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The Eco-Institute at Pickards Mountain


The Eco-Institute at Pickards Mountain is a learning community, Earth sanctuary, and permaculture farm located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and established in 2005. Since 2013, we've been running a residential program (The Rising Earth Immersion) for young adults between 18-28 who are concerned about our world’s changing climate and ready to take action for a sustainable and just future.

The Eco-Institute runs on solar power. We grow organic food and herbal medicines. We offer permaculture education, workshops in sustainability topics, study groups, a Garden Cooperative, community resilience programs, seasonal celebrations, and a myriad of Earth-healing workshops. Through all that we offer, we are learning to embody the truth that we are not separate—from the Earth or from each other—and that all of our actions have implications for the rest of the community of Life.


Our 5-week SPRING INTENSIVE has been postponed to late summer 2020, with a new application deadline of May 15th. We plan for our FALL IMMERSION to go on as planned. For your peace of mind, we've added a Flexible Refund Policy so you can plan for the future at no risk. If you're ready to step into a world of peace, justice, and contribution, click over to our website for more!


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Yes, I recommend this program

If your seeking a loving, caring supportive community this is the place to be. Filled with spiritually wealthy, talented individuals, I have never felt so accepted and encouraged to be my true self. This aspect, coupled with somatic self care, inploration to the inner psyche, and rebuilding human-nature relationships was an incredibly transformative process. Digging deep into what the soul really wants, finding out who I truly want to be. This immersive experience won't change who you are, it will only allow you to become more of yourself.

What was the most nerve-racking moment and how did you overcome it?
Thinking I was the only one "broken", or not content with the current social/political/environmental but now I joke that this is the island of misfits. We all feel a deep yearning for change, for a "New Story" and that is the exact reason that brought us here together in this very moment. That commonality is what built such a strong relationship with others participants.
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Yes, I recommend this program

The Rising Earth Immersion program was an excellent choice for me as my first gap year experience post-undergraduate graduation. Like many of my peers, I came out of school still carrying a ton of questions about how to navigate my life path and contribute effectively to social and ecological wholesomeness. This 10-week residency helped dissolve many of my anxieties and clear up my intuitions by opening me up to the transformative powers of intentional community and its dynamic, emergent processes of growth and learning.

From preparing meals as a group, to practicing Nonviolent Communication techniques, to learning principles of the New Economy (regenerative, creative, just, and resonant with Buddhist ethics), to implementing the fundamentals of permaculture design in the garden, to having intimate circle discussions about gender/privilege/dreams/fears/what holds us back, there were so many opportunities to deepen my values, let go of my "agenda," and find a deep sense of meaning and well-being as a present-minded student and community member. I was really impressed with the level of care and ethics embodied by the program facilitators and instructors. I felt like I had an abundance of role models to look up to as I reflected on my transition into full adulthood and maturity. For the first (sustained) time in my life, I felt like I really belonged somewhere, and that many of the layers I usually put on to present an idealized version of myself to others could be shed. I knew I would be accepted and empathized with in my full emotional complexity, and it was such a heart-warming experience to show parts of myself I tend to hide.

The Eco-Institute itself is a gorgeous backdrop for an alternative semester / rite of passage. With a sizable, biodiverse, permaculture-infused garden that supplied many of our meal ingredients, scenic yurt lodging in the forest (highlights of which include coyote and owl calls in the night), a huge pond for swimming and dock-chilling, and a well-equipped, beautifully designed barn (with a modern kitchen, open-mic stage, living room, and yoga studio), it is a place of vibrant inspiration and rich sensory immersion.

I would recommend this program for any young adult curious about taking sustainability seriously, interested in how environmentalism can effectively merge with social justice, eager to find a real sense of community, and questioning what their deeper purpose may be in these times of great transition. As someone who has passed to the other side of it, I can say that I feel more stable in my identity, confident in my dreams, and appreciative of the gifts of this human life than ever before.

What would you improve about this program?
The main thing I can think of to critique of about the program is the room it has to engage more with regional and national activism. However, I know the leadership team is working hard to incorporate activist projects more centrally into the curriculum.
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Yes, I recommend this program

From milking goats to cooking delicious meals straight from the garden to making medicinal tinctures to tending to blueberry plants, I felt so connected to the Earth and the beautiful land around me. I loved living in the "Yomes" a.k.a Yurt Homes which were spacious and comfy. Everyone involved in the program cared deeply for the others in our cohort and was passionate about many different topics: bird calling, herbalism, poetry, wood working, building food forests, and more. I learned so much from the instructors who led yoga, permaculture classes, new economy workshops, nonviolent communication instruction, and so much more. I went into the program completely burnt out from college and social and environmental activism. I am leaving with a sense of purpose and direction. I want to continue working in sustainable agriculture and holistic wellbeing. I want to help imagine a more beautiful world and fight to protect the extraordinary natural world. I feel deeply connected to the other people on my program and know they are here to support and work alongside me.

