A club that’s growing and thriving: Greenfield Community College Permaculture Club connects students dedicated to sustainability

  • GCC’s Permaculture Club was dormant during pandemic shutdowns, but new members are organizing free farmers markets, instigating gleaning projects, cultivating mushrooms, processing honey, and propagating micro greens, among other projects. At a recent campus event, they gave away hundreds of pounds of locally gleaned produce. From left, members Mike Hannigan (president), Meara Swinson (treasurer), Nicole Lamont (vice president), Quinn McCaffery, Henry Tobin-Schrems and Cyd Roy-Clark. COURTESY MEARA SWINSON

  • Quinn McCaffery, a member of GCC’s Permaculture Club, holds a giant bag of kale. Among many other projects, the club coordinates gleaning activities and gives local produce free to students and the community. At a recent event, the club gave away potatoes, turnips, carrots, cabbages, sweet potatoes, radishes, onions, herbs, and other produce.

For the Recorder
Published: 11/20/2023 3:23:37 PM
Modified: 11/20/2023 3:22:44 PM

Mike Hannigan’s grandmother lived to be over 100, and her grandson recalls many stories about her farming experiences. “Farming is in my blood,” said Hannigan, whose family has longtime ties to Hadley. Hannigan often thought about that legacy while working at the University of Massachusetts Amherst dining commons for two decades: “I saw a lot of food going to waste, including produce we received from local farmers.”

Now a first-semester student at Greenfield Community College (GCC), Hannigan, 42, is a Farm and Food Systems major. “I’ve worked on farms,” he said, “but mostly in tobacco, during summers when I was laid off from UMass. What I’m learning now is very different.” While taking a permaculture class with GCC instructor Beth Paulson, Hannigan was attracted to land management and design approaches that support natural ecosystems. The term ”permaculture” was coined in the late 1970s to describe principles related to whole-systems thinking; permaculturists apply such principles to practices and concepts like regenerative agriculture and community resilience.

Harrigan is helping to jump-start GCC’s Permaculture Club and — as club president — he does the lion’s share of organizing, according to fellow club members. The club was dormant during pandemic shutdowns, but new members are busy organizing free farmers markets, instigating gleaning projects, cultivating mushrooms, producing honey, and propagating microgreens, among other projects.

Although some local growers counsel Hannigan to avoid farming as a career, he’s avid to explore his ancestral lifestyle. “Some people think farming is too risky, given climate change and other factors,” said Harrigan. He acknowledges that — even on a good day — farming is hard work, yet he’s drawn to discover and implement solutions to challenges like food insecurity and nutritional deficiencies.

Harrigan connects with like-minded people through GCC’s sustainability programs, as well as community organizations like Stone Soup Café and Rachel’s Table. In recent weeks, club members toured Just Roots Farm in Greenfield and visited the UMass Amherst Permaculture Club, after which they wasted no time. They’ve hosted two free farmers markets on their Greenfield campus, giving away hundreds of pounds of produce gleaned from local farms. Their most recent event, Thanksgiveaway, took place last Wednesday, Nov. 15.

Gleaning is the practice of collecting leftover crops from fields following official harvests and, in some places around the world, gleaning was historically considered a legally enforced entitlement of the poor. Some modern practitioners liken gleaning to agricultural dumpster diving; it’s also referred to as food recovery, and networks have sprung up to aid food recovery organizations, with gleaning as a centerpiece of activities.

“The GCC student body is very diverse, and many people are struggling,” said Hannigan, noting the growing incidence of food insecurity. He’s hopeful, however, that by putting their heads and hearts together, students and community members can make a difference.

The Permaculture Club includes students in their teens, 20s, 30s and 40s. Nicole Lamont, 38, hadn’t been to school for 20 years when she enrolled in GCC, majoring in Farm and Food Systems. She wasn’t starting from scratch, though: “My husband and I have a three-acre micro-farmstead in Keene (New Hampshire),” Lamont said. “We’ve been at it for three years, and want to learn more about permaculture.” Lamont has worked on farms since age 15. “My first job was picking rocks,” she said. “During 10 seasons of working as a farmhand in Madbury (New Hampshire), my responsibilities increased and I learned so much.”

A few years ago, Lamont and her husband moved to her native California, but then headed back east when her husband, a plant scientist, enrolled at McGill University in Montreal, Québec, to work on his Ph.D. In 2020, they returned to his native New Hampshire — where Lamont also lived since age 11 — to realize their dream of owning land. Now, with their two young children, Luna and Odin, they grow and sell a variety of produce, including tomatoes, okra, beans, potatoes, bitter melon, garlic and medicinal herbs. They raise chickens to produce pastured eggs, and cultivate fruit and nut trees.

