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Big Green Summer: Sustainable Living Project

Big Green Summer: Sustainable Living Project

By Nancy Pfoutz, from The Heartland Spirit, Fairfield IA

Five fortunate interns will be diving deeply into all aspects of sustainable living and design this summer, as pioneers in the first educational program sponsored by the FairField Internships Project. Founded by Lonnie Gamble, who co-directs the project with Diana Krystofiak, Big Green Summer will offer a 'walk the talk' experience where students will live what they learn.

A 'total immersion experience', students will learn about: renewable energy in a solar-powered classroom, grow organic produce as they learn about food systems, and harvest their own energy and water. They will intern with local businesses involved in renewable energy, natural building materials, organic agriculture, edible landscaping, social services, and other aspects of cutting-edge sustainable community development.

Lonnie Gamble

"We want the program to have the integrity of what they’re learning to be in synchrony with how they’re living," said Gamble. "In most sustainability programs, the facilities don’t reflect what’s being taught – in fact, they often 'teach' the opposite. Lots of kids are looking for a non-traditional educational experience like this where you walk your talk in every aspect."

Interns Settling in the Heartland

The FairField Internships Project is an expansion of an existing intern program. Over the last eight ears, Lonnie and his wife Valerie have hosted hundreds of interns from the East and West coasts, and as far away as Ethiopia and England, to work on similar projects at their Surya Nagar Farm and Abundance Ecovillage. From the permaculture design classes Gamble teaches at M.U.M., Hawaii and Washington State, he has attracted people of all ages to Fairfield, some of whom have stayed and become environmental leaders in the community.

Brian Robbins came from California to intern in 2004 and 2005. He has now settled in FairField where he is developing a state-of-the-art permaculture site in the heart of Fairfield with partner Kelly Custer. "Through studying the knowledge and skills to harvest energy from the sun, wind, and plant life around us, a new world is opening up before me. I see an alchemy for transforming our world into a very, very nice place."

One woman completed her Smith College senior project through her Fairfield internship. In 2000, ten 20-year olds lived in tents at Abundance Ecovillage as they constructed rain catchments, nurseries and greenhouses to establish the community.

Building a Home for the Project

Unfortunately, people are regularly turned away from Gamble’s internship opportunities because of lack of personnel and insufficient housing space. "The increasing demand by interns for a more in-depth and varied program has led us to create a more formal structure to this grass-roots initiative," Gamble said.

Last Spring, during an Earth Day event at Grinnell College, Krystofiak spoke with Steve Langerud, Grinnell’s Associate Dean for Experiential Education about the intern program. "He was completely supportive and very excited," she said. "He has complete trust in Lonnie’s vision." Roger Gipple of Des Moines jumped on board, hiring Gamble to develop the program this past fall. Gipple manages the Agrestal Fund affiliated with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

Agrestal fosters a vision of "wildness" as a self-regulating, spontaneous state of existence, which would include renewable energy, local organic food systems, and a strong local economy – a world in tune with nature. The Agrestal Fund is offering five $500 scholarships for the Big Green Summer program, to be awarded through an essay contest.

A 15-acre parcel of land just south of Ecovillage was purchased for the project, and Iowa City architect Martha Norbeck has created a site plan including grass-paved parking, student housing, a common house, greenhouses, terraced gardens, woodlands, prairie and a constructed wetland. "The FairField Internships Project is an opportunity to create flourishing, authentic, self-regulating modes for living," Gipple said. "(What emerges) will have a cultural impact limited only by the bounds of courage and imagination."

Engaging Summer Immersion Experience

The FairField Internships Project is just one of the programs offered under its parent organization, the non-profit Sustainable Living Coalition. Big Green Summer’s 10-week intensive immersion in sustainable living will run from May 27 – August 5, kicking off with a three-to-five day leadership training/ adventure sport program led by M.U.M.’s Ken Daley. It will also feature several field trips and a conference, "Beyond Ecocatastrophe", examining the next step beyond a petroleum economy, beyond current organic food standards, and more.

Finally, the students will intern for five weeks at local profit and non-profit businesses. Possible mentors include Aurora Farms, Vedic City Organics, Iowa Progressive Asset Management, Radiance Dairy, and Habitat for Humanity, to name a few. "We hope this will add to the 'Brain Gain' initiative and bring kids to Iowa to stay, where they can set up rural businesses related to sustainability," Gamble said. A business incubator project is being planned for that purpose. Next summer, Gamble hopes to increase enrollment to 10 students.

In addition to the Big Green Summer, the Internships Project will offer a two week permaculture Design certification class, open to anyone, from June 5 – 19. It will teach the theory, principles and practice of permaculture in the Midwest, including indigenous cultivation, reading landscapes, urban strategies, ecosystem restoration and much more.

Yearlong Program and a Trip to Italy

FairField Internships is developing a one-year program in Environmental Design that will cover all aspects of creating a sustainable economy in one-month blocks. It will begin next year with 10 students, hopefully growing to 25 – 30. "We will have experts from all over the world to come give two-week programs," Gamble said. "We have affiliations with experts across the continental US, in Hawaii, Central America, France and Italy – 50 or 60 or those are potential faculty and advisors."

In the fall of 2006, the Internships Project will visit the world Slow Food events in Torino, Italy. The Slow Food movement promotes enjoying pleasure and sensuality in life. "We’ll take students, small farmers, public policy officials, writers and activists to see how village life works – the bakers, small farmers, cheese makers, artisans and markets – to learn how to create integrated village life in Iowa," said Gamble.

The main organizer for the trip is Steve Boss, a Fairfield businessman who spent a year in Italy prior to launching an Italian products import business. His extensive network of colleagues is an invaluable resource. "October is a [special month] for visiting Italy because of the grape and olive oil harvests, the mushrooms and truffle harvests, and roasting chestnuts. We’ll get a feeling for what it’s like to maintain family food traditions and cultures for millennia." Two trips are scheduled for October 14 – 29 and October 25 – November 11.

Young People Leading the Way

Krystofiak and Gamble have been garnering support for the Project from influential people across Iowa. "This project is a terrific blend of big ideas and practical knowledge," said Grinnell’s Langerud. "Community development starts with young people, and this project will engage them like nothing else in Iowa. Understanding our sense of place has never been more important or better addressed than through this project."

"Some people think sustainable living programs mean going backwards, a return to the 'simple' days," said Gamble. "It’s actually cutting-edge ideas for the future." For more information, visit Internship Project or contact Diana: kryst at, or Lonnie: lonnie gamble at


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