What was your funniest moment?
On one of the final nights we all dove into the freezing cold lake and huddled around the bonfire after until the middle of the night, singing songs and sharing stories.
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Yes, I recommend this program

The love and support that is grown at the Eco-Institute (alongside all of the delicious fruits and veggies) has absolutely changed my life. It has taught me to grow as well, in countless integral and invaluable ways.
I graduated high school in the spring of 2019, and when I began this program I was unsure of what next steps I wanted to take in my life. I arrived hoping to find direction, and I am walking away with that and so much more. I have never in my life felt as grounded in my heart's deepest pulls or as sure of my path as I do in this moment. This program not only gives you the tools to look inward and find your truest self, but also gives you the support system to build the confidence it takes to follow your heart. I feel so incredibly lucky to have received this gift at eighteen, as many do not get to feel this freedom and deep knowing until much later in life. This program has been the best possible beginning to my journey into adulthood.
My time at the Eco-Institute also opened me up to a world of knowledge that I am so excited to continue exploring. Rising Earth Immersion really is the perfect title because everything from agriculture and permaculture, to communication, emotional literacy, and community living are taught in an immersive, hands-on way. We had our hands in the dirt out in the garden, we each played an equal roll in creating the norms for our community, we were all committed to honest, open communication, and much more. I can say without a doubt that everyone who comes here will learn something new about themselves, the world, or a new skill each and every day. And will learn in a way that is engaging, gratifying, and long-lasting.
I cannot say enough about the Rising Earth Immersion and its impact on my life. It has been the best experience of my life and I deeply recommend it to any person who feels pulled to find deeper connection with themselves, the Earth, and community. <3

What is your advice to future travelers on this program?
If you feel at all drawn to what you have read on this page, I encourage you to take a look at the website. Trust that pull and apply! What you will find at the Eco-Institute is growth and love, and it will not fail to deepen the fullness of your soul.
Yes, I recommend this program

My experience here was really beautiful. Ten weeks living in community with 10+ other people with earth-oriented values brought me to rethink what it means to be human. Sleeping in yurts in the forest, cooking meals together, learning about how to practice earth regeneration in tangible ways, sharing deep parts of ourselves with one another, were all facets of a beautiful (and I believe possible) way of life.

The intra- and inter-personal growth has been immense, and I cultivated a sense of closeness with those around me that this loneliness-stricken culture longs for. This is in part due to the specific people who came, but it is also due to the kind of social environment the program's structure encouraged. We share things in circle. We learn and use healthy communication tools. We play silly games. We sometimes process grief together. The tools I've learned in this program I use in all my relationships to this day.

The practical skills aspect of the program is abundant as well, and contributes to the wholesome lifestyle here. We dabbled in a little of everything: foraging, fermentation, natural building, animal care, and lots more. The garden we help out in (and learn a LOT from) overflows with food, and provides for me a feeling of utmost fulfillment: being connected to the source of what goes in my body. We also learned the principles of permaculture, an approach and method to human collaboration with natural ecosystems. No longer do humans need to exploit the planet to thrive---quite the opposite. Healing natural ecosystems is actually the most conducive to human well-being. I once understood this as an abstract concept, but during this program I could feel it with the wholeness of my being.

This program feels both like a training ground and a blueprint for how we could run the world in a beautiful way.

What is your advice to future travelers on this program?
If you are a little afraid about this step into the unknown, I recommend leaning into that discomfort a little, making a decision that is at the edge of your courage. You might form connections here that are pivotal for your life path. There is no guarantee, but it is possible, and has happened before.


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Alumni Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with verified alumni.

Why did you choose this program?

Feeling a deep discontentment for the way our current society was operating, I knew there had to be a more holistic way of living, more in line with my values, and a deeper connection to this land. After hearing about this program I dug deeper into the core principals of The Eco-institute at Pickards Mountain; overwhelmed by how much it resonated with the way I wish to live my life.

What did your program provider (or university) assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

Every step of the way the facilitators were there if I ever need assistance with anything. This consisted of better understand what this program had to offer, scholarships, and assistance with fundraising. I ended up hosting a yard sale to help support my travel expenses and to give homes to items that no longer served me. I also created a go-fund me page that significantly helped fund this program.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Trust in the process. I had never been to North Carolina before this program. I was working a job that didn't serve my soul or align with my core values. I frankly was quite unhappy with my current living situation. Not knowing what to expect on what I would get out of this program, I took a leap a faith and ended up somewhere truly magical.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

You wake from a deep sleep early in the morning, sun has yet to greet the Earth. You start the day with a morning practice consisting of, but not limited to, meditation, journaling, a walk around the lake, silent breakfast. Any practice that is best suited for the individual. After breakfast you being your farm chores, feeding the goats or chickens, taking car of the farm cat, collecting eggs or milking goats. Assuming the day is Tuesday, you'll have Garden Day with Jay where he (I) will teach a class consisting of some kind of homesteading practice such as fermentation, plant ID walk, mushroom cultivation, and more. A little break and then another session, possibly non-violent communication or a team building exercise. After, a meal is prepped by a predetermined group, while another cleans the dishes but this week is your groups off week so you can kick back and enjoy your meal. Siesta (Rest) after lunch. Around late afternoon you begin spiritual ecology, further deepening your love for the ground beneath your feet, and the creatures all around us, followed by dinner. Next, is some evening down time however you wish to spend it. Music and songs around a fire, a good book under a cozy blanket, or a bread bake off with other participants, the possibilities are endless. Your eyes get heavy, you take a slow walk back to your yome, absorbing the moonlight, gazing upon the stars and listen to the Tree Peepers, Katydids, and Crickets. You quickly fall asleep to the sound of nature.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

