The Eco-Institute at Pickards Mountain is not the easiest place to find, but the farm – tucked away in rural Chapel Hill – is working to achieve local solutions to global problems.
The institute, founded by Megan and Tim Toben in 2005, is meant to be something more than a farm. It is, according to the institute’s website, “a sanctuary for nature connection, renewal, and healing the human-Earth relationship.”
After graduating college with a degree in biology, Megan Toben said she was shocked by the ecological devastation that had been happening to the planet since the industrial revolution.
Determined to do something to protect the Earth’s ecological future, the Tobens began hosting weekly potlucks on their farm so that people in their community could meet and discuss local solutions to environmental degradation and climate change.
“Eventually, the Eco-Institute grew out of that gathering of people,” Megan Toben said.
Central to the Eco-Institute’s philosophy on achieving local solutions to global problems is a combination of outer skills – like teaching locals permaculture to grow their own food, foraging and operating renewable energy systems – and inner skills, like self-awareness and nonviolent conflict resolution to improve relationships within the community.
Dave Pollmiller, the institute’s farm manager, is usually involved in teaching these skills to community members who become members of the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, program.
The program requires members to pay $80 individually or $160 for families at the beginning of the growing season. In exchange, members can come to the farm on certain days and harvest what they want, as well as learn about the growing process.
For those who might have trouble paying for the membership fee, Pollmiller said the institute is dedicated to making the farm’s produce as accessible to as many people as possible.
“If someone came to us and was like, ‘I don’t have the money to pay, but I really want to participate,’ we would accommodate them for sure,” Pollimer said. “There’s no way we’d turn them away.”
These skills are useful for engaging with the earth in a more holistically sustainable way, Toben said. And the inner skills, which ultimately seek to mend the broken relationships between humans and the planet, are just as important, if not more.
In the tradition of the book "Spiritual Ecology," those broken relationships are what allows human society to continue to do harm to the earth, to one another and to themselves. The point of learning these skills, Toben said, is understanding how we got to a relationship of exploitation with the planet.
“Given that most indigenous cultures recognize the sacredness of life, the question that we carry is, 'How did we lose that relationship with the earth?'” Toben said. “And recovering that sense of sacredness of the living earth might be key to remembering how to live in harmony with the rest of the community of life.”
In an effort to make these outer and inner skills more accessible to college students, the institute is launching a summer program called the Odyssey Fellowship that allows students to live and work on the farm learning about a range of topics from herbal medicine, beekeeping and animal husbandry to compassionate communication and co-counseling.
A number of scholarships are available for qualified individuals to attend the twelve-person program, such as the “Young Adult Person of Color,” “Environmental Educator,” “Genderfluid Young Adult” and “Young Farmer” scholarships.
Toben emphasized that the program is a co-creative, cooperative process where students are given guidance by instructors, but also have autonomy in choosing what they want to learn together.
Throughout the program, they work to toward creating what spiritual ecologist Charles Eisenstein calls "the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible."
“No one has ever been turned away from any of our programs for lack of funds,” Toben said. “What we’re looking for is students who are really ready for an immersive experience, a truly holistic experience that meets them as humans on mental, physical and emotional levels."
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