning Experience
Living Web Farms
176 Kimzey Road, Mills River
School of Integrated Living
72 Sanford Way, Weaverville
For Children and Young Adults
Green River Preserve KALE Program
301 Green River Road, Cedar Mountain
The Outdoor Academy
43 Hart Road, Pisgah Forest
Sue Wasserman has written for The New York Times, Southern Living and Our State, among other publications. She is the author of two books: Walk with Me and A Moment’s Notice, which combine her nature photography and uplifting messages gleaned from her adventures.