Today we're hearing from Neal. Many of you who have been to the farm in the past several years know Neal from his role as Volunteer Manager and Permaculture Course Facilitator, but you may not know that recently he and his partners have founded their own Permaculture-based homestead and regenerative design consultation firm, Abundant Edge. Below, Neal reflects on what Permaculture has meant to him and how it continues to influence him
Atitlan Organics: Please tell us a little about yourself and your permaculture inspired project
Neal: Well, although I come from a family of dairy farmers in Ireland and minored in agricultural science in college, I actually started out working as a project manager for a water purification company. I came to Central America first in 2009 to work for an NGO on a project in highland Guatemala. It was an eye opening experience for me, and I became very upset at the state the world is in, and my own part in it. I decided that I didn’t want to work for big companies or NGOs anymore after that, and so I went back to Ireland and started my own enterprise doing gardens for people who wanted to grow food. During this time I took several courses in organic agriculture, and heard about Permaculture for the first time. In 2013, I got the chance to do a masters in the Kimmage Development Studies Centre. It was a great experience, and I started to really dive deep into reading and studying Permaculture and Agroecology. When it came time to pick a topic for my masters, I decided to come back to Guatemala, the country that had first really opened my eyes, to study the relationship between the indigenous food production systems of the Mayan peoples and Permaculture. I wrote the thesis over the course of a year, while I stayed and worked in IMAP (Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute). While I was there, I spent a lot of my time farming and gardening with local people and also traveling to meet indigenous communities, who still used ancestral farming techniques, or whom had been capacitated in permaculture. It was a very valuable experience, and one that left me in no doubt that I wanted to dedicate my life to working in Permaculture and continuing to learn. During my time in IMAP, I took the PDC run by Atitlan Organics and IMAP. Shad and I became friends and I eventually came to work for him at his amazing farm. After a while he invited me to start teaching with him, which was a huge honor. While working for Shad, I met Oliver Goshey and Jeremy Fellows, fellow Permaculture and natural building enthusiasts, we started collaborating together under the company of the Abundant Edge, and eventually bought land together where we are building a Permaculture home and small farm. As well as teaching Permaculture and natural building, we also work as a design and consultancy company: we use Permaculture design methodologies and combine our skills to help our clients set up healthy abundant systems on their land or in their projects.
AO: What excites you most about the work you do?
Neal: So much of what we do excites me, it would be difficult to pick one thing. Building our own home and farm is a dream come true for me; working as a designer and a consultant on other projects, so that my clients can switch to living more sustainably is also amazing; but I guess what excites me most is the educational aspect of what we do. Between Abundant Edge and Atitlan Organics, I feel we have a really diverse team of facilitators, all of whom feel passionate about what they do. Students, volunteers, interns and local kids can come here and learn in a few months what it took me years to figure out, and that's because each member of our team has put so much effort into distilling down their experience and knowledge. We have a young kid from the local community working with us as an intern at the moment, it's amazing to see his progress. He took our Intro to Permaculture Course as part of the scholarship program started by Atitlan Organics, and has been with us ever since. It's great to see his progress and enthusiasm. This is really important to me, because I really believe in permaculture as a movement, and I also believe that the next generations will have major problems to solve, but having this foundation in Permaculture design and natural building to build on is a great start.
AO: How do the ideas of Permaculture live in your life and your enterprise?
Neal: Well, that's the thing about Permaculture: once you get into it, it changes the way you think about everything. I’m big into energy flows, not just capturing and storing energy, but also understanding symbiosis. That is to say, in both my personal life and my business, I look for symbiotic relationships. I try to put my energy into things that will continue to grow and return the energy in different forms, that goes for whether I’m planting a tree or nurturing a friendship. I like to think our business model is a good example of this; my specialization is in farming and food production, Oliver specializes in natural building, while Jeremy is an really into botany, horticulture and landscaping and my partner Adriana is a tropical ecologist and artist. We work together to come up with designs and solutions that are far more sophisticated than what any of us could achieve on our own. Our relationship with Atitlan Organics is similarity symbiotic and we are lucky to live in a place which is full of inspiring people and projects, and where symbiosis through collaboration is really possible.
AO: What is your connection to Atitlan Organics?
Neal: My time at Atitlan Organics was amazing. Working for Shad on his farm as Volunteer Manager, and seeing the way he applied the permaculture principles to make his farm so abundant, was great for me. I also studied under Shad when I took my PDC and then worked as a translator on a number of subsequent courses. His passion for education is really infectious! He taught me a lot not just about permaculture, but also how to teach it, how to transmit the ideas and how to create a safe space which is conducive to learning.
AO: What advice would you give to someone who is dreaming of starting their own sustainable enterprise or project?
Neal: Well first of all I would say congratulations, getting into a life in permaculture on a full time basis is one of the most rewarding and interesting things you can do with your life. I am also really excited about the new course Advanced Permaculture Course which we are giving in November and which is geared towards people looking to get into doing permaculture professionally . The course is intended for people who already have some knowledge and experience, but who are ready to commit to making a career in permaculture. We have teamed up with two of the best regenerative/permaculture farms on the continent to teach a course for aspiring farmers and design professionals.
Aside from that I would say just go for it, learn the ropes from people you respect and are inspired by, learn a bit of everything, and eventually you will find your niche in what excites you most. Most importantly is to not be put off. There are so many opportunities out there, and so much information on how to solve the problems we are faced with!
Thanks Neal! We're happy for you and your partners at Abundant Edge (and happy for ourselves, that you're still our neighbor!)
Studying Permaculture and Natural Building in Guatemala offers amazing opportunities to learn from indigenous cultures, rich natural patterns, and enormous diversity. Permaculture in Central America is representative of the edge effect or Edge Valuing Principle of Design. As one of the world’s centres of biodiversity, Central America attracts people from all over the world interested in learning through nature. Permaculture practices and sustainable building designs can be seen in action via the surviving indigenous traditions that are common in Guatemala. Studying permaculture and natural building in Central America offers designers great opportunities to learn from diverse groups of people in incredibly diverse natural settings.