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Chad Hellwinckel
Chad Hellwinckel

Chad Hellwinckel has a vision for long-term sustainability.

“There is a link between energy and agriculture that I’m very concerned about,” said Hellwinckel, research assistant professor with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Agricultural Economics and Natural Resources department. “I’m trying to work on preparing my community, my family, and UT for the challenges of the future that I think are linked to the decline in energy availability.”

These challenges include growing food year round and creating self-reliant energy systems within the home and garden. One proven solution is permaculture.

A combination of “permanent” and “agriculture,” permaculture models human systems after natural processes.

“Permaculture is ‘smart design,'” said Hellwinckel. “A forest has many different species harmoniously growing at different levels. It’s building soil. It’s resisting pests and diseases naturally. It doesn’t produce toxic zones. We can look at how this forest is designed and ask ourselves, ‘how can we mimic our human agriculture after that?'”

The philosophy of permaculture can be applied to a variety of human systems, including architecture, transportation, gardening, and city planning. The key is designing permanent, self-sustaining systems that create resources people need while repurposing any waste byproducts. In this manner, the livelihood of a community is protected.

Putting permaculture to the test, Hellwinckel purchased an old house in Parkridge, Knoxville, and is retrofitting it with self-sustaining systems.

A roof catchment system feeds water into two 300-gallon tanks. A bicycle pump in the basement will pump water up to a pair of sixty-gallon tank in the attic, creating pressurized water. A naturally filtered gray water system from interior sinks will irrigate vegetable gardens and fruit trees in the yard. A wood stove will heat the house and “cob” will insulate the walls.

“Cob is clay and sand mixed in with straw. The straw acts as a rebar—it’s really heavy and dense and great for thermal mass. It holds a lot of temperature and releases it slowly like an adobe building,” Hellwinckel said.

“The technologies of the future are going to have to be cheap and from resources at hand. We’re going to have to improvise a lot,” said Hellwinckel. “I’m fixing this house up so my family will be okay if the electricity goes off for a week at a time or if grocery stores are unable to stock their shelves and we’re unable to buy food for a while.”

On November 16, 2011, Hellwinckel spoke about the benefits of permaculture at the first-ever TEDxKnoxville event. TEDxKnoxville is a regional offshoot of TED, a nonprofit organization that promotes “ideas worth spreading” through inspirational speakers from the United States and other countries.

One problem with increasing the use of permaculture is that many people lack the knowledge or skills to install and operate these systems. Hellwinckel believes the solution is to begin at the neighborhood level.

“Getting enough people on a block that are interested and who meet up on each other’s front porches and brainstorm and build things on Saturday afternoons together: That’s how it’s going to happen,” said Hellwinckel.

Local examples of organizations with functioning permaculture structures are The Farm in central Tennessee and Beardsley Farm in Knoxville.

Local government policy is also vital for allowing self-sustaining communities to flourish. For example, Knoxville city residents can now own chickens and community groups will soon be able to apply for city land to create community gardens.

In the not-too-distant future, permaculture may become a necessity—especially if the world’s supply of oil becomes scarce.

“Twenty percent of global oil comes from fourteen giant fields. When most of those giant fields have peaked, global oil is certainly going to be going down. We’ve been on a plateau since 2005,” said Hellwinckel.

Severe oil shortages are expected to increase the cost of energy, threaten global economic viability, shipping methods, and financial systems that the United States and other nations have come to rely on for day-to-day operations. Investing in local permaculture systems can help prepare communities for coping with these potential energy and resource shortages.

For UT faculty, staff, and students interested in the benefits of permaculture design, Hellwinckel suggests starting with the following three steps:

  • Start composting all food scraps, except for meat.
  • With the soil created from the compost, start a garden, no matter how large or small.
  • Finally, eat all the food that grows in the garden. Any scraps or leftovers can be composted to renew the cycle.

“These steps are integrated and form a continuous circle,” said Hellwinckel. “Permaculture is about taking responsibility for yourself in the community. It shows that individuals have the power to solve the problems we face, and it’s not going to be left up to some larger business, or government, or economy to fix.”

A video of Hellwinckel’s TEDxKnoxville talk can be found on YouTube. For more information on permaculture workshops and resources, visit, and Knoxville’s permaculture guild at