On a cool summer evening in May, I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak with Thom and Torie Foote of Footehills Farm in Colbert, Washington. Thom and Torie are herb farmers who practice the ethics and principals of permaculture in their “sell and sustain” operation. They sell their produce to restaurants through LINC Foods. Community members can purchase produce and herbs through their website or by stopping by their farm.
Tell me about yourselves. What were you doing prior to starting your farm?
We were educators in Alaska for about 30 years. We wanted to leave Alaska because of the high cost of living, and were thinking about what we wanted to do next. We had both been gardening throughout our lives and knew we would enjoy farming. After searching a variety of geographic regions, we came across Spokane and decided this was the area where we wanted to be. We found a place on the side of a hill in a pine forest, just north of Spokane in a little town called Colbert, bought it and moved there in January of 2012. What they didn’t know at the time was that the soil was composed of clay and fractured basalt, so if we were to be successful in farming, we needed to understand how to work with this land. I (Thom) took a three month permaculture class. It was a great experience because every day I would come home with fresh new knowledge. I learned about Hugelkultur, which is a method of growing plants in raised beds. I built some raised beds using this method, and in June of 2012 we put our first seeds in the ground. Since then, we basically have been growing soil so that we can grow herbs.
Why did you choose to focus on herbs?
We both liked to cook, and I became enamored with the idea of growing herbs because I thought there would be lots of chefs in Spokane who would appreciate the use of fresh herbs. One of the goals of permaculture is to grow perennials on your land. The reason for this is to practice what is called “minimum in, maximum out”, which means that over time you want to minimize the amount of labor you put into your operations and maximize the output. In addition to perennials, we chose to raise animals that require the least amount of labor. The sale of meat from the animals we raise pays for almost all of the feed that we use for our animals and, at the same time, provides us with virtually free meat. It is as close of a self-supporting system that we can make thus far. Our goal is to grow all of the nutrients that we need. We are nutrient farmers.
On your website it states that you founded your farm in order to eat better, live better and find new dimensions of flavor within permaculture practice. With this in mind, what have been some of the most unexpected things you have discovered in the time that you have been farming?
One of the most unexpected things for me (Thom) is that every day working in our growing beds is an aromatherapy experience. As an example, I might get to inhale the fragrance of lavender, Russian sage, or Greek oregano. It is a constant stimulation of all of my senses. Another unexpected result has been how much I have been learning every day. There is never an end to learning in this business! I (Torie) have become a food activist. It has been so disappointing for me over the years to see so many large farms have been sold to developers, rather than to other farmers who can continue the tradition of growing food from the land. The problem lies in the fact that there is no access for small farmers to obtain funding to purchase these big plots of land, and as a consequence our country is losing our farm lands. The other thing I have discovered since starting our farm is that we have been able to do a lot with medicinal herbs. These are very popular, and we find that people have been seeking out these herbs even without us advertising to promote them.
On your website you discuss the core ethics of permaculture; care of people, care of the earth, and sharing of the surplus. You also list the 12 principals of permaculture, and how you practice these principals. Which of these principals have been the easiest to adopt, and which have presented challenges for you?
The most difficult principal is managing the production of waste. While we try to minimize the waste, there is still some amount of waste that goes straight to the dump and ends up in the landfill. But to balance this, I pursue the use of resources outside the farm as much as possible that would otherwise be thrown away. For example, every year I go into town and collect 200 – 300 bags of maple and oak leaves. I bring them back to the farm, shred them and use them as mulch and add them to my compost. I also have an agreement with one of our local merchants who sells brewed coffee. I pick up an eight pound bag of used coffee grounds every single day and use hundreds of pounds in compost. The over-arching positive in using coffee grounds is that I keep these from going into the dump. This also contributes toward going carbon neutral in our operations.
The easiest principal is to go slow, observe and interact. The principals of permaculture include taking time to get to know your land. This is called sector analysis. This principal really forms the basis of the design of your operation. You have to go slow, as that is the only way you are going to be successful.
You host volunteers at Footehills Farm. Can you describe what a typical volunteer will learn and experience while working on your farm?
We are a little unique in that Torie and I have embraced the concept of a teaching farm because we have been teachers in the past. Some farms only accept volunteers who already have experience. We accept volunteers ranging from those who have never had their fingers in the dirt, all the way up to experienced farmers. For those who come to us without knowing anything, we have a very simple goal. That is, when those people leave, they will know more than when they came. Everything I talk to them about relates to some component of farming. Whether it is how to grow good soil, how to plant a transplant, to some of the more advanced ideas depending on how long they are here. I incorporate permaculture as well. Since six years ago when I took my first permaculture class to now, the core ethics have become a very important part of my life. Not just for farming, but for interacting with my friends and community. The ethics coupled with the principals have caused me to live a life that I am extremely comfortable with. This whole operation and our work with volunteers allow us to have a positive influence on people’s lives at a fairly early age. Most volunteers are 20 – 30 year old. They come to us looking for something that will give them a little more meaning and fulfillment in their lives. It feels great when volunteers come back to us after their experience and express how much they have learned and how it has impacted their lives. This is when we know we are making a difference.
What are your most popular products?
The salves and oils, along with our horseradish and pesto.
What are your future plans for Footehills Farm?
We want to grow more soil. We always have to grow soil. We believe in the saying that how good a plant looks and tastes is directly attributable to how good the soil is. Our goal is always to improve our business, to increase our sales, to always be improving our reputation. We are beginning to do that a bit now in the Spokane area because we are becoming known for having the best tasting dry herbs and the best tasting vegan pesto and horseradish. We will continue to work on improving the quality of our products. We feel obligated to provide our community with the very best products we can grow.
Do you have any concerns related to the future of farming operations?
The biggest challenge I can see, not only for us but for everyone, is climate change because it impacts so many elements. Torie and I know that it will affect how we grow our products, primarily because it will impact the use of water on our farm. I am a bit pessimistic regarding how individuals can reverse the negative consequences of climate change, other than by practicing permaculture. Think global, act local. For us that means using permaculture as a tool which helps us to provide the best quality food sustainably and responsibly. I am a firm believer that each and every one of us needs to be an ambassador for those beliefs that we value the most. I think that how are living frugally and sustainably is an example that others can learn from. Live a sustainable live, minimize damage to our environment and help to offset the damage that is being done. Like a rock tossed into a pond, our individual actions send out ripples that other people pick up on. Be the change that you want to see in the world.
For more information about Footehills Farm please visit their website at: footehillsfarm.net
Interview by Juliana Anderson.