Local Heroes: On The Farm with the Ecovillage Training Center

By Anne Ross

Since its inception in 1971, The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee has had a reputation for being an innovative community. Known internationally as a training center for lay midwives and as a leading contributor to the art of vegan cuisine and the creative use of soybeans, The Farm is a destination for many who want to learn more about this experiment in intentional community living.

In recent years, long-time Farm member Albert Bates has enhanced The Farm's reputation by starting the Ecovillage Training Center within the larger Farm community. Bates is an author, lawyer, and teacher and has played a major role in the Ecovillage movement as one of the organizers of the Global Ecovillage Network. In keeping with the larger network, The Farm's Ecovillage is described as a living laboratory that assists in the transition towards a sustainable society by instruction in meeting basic needs for food, shelter, energy, fuel, and community process.

Nestled into a small corner of The Farm's 1,750 acres, the training center blends naturally with the surrounding woods. The training center program encourages its visitors to learn through complete immersion in the community and offers two-month apprenticeships throughout the warmer months. Visitors stay in the Eco-hostel and are offered courses in everything from natural building and rainwater catchment to organic gardening and permaculture design. The training center aims to cover all the bases in green sustainable living, as evidenced by the course description for Shiitake Mushroom Growing Basics: Learn how to grow gourmet mushrooms, reverse climate change, save the forests, and make money doing it.

The Ecovillage greenhouse, partially built with straw bales, is a fertile incubator for a variety of seedlings, soil preparation, and compost tea brewing with a solar-powered aerator. It also houses plants that will be used for experimentation in edible landscaping. During a springtime visit, the garden is still mostly dormant, with nitrogen-fixing plants such as burdock and comfrey feeding the soil in preparation for spring planting. There's a chicken tractor sitting on one of the beds where the chickens are put from time to time to scratch and till up the soil and provide fertilizer.

Each feature of the Ecovillage contributes to the overall symbiosis, reflecting careful design. One design focus is to close resource loops so that there is minimal waste. An example of this is the center's work to divert all of the gray water (waste water generated from home activities such as laundry, dishwashing, and bathing, but not from toilets) from the living areas into its wetlands filtration system. During a tour of the grounds, Jason Deptula, the facilities manager, explains, "All the water hyacinths from our ponds take up the nutrients and nitrogen from the gray water and make really good fertilizer. We'll harvest them in the fall and they'll rot over the winter and turn into a super soil amendment by spring. It's just a natural cycle where we're extracting the leftover waste nutrients from the water we pour down the drain. The hyacinth is one we know does the job of bringing all the nutrients up into the plant. When you harvest and compost it you can put it right in the garden. It's a way to close the loop."

A highlight of the Ecovillage tour is a stop at the Green Dragon, which Jason calls Albert's masterpiece. The Green Dragon is still a work in progress and will be a community gathering place when it's finished. "The main purpose of the Green Dragon is to have a place for people to try out their building techniques," Jason explains. With an earth roof and walls made of straw bale and cob, an ancient technique using clay, straw, sand, and water, the building seems to rise organically from the earth. This work-in-progress idea is an Ecovillage theme. "The whole purpose of the training center is discovery," says Jason. "It's not a destination, but more a matter of intention--of trying to be more harmonious with the environment."

To find out more about the courses offered at the Ecovillage Training center or to experience it for yourself, visit www.thefarm.org or contact them at 931.964.4474.