Interview with John Valenzuela, New Lead Instructor for PDC

We’re excited to announce that John Valenzuela is the new lead instructor for our Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course starting this October! You’ve probably seen his name and photo on our website and social media sites. Although he’s new to this particular role, he is a longtime friend and guest instructor with Santa Cruz Permaculture. 

David Shaw, Santa Cruz Permaculture founder and director, is beginning a PhD program in Environmental Studies this fall at UC Santa Cruz. David will be researching permaculture, agroecology and related strategies for large scale ecosystem regeneration. Although he will still be involved in the course at various times throughout the six months, he is stepping back from his role as lead instructor. 

John Valenzuela, a horticulturist, consultant and educator who focuses on a diversity of productive trees, shrubs, vines and other perennials, growing an “ecosystem of abundance” with his Cornucopia Food Forest Gardens, has taught permaculture for 30 years, from Hawai’i to California, Washington state and Central America. He is actively engaged with the non-profit California Rare Fruit Growers organization.

John has been guest teaching in our PDC for years about food forestry, fruit tree care, and climate. He is also the co-instructor for our new Permaculture Food Forests course that launched this August. 

Santa Cruz Permaculture’s Melissa Fant recently interviewed John so we could share more about his background and experience with permaculture:

Melissa: How did you first get interested in permaculture?

John: I found out about permaculture while working on a farm in Hawaii. The guy I was working for showed me the Permaculture Designer’s Manual, and I was hooked with all the drawings. I’m a visual learner, and I loved all the illustrations. I just looked at those and then I started getting into the text, and Bill’s prose is pretty amazing, and that’s where it really started.

But before that it was just falling in love with biology, I guess, at an early age, maybe in high school or so. I had a great high school biology teacher who got us out to the desert and into the tidepools, so I think that’s where it really started, playing in the ocean when I was young.

Melissa: Where did you study permaculture? 

John: My first permaculture design course was in November of 1989, Wood Valley in the southern part of the Big Island. It really put together a bunch of stuff that I had been doing throughout my life that seemed disconnected. It put it all together into kind of a cohesive, integrated, holistic view and framework. I studied by working on farms, doing teaching there in Hawaii until I left in about 2003. I had been visiting California to visit permaculture sites, including Penny Livingston and the Bullock Brothers up north, and so that’s where I had been learning and studying, and then trips to Central America and so forth.

Melissa: Where have you taught previously?

John: My longest continuous courses have been at the Bullock Brothers’ Permaculture Homestead up in Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands and the Puget Sound there near Seattle. I’ve been teaching there for over 20 years. I’ve also taught with Penny Livingston and the Regenerative Design Institute; with folks in the city–Kevin Bayuk and David Cody and the San Francisco Urban Permaculture Institute; in L.A. with Larry Santoyo and the Permaculture Academy

I taught a bunch of courses out in Hawaii at La’akea Gardens and different venues over there. For most of these courses, I was an itinerant teacher coming in to talk about trees and food forests, rather than teaching full courses. Most of the full courses I’ve taught have been at the Bullocks’, and now with Santa Cruz Permaculture.

Melissa: Why do you like working with Santa Cruz Permaculture?

John: Well, people like you, and of course David, David’s integrity. I met him, gosh, ten years ago now, and he’s just a really good person with good communication and people skills, which are so important in permaculture. Having good people skills is fundamental of course to this work. I really appreciate David’s skills in communication, facilitation, hosting, and also his interest in fruit and tree stuff. I’ve been working with him over the years and just really pleased to be part of the team.

Melissa: What are some of the most exciting permaculture projects you’ve been involved with?

John: Let’s see, gosh, it’s quite a span of years here that I’m thinking about–30 years–but I think working with Native Hawaiians in Hawaii was always fantastic. The late Jerry Konanui, I learned so much from him. Not really a permaculture project, but you know he added so much to what we were doing up there at La’akea Gardens, which is now in different hands and more of a community there. I loved working there in Hawaii with folks.

Of course, the Bullocks. I’ve been involved with a few projects there with the Exos Design folks that Bullocks is part of and Dave Boehnlein. Any of the projects they were doing I learned a lot. They had some projects here in California that I peeked in on. Going around and teaching at these different places, I guess I’m incidentally involved.

I think some of the pop-up courses have been interesting working with Ryan Rising. I thought his approach to getting around to different communities and doing those actions and then courses associated with them have been exciting.

Melissa: What is your favorite permaculture principle?

John: Certainly observation is one of my favorite pastimes. I love the redundancy concepts, each element having multiple functions and each function being served by multiple elements. Love those. “Least change for most effect”–I think it’s worth our efforts to focus on that. And also looking at the other side of things for the answer–the “opposite is also true” kind of thing, I like, turning things on their head.

Melissa: If you had to choose a favorite fruit, what would it be and why?

John: Very difficult. I’d say whatever is ripe and in season at its peak at that particular time is my favorite fruit. I would say one fruit that I’ve never I think gotten my fill of is lychee, I think I’ve never been full of lychee. I could always eat another lychee fruit. 


I love pawpaws, it’s something I’m working with lately. Gosh even the common fruit’s good–peach or plum is spectacular. There’s just so many. Some have such fond memories, you know, white sapotes, eating wild guavas and mangoes in Hawaii. There’s just so many great fruits out there. 

Melissa: What advice do you have for someone who’s just starting to learn about permaculture?

John: Well there’s so many resources online now and so forth. I think that Doug Bullock came up with a really nice write up that was called “Cosmic Bob’s Plan for Your Life.” I think that’s still on their permaculture portal website. It’s very holistic and it talked about looking at local resources in your community, people teaching stuff, you doing your own garden so you can make your own mistakes. 

Learning practical skills that are maybe overlooked. Common things that aren’t so common, like plumbing, fence building, welding. You know, real practical skills that are very employable that you could use in any permaculture project or get a job anywhere you go practically if you have some of those kind of basic technical skills. 

I’d say visiting as many sites as possible and showing up early to events and staying late to help out. Just showing up is 90% of the game. Being there and volunteering until you make yourself indispensable and then you become maybe employed or a deeper part of the kinds of places that you want to learn from and the kind of people that you want to learn with. 

Melissa: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

John: I’d say that permaculture is expanding into embracing all kinds of things these days that I appreciate, especially the human side of it. But there’s new technologies and the mainstreaming of no till and there’s so many great things that are happening that you can connect with and meet people where they’re at. I’d say stay humble, and there’s so much to learn, and show up when you can in a humble way along the way. We’ll all be learning from each other and creating a better world, borrowing from our ancestors and from our descendants, too. 

Melissa: Thank you so much, John, for sharing a little about yourself! 

John: Thank you!

John will be the lead instructor for our six-month Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) Course. You can learn more and register for the course on our website.

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