Growing Concern

In a season of uncertainty, more seek help in cultivating their gardens

Brandon Greenstein will be your answer man.
Photo by Luke Van Hine

“Just a suburban guy from New England,” is how Brandon Greenstein introduces himself. But that joking exterior belies his deep dedication to permaculture, which he describes as “a regenerative and sustainable form of agriculture … using the least amount of energy for the most gain.” (The term also embodies elements of social and economic design, with the idea of “creating beauty and abundance.”)

Greenstein, the Sustainability Consulting Director at the Organic Growers School, laments not having generations of knowledge on which to draw. But he focuses on working individually with area growers and homeowners to pass on his own hard-won knowledge and curiosity. From installing a trellis or planting a home garden, to managing livestock, starting a business, or building a home, if it involves living on and using the land, Greenstein would like to help. 

In the last half year, when many locals have turned their focus to growing both flowers and food, and to cultivating a closer relationship with their land, Greenstein’s services have expanded in significant ways.

Brandon Greenstein of Organic Growers School offers guidance to a range of growers, from backyard garderners to small farmers.
Photo by Luke Van Hine

The school itself has grown so much…

Organic Growers School started in 1993 as a mountain sustainable agriculture networking organization. It was like, “Hey, let’s all get together and share ideas.” Quickly it went from farmers to home growers and consumers. We’re not a physical school with a campus — instead we do administration, teaching, and events, like our spring conference. We also hold yearlong farmer trainings, as well as shorter classes throughout the year. In 2016, OGS started the one-on-one coaching and consulting. If someone’s got a project underway and they need help, we can offer that, or we can give advice and direction before they begin. 

How did you come to work there?

I came to the area in 1998 and started to learn about and practice permaculture. I also have done a lot of work in the trades, like building, plumbing, and electrical, including alternative off-grid systems. So I bring that knowledge to pass on as well. I have a B.S. in natural-resource management and have spent a lot of my adult life immersed in permaculture. … I never claim to be the guy with all the answers, though I do have a lifetime of experiments to draw on.

Who are your usual clients in town, and has that changed this spring?

Everyone from small farmers to backyard gardeners — we can help everyone. I don’t do installation much anymore, but we can talk about landscaping, as well as systems, fences, animals, and so on. Sometimes I have certain things to offer a farmer, but they often know way more about other things. 

I particularly love to work with people who have some amount of understanding of how we got to this point [environmentally], and who are interested in organic and natural methods. Usually we start with a 15- to 30-minute phone discussion and I give them some information, advice, or contacts. If it seems like a fit, they then complete an online component that offers significant self-inquiry and [that] can be the beginning of a holistic or business plan. At that point, I come out and do a site visit. Those usually last 1-3 hours. [The initial phone call is free; after service selection, a plan is implemented, with cost based on a sliding scale.] 

This spring, I’d say we had an average number of phone calls, but fewer translated into onsite visits. … [Some] people still want me to come and look at what they’re doing. I love talking to them — they’re all excited about something. I’ve talked through ideas with a lot of people. That’s a big part of what we do.

Have you seen any new concerns from your clients this season? 

Yes, definitely. People are trying to expand their gardens. They’re really thinking about long-term sustainability and how they can create a small income or just more self-reliance. So I wouldn’t say it’s that different, but it’s elevated and there’s urgency.

Do you think this year has offered any lessons in sustainability for you?

I think we have been forced to really think about how we respect one another and where our most precious resources — the things that sustain our lives — come from. I hope that we can realize that there are still ways to connect in this scary and isolating time and that we can still learn from one another, outdoors and at a safe distance.

Connecting is a huge part of my work. The education is lifelong. You can’t just sit someone down and say, “This is how you build your sustainable self-sufficient life.” It’s a process. If we teach people how to think about things in more sustainable ways — re-using materials that would be thrown away, or connecting with neighbors — then that’s success.

The Organic Growers School is moving its summer and fall workshops and conferences online for 2020. For more information about programs and about consulting and coaching services, see organicgrowersschool.org.