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Strawbale Greenhouses and Permaculture Design Helps Revitalize Ohio

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Volunteers apply earthen plasters to a strawbale walk-in cooler built at the George Jones Farm in Oberlin which is cooled with a window air conditioner.

How do we begin to make sense of increasingly extreme and bizarre weather events, a global economy that grows more unstable by the day and boarded-up grocery stores in urban neighborhoods. Are these isolated events or symptoms of a common set of problems?

Initially, they appear different, each warranting their own policy responses. We deal with climate change through international treaties, unstable global markets through tax-payer transfers to stabilize financial institutions and food access through transfers of government subsidized food.

In all cases, most communities are waiting for elected officials to take care of these problems. But, instead of waiting, are there ways communities can empower themselves? International agreements and appropriate federal policies are important, but actions and opportunities at the grassroots level also need to take place by accessing the intelligence and creativity embedded within the diverse communities that make up our region.

Permaculture design provides one powerful framework for finding solutions through the intentional redesign of the places we live. Permaculture originated in 1978 through the work of Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. It stands for permanent agriculture or permanent culture.

Permaculture represents a contrast to the industrialized systems that gained prominence at the turn of the 21st century. Industrialized systems rely on cheap concentrations of fossil-based energy and the large-scale extraction and movement of materials across the globe. The longer-term impacts of early industrialization include a warmed climate, mobility of capital out of communities and inequitable distributions of output.

Permaculture involves the creation of “regenerative” systems that produce their own value without degrading the natural systems that underlie our economy and civilization. Permaculture uses observations from nature to conceive of more productive, complex and diverse patterns of human settlement that, like natural systems, run to a large extent on sunlight.

A permaculture response to climate change, shrinking capital and boarded up storefronts would involve redesigning the patterns of urban and rural settlements to better use the available assets. This process requires a new spirit of grassroots engagement and social invention. During the summer and fall of 2009, the New Agrarian Center, a nonprofit organization that connects grassroots communities in an effort to grow a healthy local food system, will be organizing a permaculture design certification program aimed at teaching basic principles of permaculture design and applying them to current issues facing our urban and rural communities. The two week intensive workshop will take place in Oberlin and Cleveland, showing the applications of applied ecological design on the revitalization of our urban and rural communities.

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Participants install a compost pile in a production greenhouse during a permaculture design course at the George Jones Farm in Oberlin in January 2008.

One of the inventions that will be applied throughout the course involves construction of strawbale greenhouses used to efficiently extend the growing season in Northeast Ohio. These structures utilize strawbales (an abundant by-product of wheat straw production) and earthen plasters (clay and sand deposits abundant in our soils) to create highly productive growing spaces. These spaces, in turn, can be heated through a combination of renewable energy systems, including fuel cells and earthen mass ovens. The strawbale end-walls are located along the north, east and west walls with the south facing wall covered with poly-carbonate sheeting to allow the sunlight in.

These structures create a 12-month growing space that utilizes non fossil fuel-based systems of energy and high standards of green design. Our plan is to start small and scale up by building two prototypes that are suited for urban gardens. This fall, we will construct a commercial-scale greenhouse at the George Jones Farm and Nature Preserve in Oberlin.

These greenhouses hark back to Northeast Ohio’s recent history of having more agricultural production under glass than any other region nationally. Three things conspired to virtually eliminate this industry in the late 1970s—the increased price of energy and pollution costs, and cheap food imports flooding the markets. Strawbale greenhouses reduce energy, have no pollution and make direct connections to local markets. In addition, the construction process for these greenhouses builds community, engages youth and encourages community art.

And just think, if every neighborhood had its own strawbale greenhouse surrounded by permaculture landscapes, we could counter the larger trends that are causing such acrimony. We would sequester carbon, build wealth in our communities and replace boarded up storefronts with abundant food grown right in our cities or on farms in the surrounding countryside.

For more information, contact Brad Masi at the New Agrarian Center at 440-935-3106 or Visit for a complete listing of summer classes and workshops.


2062 Murray Hill . Cleveland, OH 44106 . 216-387-1609