Project Partner Spotlight: Ecovillage Center for Sustainability Education

Ecovillage at Ithaca residential neighborhoodMost people are aware that in the United States, we use about twenty percent of the world’s energy resources even though we are only five percent of the world’s population[1]. Our energy use is soaring and a heavy contributor to climate change; our agricultural practices include factory farms, copious amounts of pesticides, and genetically modified foods that are largely untested for potential health risks and contribute to soil erosion and other environmental issues[2]. Furthermore, many attempts to systemically change how we use energy, heat our homes, grow our food and access more environmentally responsible products and services has largely benefited the already privileged class—it’s mostly white, middle and upper class people who purchase organic food, for example, or install solar panels on their homes[3].

The EcoVillage at Ithaca Center for Sustainability Education (EVI-CSE), a CTA Project, is trying to change that with a number of programs and initiatives that range from creating affordable sustainable housing to training future farmers.  The Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farms, part of EVI-CSE, works hard to engage marginalized and disenfranchised populations in their farmer training programs and to help low-income people get started running their own farms. 

EVI-CSE, in collaboration with the Tompkins County Planning Department, received an EPA Climate Showcase Grant to evaluate the lessons learned from developing EcoVillage at Ithaca over the last twenty years. The 3-year grant is enabling EVI-CSE to study the impacts and future potential of three main projects: TREE, which will be EcoVillage at Ithaca’s third residential neighborhood, and will include low-income housing and passive solar heating; the Aurora Pocket Neighborhood, which is a smaller co-housing development in downtown Ithaca; and a housing development on county land near the hospital that will likely be seventy-two densely clustered homes, with shared alternative energy use and lots of green space. This last development will be a mixed-income neighborhood with easy access to public transportation.

“We’re essentially taking all the lessons learned from our twenty-year history of EcoVillage at Ithaca and trying to show how we can mainstream the process,” says Liz Walker, co-founder of EcoVillage and Executive Director of EVI-CSE. “We want to overcome some of the barriers [we experienced] to developing this kind of mixed residential community. We’re actually one of the few places in the country that is looking at new residential development that is affordable and ultra green.” 

Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farms, whose mission is to “engage diverse learners and empower them with skills, knowledge and access to resources so they can build sustainable land-based livelihoods and equitable local food systems,” provides a number of programs and trainings that offer hands-on, experiential learning of sustainable farming practices. Finger Lakes CRAFT get together

Now in its third year, Groundswell’s New Farmer Training programs are about to kick-off in April with the Sustainable Farming Certificate Program. “This course is a response to the needs of disadvantaged, aspiring farmers,” explains Rachel Firak, Groundswell’s assistant Program Manager. “Students stay with the program through an entire farming season. The ‘classes’ take place on local farms, and after 100 hours we give students a certificate in sustainable farming.” Thanks to a 3-year grant from the USDA, they are able to serve people who may not be able to participate in similar programs, and in fact, they’ve had students from as far away as Arizona participate in their programs, although most people come from the Northeast region.

Groundswell also coordinates the Finger Lakes CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training), an informal training and support network led by experienced mentor farms. The CRAFT is building community among beginning and established farmers, through monthly gatherings where members get together on a different small, sustainable farm for an in-depth farm tour and potluck lunch.

The Summer Practicum in Sustainable Farming and Food Justice is geared toward college students from the area’s three main campuses, Cornell, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3). It’s a five-week sumGroundswell's Summer Practicum studentsmer intensive offering 6 academic credits through TC3, and combining hands-on farming experience with lectures, readings, discussion and field trips. A team of instructors pulls all elements of the food system together to view it through the lens of social justice and sustainability.

Perhaps one of the most exciting programs, which hasn’t officially started yet but will be soon, is the Groundswell Farm Enterprise Incubator. “This idea is based on the community garden idea, but with much larger plots for beginning producers who don’t have their own land,” Groundswell staff member Rachel Firak explains. EcoVillage at Ithaca has set aside ten acres of its agricultural land for the incubator project and organizers are using a permaculture design process to assess both the site and its potential users. Once that’s done, aspiring farmers will be able to apply to use the land for their farming ventures. The idea is that they’ll have the opportunity to gain production, marketing and management experience with a lot of support and minimum risk. Once they have established a successful enterprise, it will be easier to apply for financing, which could help them purchase their own farm.

“What really links all of this is community,” Walker says. “A strong sense of community builds over time. We’re spreading the methods but the community makes the difference.” Firak adds to that, “Building these types of community isn’t just helpful; it’s crucial.”

For more information on Ecovillage at Ithaca and Groundswell, please see the Project Partner page for EVI-CSE.

For more information on Groundswell's classes, and to sign up for the upcoming spring New Farmer Training or other programs, visit the Groundswell website.

[2] (see resources at bottom of article for more detailed studies of environmental issues as a result of agricultural practices).

[3] (This blog post details how the mainstream media portrays the sustainable food movement and food justice issues. In the comments posted, there are links to many organizations led by people of color and low-income people working in the food justice movement.)