Alumni Spotlight: Eric Toensmeier (’83)
Eric Toensmeier (‘83) describes himself as a “plant geek.” But really, he’s an accomplished permaculturist, an expert in approaches to sustainable agriculture inspired by natural ecosystems. He’s also a policy advocate, award-winning author, international trainer, former appointed lecturer at Yale, and former Senior Biosequestration Fellow with Project Drawdown (an organization with the goal of reaching “drawdown” – the point in time when the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere starts to decline). Among other things, Eric has managed an urban farm project, run a seed company, and co-developed a farm business training curriculum that is now used all around the US and Canada. Eric’s most recent book is The Carbon Farming Solution. “This last decade I’ve been working on agriculture’s potential to fight climate change on an international level,” Eric said in summary.
It all started when Eric was a student at PMFS. Eric credits an extended field trip to the Schuylkill Center for Education in Roxborough with awakening his love for the natural world. “It was great to be outside and in nature,” he recalled. “They had you do this thing […called] the ‘magic spot.’ You would sit quietly every day for five days in the same spot for fifteen minutes. Then you would draw or write about what you were observing.” Eric said the Quaker values he learned at PMFS and as a member of Plymouth Monthly Meeting about being still, present, and mindful continue to be important to him and to his work. “I don’t attend [anymore], but I am quiet sometimes,” he laughed.
After graduating from PMFS, Eric attended GFS, spent a year working at the Schuylkill Center, then went to Hampshire College and Goddard College where he created his own major, “Permaculture and Social Ecology.” In 2004, he and a friend turned a tenth-of-an-acre lot near his home in Holyoke, Massachusetts into an “edible garden oasis.” The garden features over two hundred types of edible plants, all working together to enrich their own soil, control their own pests, and keep weeds down, as they would in a natural ecosystem. Eric and his nine-year-old son Daniel now enjoy fruit from the lot for eleven months out of the year. “We’ve been eating citrus out of the greenhouse all winter long. Our garden is something we’re really proud of,” Eric said. The garden is the subject of Eric’s third book, Paradise Lot.
With the pandemic putting his international lecture tours on hold, Eric has been able to focus on his writing and continues to teach, just virtually. One current project is a manual about cultivating trees with edible leaves “which, it turns out, are among the most nutritious vegetables in the world and are easy to grow.” Interested? Eric says that linden trees, which grow in the Philadelphia area, have tender young leaves that are good in soups or on sandwiches. Though be warned – some people find them slimy!
When asked if he has advice for current PMFS students interested in plants, Eric emphasized how much work there is to be done in his field by the next generation. Fifth and Sixth Graders at PMFS study farming and sustainability as part of their curriculum, so we might be growing the next “plant geek” right now! Eric also advises students to “Take Spanish seriously. It can really help you in life.” The start he got with Spanish at PMFS has helped him collaborate on perennial food projects with people all over Latin America, from Mexican agronomists to Mayan villagers. Not to mention, his wife Marikler was Guatemalan.
And to the rest of us concerned about global warming, Eric believes that investment in agroforestry systems, meaning growing trees alongside other crops, is “one of the best things we can do for climate change.” Although nearly a quarter of human emissions come from food production, agriculture “has great potential to fight climate change, too, if it’s done right.” And that has been Eric’s life’s work. You can see a full list of his books and read about his other projects at perennialsolutions.org.