Sunday, January 1, 2012

Okanogan Permaculture Study Group

Since moving to the Okanogan Highlands, we've gotten interested in local culture, and particularly in the number of creative, conscientious, and experienced folks who are dedicated to good stewardship of their lands. 

Our newly-forming Okanogan Permaculture Study Group includes a lot of these folks:  private farmers and foresters and ranchers; agency employees who look after public lands; nature lovers such as hunters, fishers, and conservationists; builders and garden designers and teachers; all kinds of people who are thinking how to improve their own little piece of heaven in sustainable ways.


There's a growing movement/design science called Permaculture.  It's a design science for observing, tinkering, and improving upon natural and artificial yields, most commonly used for gardening and multi-product farming and ranching. 

Permaculture folks are likely to be excited about methods like
- keyline plowing and contour-related water management;
- hugelkultur (garden mounds over spongy wood for water storage);- swales (sunken areas for water capture);
- mob grazing and rotation-grazing;
- food forests and edible prairies (pest-resistant polycultures with a lot of perennial crops)
- zone and sector design (placing high-maintenance projects convenient to your daily attention; planning your land development with consideration for the direction of sunlight, weather, and possible fire or flood dangers)
- energy-efficient designs such as gravity-fed irrigation, climate-banking greenhouses, bermed or buried homes and storage cellars, etc.

There's a lot more to it - Bill Mollison's "Permaculture: A Designer's Manual" is only the beginning of this growing field.  And while some of his insights from Australia are relevant here in the semi-arid Okanogan, there are other considerations that are particular to our specific climate.  Our shrub-steppe hillsides, with extremes of heat, cold, and drying winds, have not much in common with Puget Sound growing conditions just across the Cascades.  Our hill country climate in particular resembles nothing more than a few rugged areas of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Mongolia. 

It's a real challenge to translate methods developed for humid Western Europe or the US and Canadian Midwest to these conditions; while local plants ("weeds") are shooting forth their new growth during the brief moisture of the spring thaw, tender imported annuals are withering back from frost, waiting for a warm humid summer that will never come.  (On our mountain ledge, we do get 90 to 100 F days, but the nights are still in the 50's, and we have to hedge our bets on both sides of the growing season to reach for 70 days without frost.)   It's a challenging gardening environment, for sure, but that makes success all the more satisfying.  I currently include "learning which tree lichens are technically edible" among my gardening successes.
 
We are grateful to be connecting with experienced farmers in this region, who share our interest in developing sustainable, regenerative practices for these beautiful hills and valleys.  And not incidentally, who have gotten themselves set up with reliable irrigation, locally-grown heirloom seed and choice varieties that thrive in this climate, and on the whole, produce a lot of delicious food that we very much appreciate.

There's also a wealth of knowledge to be discovered from the Okanogan/Colville tribal experts, about what these valleys and hills looked like before industrial culture, and how the tribes maintained thriving communities reliant on local resources.  This area had a few trading partners, but was not nearly as reliant on trade as some of the big-river folks like the Chinook and Salish people closer to the coast. 






If you're part of the Okanogan community, and would like to join this group or receive notices of meetings, please feel free to leave a comment and we can connect you with the group's mailing list organizer, Barbara Greene. 

We most often meet in/near Tonasket, but we rotate between member's places to see and help with different projects, and past meetings have been anywhere from Riverside to near Oroville.