YAKIMA, Wash. -- Jeff Stainthorp wants everything on his farm to have a purpose.
Sure, he’s growing corn. But right next to it is buckwheat.
Together, they will shade the ground, cutting back the weeds.
He can eat the corn or sell it. The buckwheat makes a nice flour popular with people who avoid gluten.
It’s the same across the rest of his 3-acre plot in Naches Heights, where Stainthorp is following the concept of permaculture in raising his crops.
Stainthorp describes permaculture — a term for “permanent agriculture” coined early last century and popularized in the 1970s — as a “system of design” for sustainable farming.
“You’re working with nature and you’re paying attention to what nature wants to do,” he said.
Stainthorp and Maria Jett — the owner of the farm property — want to highlight the philosophy behind permaculture in hopes that it will expand across the Yakima Valley.
Unlike a monocultural farm setting where an orchardist would grow only apples, perhaps after having flattened a field, at its most conservative permaculture would use that same land but without disturbing it. Plantings would follow the land’s natural contour, and species would be chosen and placed based largely on their natural fit for the environment.
For example, Yakima isn’t the best place for Florida citrus to grow, but sumac is native here and can be used to make a flavorful version of lemonade.
Besides taking advantage of the biological strength of growing what best fits the environment, permacultural enthusiasts say, the philosophy also encourages farmers to become more self-reliant.
At the same time, permaculturists are building a community of like-minded folks. One person can’t grow everything, but a network of farmers can trade products and support one another.
Permaculture is used around the world, though it has been slow to take hold locally.
Jeremy Cowan, an assistant professor at Washington State University who follows permaculture and related agricultural trends, said permaculture has become more of a mainstream topic in recent years.
That’s because younger adults are grabbing on to the idea of self-sustainability and less dependence on the grocery store, particularly as they become homeowners.
“Permaculture has an appeal to those folks because of its focus on natural systems and taking care of people and taking care of the environment,” Cowan said.
Put another way, he said, “Permaculture may be the generation’s back-to-the-land movement.”
That was part of the motivation for Yakima resident Nicole Murphy.
“I like the idea of (doing) what people did 200 years ago,” she said.
Murphy has converted her home’s backyard into a living cornucopia of sorts. Together with fruit trees and other plants on the small property, she estimates she grows at least 50 species, everything from tomatoes to cabbage and elderberries.
Starting in April, she can count on the garden to help feed her family.
“I try to have a rule where I don’t go to the store until winter for veggies,” she said.
Some produce is used fresh, some is canned. She’s traded some of her bounty for work by Stainthorp, such as building a small greenhouse that serves double duty by warming plants and helping to heat the adjacent chicken coop.
Part of permaculture is matching plants to their environment — putting those that need more heat in the best place for exposure to the sun, for example.
But Murphy’s residential project demonstrates that there are ways to control the environment, too.
A wall helps protect part of the area from the sun, while also providing a space where the family can sit in the shade.
From there, she may occasionally see birds land on a cabbage plant that flowered from the previous year, providing both future seeds and snacks for birds, who land briefly on the stalks.
“It’s food for them, and I’m happy to share.”
For Jett, cultivating a permaculture community harkens back to her grandfather’s roots in the Yakima Valley. Her 12-acre farm is all that remains of his original 80 acres that he started working in 1912.
She encourages others to consider how they can begin growing their own food. Permaculture doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing enterprise. For the apartment dweller, a couple of buckets could host a mix of species.
She wants to use the property — known as the Yakima Beach Permacultural Collective — as a sort of incubator for those interested in permaculture.
The Yakima Valley is ripe for people to adopt permaculture practices, she believes.
“It involves a shift in mindset and an entire cultural shift. It doesn’t happen immediately, but pieces are coming,” such as the Yakima Beach collective and Stainthorp’s efforts, she said.
As Stainthorp settles in to his first full growing season, he spends long hours each day tending to the farm.
He says he doesn’t mind, because he’s helping himself and others as he builds his business and his farm.
“I might not have a lot of money, but I don’t have to worry about having food to eat, and I’m not stressed about going to a job I hate,” he said.