I never been to North Carolina before and frankly didn't really know what this journey had in store for me nor knowing what I would get out of it. Diligently looking over the program material I knew what we would be learning but didn't know how it would land inside of me. Even upon arrival there was an element of vulnerability, to speak from the heart, to be open and honest with my cohort. That is where the real bonding happened, letting down our walls and finding out that we are all looking for an alternative way of life than the status quo/ business as usual. I had this preconceived notion I was the only lost one in the group, feeling a bit broken and searching for answers. I quickly found out that this was "The Island of Misfits", we all had a similar feeling about the current standing of the world and wanted to be part of the healing process.

.What is breaking your heart?

This is a question we are encouraged to ask each other in small group setting, this question helps get to the root of what we truly desire in life. The lack of connection to nature breaks my heart. The lack of a strong community breaks my heart. The declining health of humans and Earth breaks my heart. These were core reasons I decided to become a farmer in the first place and I want to inspire others that there are tangible ways to make a difference in ones own life and within your community.

Staff Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with program leaders.

Topher Stephens

Job Title
Core Facilitator
Born and raised in the rural Appalachian Mountains, Topher has been nourished and shaped by the more-than-human world for his entire life. Bringing his passion for social and ecological justice to all he does, Topher is proud to be stewarding the next generation of diverse and inspiring leaders into the whole-hearted and regenerative work that the world so deeply needs.

What is your favorite travel memory?

I have traveled to over 20 different countries and had incredible and eye-opening experiences in each one, but my favorite travel memory happened on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests of 2016.

Never before had I witnessed such a massive outpouring of solidarity and spirit from such an incredibly rich and culturally diverse community. I was incredibly humbled to be welcomed so wholeheartedly into something so important and powerful. That experience opened my eyes to the historical and ongoing legacy of colonization and also invigorated me and gave me hope that real change is possible in my lifetime.

How have you changed/grown since working for your current company?

When I first arrived here at the Eco-Institute, I eagerly began planning all the lessons that I could offer to the participants during their Permaculture Immersion. However, as soon as the participants arrived, it was clear that this would be no ordinary “top-down” learning environment.

Over the first few weeks of the program, I had my eyes and heart opened by so many inspiring young change-makers and the unique gifts and perspectives they each brought. Over the course of my time here, I have come to realize that my role as a facilitator is not to "impart my knowledge", but rather to nurture the emergent and synergistic sharing of ideas, wisdom, and gifts that are alive in each of us. I have come to understand that these responsive and dynamic crucibles of community-sharing that the most powerful alchemical processes of social and ecological change are born.

What is the best story you've heard from a return student?

From permaculture architects to vegan chefs, to socially engaged artists, to full-time political activists and community organizers, each student that comes through our program seems to find a beautiful niche in which to share their gifts and experience with the world. But for me, the greatest affirmation that I ‘ve heard from a student was from a student named Audrey who told me that she had never experienced such a sense of belonging and support in a community as she had at the Eco-Institute.

Our program here is more than a stepping stone along an academic or professional career path - it is a radical exploration of what it means to show up in wholeness and authenticity and to have that wholeness and authenticity welcomed and celebrated by a loving community.

If you could go on any program that your company offers, which one would you choose and why?

The Rising Earth Immersion is our flagship 10-week residential program in which participants get the opportunity to embody the practice of “whole systems living” with a small cohort of young change-makers. Balancing internal reflection and self-care with civic and social engagement and ecological justice, participants have the opportunity to practice movement, deep reflection, regenerative agriculture, artistic activism, nourishing foodways, and collaborative leadership.

What makes your company unique? When were you especially proud of your team?

The Eco-Institute is not just another gap semester program and the Rising Earth Immersion is not just another farm internship. Our team strives to foster the type of society that we want to see in the world- one that is nourishing and regenerative to all its' human and non-human members and one that can creatively and effectively address the social and ecological issues of our time.

I am especially proud of our leadership team when we allow ourselves to STEP BACK and allow the synergistic creative potentials of the group to flourish. We truly believe in empowering our students here and are continuously inspired and awe-struck by the beautiful and unexpected ideas that emerge when given space.

What do you believe to be the biggest factor in being a successful company?

Taking inspiration from natural ecosystems, I believe that adaptability and responsiveness are essential for the success of our organization. At the Eco-Institute, we welcome feedback and allow ourselves to dynamically and mindfully adapt to the changing needs of our participants and the world around us. This ability to adapt not only allows us to creatively respond to changing conditions but also makes our community more resilient in this age of social and environmental upheavals.

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