Welcome to “How Permaculture Changed My Life”, our blog series featuring personal stories from past students speaking about how permaculture changed the direction of their outlooks and careers. The newest in the series is by Kaz Haykowsky, Vice President and Director of Spruce Permaculture:
It was almost exactly 2 years ago, I think. I’d been involved in the student sustainability movement at the University of Alberta, exploring vegetarianism and other lifestyle changes to make a positive impact. I wanted to do more, to feel like I was really making a difference. I remember one day stumbling across a few videos on permaculture projects in China; they were showing these hills that had been eroded by years of unsustainable agriculture being restored to almost a jungle. I remember being blown away by that. That was the first time I had heard the term permaculture. I was intrigued, but at the time it just sounded like another cool idea people around the world were doing. It seemed so remote, so I tucked it away in the back of my mind.
As time went on – and I started feeling dissatisfied with my degree in political science – I happened to have a conversation with an old friend, Marcin. It turned out he was doing his PDC and was learning about all these permaculture principles and processes right here in Edmonton. At the same time, I was thinking about switching into a degree in human geography, which felt more tangible and place-based. Marcin wanted to start a business practicing permaculture and asked if I wanted in. With all these ideas percolating in my head, I said yes and jumped in. Change the degree, change the mindset, jump on-board with this nascent company – that’s how Spruce Permaculture got started.
Marcin, our mutual friend Andy and I began throwing ideas around – what did we actually want to do? We decided the first and easiest piece we could bite off was landscaping. Spruce would be a lean startup, just to get our feet wet and get into entrepreneurship for the first time – landscaping with a permaculture spin. We talked it through, worked out the steps, and launched into action probably in late April, early May 2016. We were still students at the time, so we had to make it work with our school schedules. With very light startup costs we got working on a few properties in our community before expanding out. We’ve now done two seasons, and the projects have been getting more and more interesting, more permaculture-oriented. We’ve learned how to specialize and distinguish ourselves. We’ve forged a great relationship with Edmonton’s MacEwan University as their in-house permaculture consultants and managing their indoor growing systems (aquaponics and hydroponics) to produce food for their cafeteria and food services.
There are so many exciting parts about starting up a permaculture-based business. I’m at a point in my life where a lot of my friends are either graduating or have graduated, so they’re transitioning into their professional lives. I’ve been hearing a lot of the challenges they’re dealing with – not finding work in their field, not finding work they’re excited about, struggling with part-time or casual work while they are trying to figure out their career path.
I’m still a year out from finishing my degree, but after listening to their stories, I feel so lucky and proud to have co-created a company and to be doing something I want to do. It’s something I really love, something I think about all the time that gives me a fair bit of excitement and stress. But it’s the right kind of stress, the fun kind, because every decision I make is totally in my hands. I’m not doing this for anyone else. I’m not chasing anyone else’s goal. I’m doing it because I’m passionate about the work – whether it’s driving the landscaping truck, planting trees, laying mulch, consulting with clients, or drawing designs. It all feels really purposeful, because I’m actually doing work that I love, and every tree planted makes a difference. Creating opportunity for myself right out of the gate, right out of school – that feels awesome.
In the short term for Spruce, we’d like to expand on what we’re currently doing, which is permaculture landscaping, with more institutional clients as well as private ones to help them produce their own food and connect with their local ecosystem. Our vision as a company is to help people tackle their own food sustainability from a whole systems perspective. How are they managing their kitchen organic waste? How are they managing the water on their property? How can they offset their food costs and nutritional needs through the winter through canning, preserving, and growing things indoors?
In the long term, Marcin, Andy and I would like to get into solar panel installations, home retrofits, insulation, and whole home consultations to assist clients in building responsive permaculture feedback loops into their homes. Like I mentioned earlier, we’ve bitten off the easy part with landscaping, but that’s the general direction I’d like to take going into the future.
Beyond retrofits, we may even expand into infill housing and land development with a permaculture spin. As a student of human geography, I’m really interested in creating sustainable communities and sustainable homes through the use of permaculture principles, appropriate technologies, and traditional skills. If Spruce ever becomes a development company I’d love to tackle projects that invite people to engage with their food and energy production, and build community through social permaculture. In particular, I’d like to engage people with the “Zone 5” of permaculture, which is to bring wilderness back to our home environment. Rather than having to get in a car and drive to a national park to experience it, wilderness should be an essential element that’s within easy walking distance of one’s home.
How has permaculture changed my life? It’s definitely changed the way I look at human geography. It’s shaped the type of courses I wanted to take and the lines of exploration I’m treading. It’s affected the way I think about my diet, my impact on the planet, and how we interact with the land through food. I’m trying to find ways to support all the good work people are doing, to support good livelihoods for both animals and human workers, learning all the while to make better food choices that actually improve their welfare rather than damage it. So that’s the journey I’m on now.
As someone who’s been interested in sustainability for a long time, it’s easy to become jaded at the state of the world. Things don’t seem to get better, with news like the US pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, scientists warning us that we’re hurtling towards terrible planetary outcomes, or predictions that by 2050 there’ll be more plastic in the ocean than fish. We’re constantly bombarded with apocalyptic messages.
More than any idea or ideology I’ve come across, permaculture seems to contain the pragmatism to not only help us weather through our present-day challenges, but to thrive within and past them. I consider myself a realist, so I think one of the reasons I’m so drawn to permaculture is because it really is one of those things we can use to pull off a better future. We can employ it in tandem with technologies and philosophies to rethink the way we interact with each other, with the land, and with our food.
That’s what I’m excited about, and that’s what I’d like to be able to inspire others to do. Even if you’re just getting into composting, or learning about growing a bit of food, or discovering the complexity that underpins growing food, you’re making a difference, you’re taking a positive step in that direction. We desperately need more people to take those steps, get excited, and act rather than being fearful, holing up, and hiding. I guess that’s my hopeful takeaway from permaculture.
– Kaz Haykowsky