“Attending GCC during mothers’ hours — when my kids are in school — works very well,” said Lamont. “I wanted to connect with others following the death of a beloved farming mentor, and this program has been the perfect fit.” A lifelong cooking enthusiast, Lamont especially loves learning about four-season farming and mushroom cultivation. “I apply what I learn directly to the land; my studies have also bolstered my family’s farmstand operation. I find so much common ground with people in the Permaculture Club.” Lamont serves as the club’s vice president, and sings the praises of her colleague, Mike Hannigan. “He has so much energy and gets so much done. We’re lucky to have him.”

Another club member, Meara Swinson, emphasized the need to address all aspects of ecosystems. “We don’t exist alongside the environment,” said the 30-year-old club treasurer. “We’re part of it. It’s important to recognize that, and to go forward by doing a lot of little things, because they add up.” A fourth semester GCC student, Swinson graduates in the spring and hopes to pursue her interests in garden design, foraging, mushroom cultivation and beekeeping.

Many GCC students interviewed for this column who are enrolled in courses related to sustainability, farms, food, soil science, and environmental conservation say they find their classes, instructors, and peers to be excellent sources of information and growth. One oft-cited challenge, however, is the lack of a functional greenhouse at the college. GCC students express considerable disappointment that they’re unable to complete aspects of their disciplines because they lack access to a greenhouse on campus.

Last week, Mike Hannigan was elected to a student seat on the college board of trustees, a position he sought motivated chiefly by the greenhouse issue. Nicole Lamont said that one of her top goals as a Permaculture Club member is to try to ensure that GCC students will have access to what she considers a vital resource for those studying agricultural and horticultural disciplines.

The Permaculture Club perseveres despite challenges, and there’s a new generation on campus to help further the club’s many goals. 19-year-old Henry Tobin-Schrems loves the club’s community aspects. A Northampton High School graduate, he’s “big into gardening, being outdoors, and keeping our food dollars local.”

Tobin-Schrems is fascinated by botany, yet his attraction to science does not supplant his enthusiasm for community building. “I loved Mike’s suggestion that our club organize a free farmer’s market,” he said. “I grew up low-income, so that resonated.” He envisions a career in agriculture, “either as an academic, or out in the field … maybe managing a farm or owning a greenhouse.”

Cyd Roy-Clark, 23, an Erving native, realized that she’d taken the beauty and fresh food of western Massachusetts for granted. “I came back from Philadelphia when the pandemic happened, and I spent the entire summer in the garden with my mom.” She loves the Permaculture Club because “interacting with others while growing food is a good combo.”

All club members cite human connections as a favorite aspect of involvement. Quinn McCaffery, 20, calls the club’s work “a labor of love.” Born in Maine and raised in New Hampshire, McCaffery grew up with a big garden and tended animals. She’s excited about returning to her roots and is interested in learning to process wool, as her grandmother did.

Julian Lindop, 19, a third-semester liberal arts student, is drawn to horticulture, botany and environmental studies. “I heard about the Permaculture Club when Mike (Hannigan) mentioned it in class and was recruiting members. In fact, today is my first meeting.” Lindop’s longtime interest in agriculture stems both from his experiences while visiting family in Lima, Peru, and from working on a farm for three seasons. “It was a very large, commercial farm in Plainfield, growing only broccoli, the largest source of broccoli in New England.” Lindop said that his courses at GCC have allowed him to “unlearn commercial horticultural practices. The permaculture people here are so cool, so passionate.”

Anthony Reiber, 52, is GCC’s natural resources program coordinator; he teaches soil science, horticulture and gardening, and is the coordinator of the Farm and Food Systems program as well as the Environmental Conservation program. On top of all that, Reiber advises the Permaculture Club. He stresses that club members are “remarkably self-sufficient. I’m here if they need materials, access to funding, or help with community connections.”

In his 12th year at GCC, Reibers sees club members as “students who want to learn more than what’s offered in class. They explore lifestyle choices, build community, and prioritize social justice. I’m impressed with their initiative and how they engage with the natural world. I love their enthusiasm about bringing back old technologies and using new modalities. There’s so much happening on campus!”

Eveline MacDougall is the author of “Fiery Hope” and an artist, musician and longtime gardener. Her family has farmed for ten generations on the same piece of land in Québec.


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