Spokane Journal of Business

Promoting permaculture in the Inland Northwest

Specialty farmers to converge at Tumtum

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-—Treva Lind
Thom Foote checks out plantings atop a hugelkultur, which is a growing mound designed to retain moisture and nutrients.
-—Treva Lind
Through Footehills Farm and other home-based interests, Thom Foote and his wife, Torie, have developed several revenue streams. The couple sells produce, and Torie makes ointments and balms out of herbs. Thom makes furniture and birdhouses, as well as offering some consulting.

Thom Foote has grown produce on his 1-acre Colbert farm for four seasons, but what he really talks about cultivating are practices under a design system called permaculture. 

In 2012, Foote took a course in Spokane to earn certification in permaculture design, which is defined as a system of creating environmentally sustainable ecosystems backed by three ethical guidelines: care for the earth, care for people, and share the surplus. 

Foote and his wife Torie now operate Footehills Farm using those principles. They primarily sell culinary and medicinal herbs grown on their hillside property that has a variety of densely-planted crops, flowers, and trees strategically placed to promote vegetation growth. The land also hosts birds, animals, plant-friendly bees and insects, and other natural elements for overlapping benefits to work with nature and without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

“To some gardeners, this farm might look messy and chaotic, but there’s order — permaculture order,” Foote says. “It’s organized productivity. It’s all about sustainable.”

Permaculture first took root with those principles in the 1970s, but a group of Inland Northwest residents today say they’re seeing renewed interest among people using the practices here to eat healthier, locally-grown food while also employing eco-friendly and community-building methods.

The Inland Northwest Permaculture Guild, Spokane-based nonprofit, involves about 1,000 to 1,500 people who “self-identify” as permaculturists, says secretary-treasurer Phil Small, a South Hill resident. The group’s region stretches from the east side of the Cascades toward Spokane and into Montana. People can register online to receive newsletters and share ideas, but the group doesn’t require dues.

About 200 people typically attend a permaculture annual meeting and classes held near Spokane. Its 2015 Inland Northwest Permaculture Convergence runs Sept. 10-13 in Tumtum, Wash., 25 miles north of Spokane, with the theme: “Permaculture’s Answers to Drought.” 

“Spokane-area interest is growing, and you can see that especially in Stevens County where people are doing more permaculture activity together,” says Small, a soil specialist, permaculturist, and owner of Spokane-based Land Profile Inc. He estimates about 750 people are active in the greater Spokane area from Sandpoint to Moscow.

“Now we can have goats in the city of Spokane as of a couple of years ago, and permaculturists were very involved with helping draft that ordinance,” Small says. “Permaculturists are having an influence here.”

Small says permaculture teaches people to dial back to what they can control, such as how to grow a garden and work on solutions with family and neighbors. Examples include shared garden spaces, giving away extra produce, and bartering services.

Chrys Ostrander, a longtime organic farmer and a co-founder of Spokane Farmers Market, now manages a private 8 ½-acre property in Tumtum called Heartsong. With an 8,000-square-foot garden and use of permaculture practices, the site will host the guild’s convergence. 

“Permaculture is about simplifying existence and creating self-sufficiency at all levels from your own backyard to the city you live in,” Ostrander says. “Water conservation, soil building are very relevant to city and county planners as they look at the future.”

One concern is the effects from long-term drought, which is hampering produce-growing regions of California, he says.

“When California can no longer be the produce basket of the country, it’s putting pressure on other states,” Ostrander says. “You’re seeing an increase in home gardens. It’s almost a genetic response. Generations provided their own sustenance before we as a society became dependent on food produced far away.”

At the convergence, Small will teach about wicking garden beds, which he says work well in tight urban spaces and use lining material such as tile or brick to create a water reservoir beneath plant roots.

“A wicking bed is much more productive because they’re kept at an ideal moisture content, and all the nutrients you put in stay there and don’t get flushed out,” Small says. “You don’t have to necessarily water it as often.”

Some Spokane-area members also bring in revenue from permaculture-based operations. At the convergence, Foote will teach other permaculturists how to create several revenue streams. He makes rustic log furniture and decorated birdhouse gourds in winters to sell, and he does permaculture design consulting in early spring. His wife uses medicinal herbs to make ointments and balms.

Footehills Farm also derives revenue as part of a small-farm cooperative, called LINC Foods, an online business aggregating the output of more than 30 Spokane-area farms using sustainable practices and selling to area restaurants and food service operations. Foote said two eateries, Wandering Table in Kendall Yards and a nearby Thai restaurant, regularly buy the farm’s herbs. 

Much of what the couple eats at home comes from their garden. Some of the herbs they sell include sage, oregano, chive, dill, tarragon, and varieties of basil plants. Foote also grows a drought-hardy cilantro called papalo, which has sold well.

For more efficient watering of garden beds, Foote is installing a drip irrigation system. He’s also built moisture-retention systems beneath the soil, including a hugelkultur, a term for creating a hill mound with layers of natural materials, he says. 

Layers include old tree stumps at the bottom. In a hollow, central column underground, he placed fresh cow manure. 

On top of that column, Foote added old tree branches and leaves from forested areas. That layer was then covered by top soil. As materials decay, it provides food for plants, and the wood naturally holds in moisture, Foote says.

Elsewhere, he built four “hugel beds,” similar to the mound with the same materials beneath the soil, but made flatter and with plastic hoops overhead if plants need cover. The farm has all “polyculture” garden beds, meaning different types of plants grow side by side. 

Foote has planted one young fruit tree per each row on the north side of the terraced garden area, and they’ll eventually provide shade for paths. The same moisture-retention system for the garden beds benefits roots of the trees. Such long-term planning is another permaculture concept, he adds, because the trees will take years to mature. 

“I’ll shape the trees to have arches so we can pass to the beds and pick fruit,” he says. 

In another garden bed, he grows beans, corn, and squash together. The three varieties do better combined because beans produce nitrogen in the soil that’s much needed by corn. Beans grow up the stalks, and then the squash’s large leaves shade the soil and keep evaporation down.

“It’s called three sisters, an old Native American technique,” Foote says. He’s also built teepee-like structures using downed trees from the property to create terracing systems for squash and tomato varieties. Tomato vining on the frame also provides shade for a sun-sensitive herb planted on the ground underneath. 

“A big permaculture principle is you get two or three uses out of a single thing or plant,” he says.

Clover is growing in another area. Its leaves can be used in salads, so Foote is letting that weed take over certain paths in the garden. “I’m encouraging the clovers as opposed to other weeds, and it’s gradually covering,” he adds. “Permaculture is a system-designed tool that attempts to replicate and incorporate nature’s patterns and designs, rather than fight it.” 

Treva Lind
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