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Haverford College

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Ethan Roland ’04 is not particularly fond of the word “sustainable” when discussing environmental matters. “It isn’t enough,” he says, “for us to simply sustain what we have now.”

That’s why the concept of permaculture design—the foundation for his current business venture, AppleSeed Permaculture ( –appeals to him. He describes permaculture as a holistic design system that incorporates such elements of traditional sustainability as organic agriculture, renewable energy, green architecture, and alternative waste management. “Permaculture teaches humans to live harmoniously with natural systems, and it is applicable on any scale: an apartment in Brooklyn, my mother’s five acres in upstate New York, or the entire Mississippi River Valley,” says Roland. “Permaculture has three clear design objectives: Stop our destructive habits of consumption, preserve any natural ecosystems that remain intact, and combine all the disciplines of sustainability to regenerate the land we have already damaged.”

Roland first encountered permaculture more than a year ago in New Zealand, during a year of international travel studying the genetic diversity of apples (made possible by his Watson Fellowship). At the EcoShow conference in New Zealand, he saw several presentations on permaculture design with Geoff and Nadia Lawton of the Permaculture Research Institute. “Permaculture courses not only teach you how to design, but also how to teach others,” says Roland. “Geoff [Lawton] said what makes him happiest is if every one of his students becomes a better teacher and a better designer than he is—in this way permaculture can be taught by anyone to anyone and spread quickly around the globe.”

Back in the United States in November of 2005, Roland took a Permaculture Design Certification course at the Epworth Permaculture Education and Demonstration Center in High Falls, N.Y. This, he’s quick to note, was just one of innumerable design courses that are taught on a daily basis worldwide. “It’s available to anyone,” he says. “People in places like Macedonia or Rwanda who might not have had access to six or ten years of schooling can take a Permaculture Design Certification course and work towards a diploma of permaculture design. It’s now accepted as starting credit at some foreign universities.”

After his two-week stint at Epworth, Roland received his own license to design and teach, and established AppleSeed Permaculture in his home town of Nassau, N.Y. As he built his client list throughout upstate New York and New England, his initial projects concentrated mainly on residential designs—gardens, orchards and the like—with an eye towards whole ecological systems: “Solar panels not only produce electricity, but also harvest rainwater, which irrigates the garden, which nourishes the people, who care for the tree crops that produce fruit, and act as a windbreak, and are used for timber to fix the roof that holds the solar panels, and so on.” Research is a heavy component of his work. “Fortunately, being a biology major at Haverford encouraged my academic mindset

Presently, AppleSeed is helping to design a fruit/berry/nut CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm in Hollis, N.H. A CSA is a cultural model in which people within a community buy shares of a farm together and collaborate on its upkeep. “These farms are usually annual vegetable-based,” says Roland, “but this design focuses on the long-term yields of perennial tree crops.” He’s using the ideas of edible forest gardening, in which every element is designed to be edible, medicinal, or useful to the ecosystem in some way.

AppleSeed (of which Roland is sole proprietor) is also designing edible forest gardens at a small-scale production farm in Massachusetts—near Roland’s current home in Northampton—as well as a Friends elementary school in Connecticut whose curriculum will be integrated with environmental science and ecological awareness. “What I do is similar in some ways to landscape architecture,” he says, “except it comes from a holistic perspective, integrating food and energy production into the design of human landscapes.”

Independent of AppleSeed, Roland is to helping launch two nonprofit organizations. One focuses on “permaculture across borders” and seeks funding to implement permaculture design around the word, and create educational demonstration centers that will become self-funding over time. The second organization involves research on edible forest gardens: “We need to develop a deeper understanding of the ecology of edible plants, and learn how to mimic the structure and function of natural ecosystems.” (For more information on either of these nonprofits, contact

Ultimately, says Roland, permaculture can be invaluable in reducing poverty and warfare, particularly in developing countries. “When people can provide their basic needs for themselves, and don’t have to rely on the government or anyone except themselves and their families, they get back in touch with their communities,” he explains. “Where is poverty in a place where people can provide their own food, water, and energy? When everyone finds themselves empowered to support their communities, the need for conflict is radically reduced.”

Roland, himself, is ecstatic to be making his livelihood in an area that “brings my ideals together with direct action for positive change.” He stresses the fact that permaculture is something in which anyone, anywhere, at any time can get involved: “If you have the passion and the will, it can happen.”


— Brenna McBride

Prof. Anita Isaacs (Political Science) and students cross Founders Green after class.

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