Erik Cullen is a Junior in the Sustainable Food and Farming Program at UMass. A seasoned veteran of UMass Permaculture, his involvement began in 2013, acting as a Permaculture Committee member before it was dissolved. In the summer of 2014, Erik worked on the paid UMass Permaculture Garden Crew. Erik continued on as a Garden Crew member in the Fall 2014 Semester Permaculture Practicum. The Sustainability Team of Auxiliary Services welcomed him aboard in February 2015 as one of two Student Garden Coordinators for the 5 permaculture gardens currently flourishing on campus.
What drew you to the UMass Permaculture Initiative? Why did you initially get involved?
"During my Freshman year at UMass, I went to a Geoff Lawton presentation that really got me interested in the subject. At that time, I wasn’t familiar with the practice in a cultural sense, but it was really cool to see restoration ecology through permaculture right on my own campus. After the presentation, I talked to a tabler for UMass Permaculture, sent in an application to be on the committee, and was accepted. The rest is history."
Is sustainable agriculture something you have been interested in for your whole life?
"I grew up in Western Mass, in a fairly rural setting. My entire life, I was always gardening and there was this delicious bounty of food accessible to me. I really took that for granted until I went out west while serving in the AmeriCorps before i came to UMass. Living and working on small amounts of money showed me how useful the knowledge of producing and preparing your own food is. Discovering resilience from producing your own food is something that is so lacking in America. In turn, people are subjected to a terrible agricultural experience, and ultimately a terrible food experience. Not only is this difficult, but it’s half as fulfilling as food should be. I want to be a part of that solution; I’ve been so fortunate to be comfortable as I am. If I have any capacity to share this information with others, it would be selfish not to."
Why is teaching others about sustainable food systems so important to you?
"Sustainable agriculture exists as a duality between beneficial practices on a personal and social level. It simultaneously fosters more viable ways for us to exist, which is truly necessary for our society as a whole. I’m glad I’m looking into a field that is both vital and imminently necessary."
So with such an abundance of practices in the realm of sustainable agriculture, why permaculture specifically?
"I wound up involved in permaculture because it is what was accessible. I stayed because the collective indigenous values underneath it make it worthwhile. I still have questions about permaculture, which I think is a good and healthy; you should never be so sure of something that it blinds you. That being said, as a system of design, permaculture presents a lot of opportunities and values, something I get to explore extensively with this position."
"Discovering resilience from producing your own food is something that is so lacking in America. In turn, people are subjected to a terrible agricultural experience, and ultimately a terrible food experience. Not only is this difficult, but it’s half as fulfilling as food should be. I want to be a part of that solution; I’ve been so fortunate to be comfortable as I am. If I have any capacity to share this information with others, it would be selfish not to."
What is your favorite part of your job as a Student Garden Coordinator?
"Essentially putting theory into practice. The opportunity to step aside from theoretical learning and focus on physical work and fostering growth is magical. Doing something with your hands and feeling that connection with the area you’re in is priceless."
What advice would you give someone who is just getting involved in permaculture?
"Don’t get too hung up on buzzwords or key terms and look at resources as resources. Formulate your own knowledge through trial and error of your own experience."
Any post-grad plans?
"Well, depending on my student debt load at that point (laughs), I might go back to wildland firefighting through AmeriCorps."
In his spare time, Erik enjoys reading, playing the banjo, camping, and hiking. He recommends The Phantom Tollbooth or Ishmael if you’re looking for a good book this summer.
Entries are submitted by project staff and UMass students.