A sustainable local food source is germinating on 18 acres of farmland in Olney.
Teresa Rezlaff and Packy Coleman bought their first farm last year with plans to do more than just agriculture.
Their method of sustainable farming merges ecology, agriculture and community - and fosters mutually beneficial relationships on all fronts.
A keystone of their plan is to work cooperatively with the landscape of their new farm, much of which is waterlogged and receives frequent visits from a migrating herd of elk. By employing permaculture techniques, they believe they can sustain food production year-round, maintain natural habitat for wildlife and preserve the surrounding watershed.
Unlike many modern agricultural techniques, permaculture aligns human goals with natural processes to create a more permanent system of growing food. Using certain plants and wildlife to control pests and deliver nitrogen to the soil, for example, can wipe out the need for chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides - as well as their associated economic and environmental costs.
Astorian Brandon Massey, who teaches yoga at Clatsop Community College and has lived for years without owning a car, is studying permaculture remotely through a school in Vermont. He is using the Olney farm as a testing ground for its applications on the North Coast.
Massey's studies of the Olney farm are theoretical for now, but Coleman and Retzlaff are looking seriously at his designs as they begin the task of starting up their sustainable farm.
"It's just a huge blank canvas," Retzlaff said. "We've spent a lot of time watching the land and listening to the land. We'll work with what the land is willing to do. Too often people fight against nature in trying to grow things."
The crop list for the farm includes potatoes, carrots, spinach, peas, beans, garlic and possibly hops. They will keep bees and open the farm up for tours and classes, too.
While Coleman and Retzlaff haven't decided whether they will apply for organic certification on their farm, they are committed to organic principles.
Massey explained how permaculture techniques could make it easier for them to maintain an organic farm.
"It's a form of agriculture that will be sustainable," he said. "That will not require your constant intervention to keep it at the state you want it. You're not fighting against what nature wants to do with the area. You're first learning what the nature of the space is and then applying what you have learned so you can work in harmony with it."
For the Olney farm, Massey is looking for possible "plant guilds" that will work together to fix nitrogen in the soil, offer shelter or places for insects to lay eggs, plants that attract pollinators for crops and that have a balance of shallow and deep roots to balance the delivery of water and nutrients. He is also looking for ways to create back-up systems in case one planting fails.
"You create these associations so the plants have mutual support within them, which helps make the area more stable," he said. "Plants should be serving more than one function. You are working on this kind of mosaic of function among the plants."
Massey said Coleman and Retzlaff could plant trees with a dense understory of shrubs around an elk migration corridor that would deliver nutrient-rich food for elk while screening the rest of the farm from view.
"There are about 40 head of elk that walk through that property regularly," he said. "We want to make a corridor for them and hope they won't be too tempted by other parts of the farm. It's a pretty tall order."
A berry patch could be planted beyond that corridor to make use of wet, acidic soils while an orchard could grow on the higher ground, he said. Within the orchard, patches of herbs could be planted that wouldn't compete with the apple trees. Their rooting patterns would work well together, he said.
"A lot of people think permaculture gardens are kind of messy," Retzlaff said, "but the biodiversity and balance gives it strength."
Retzlaff said it's easiest to plant crops in rows, but she's envisioning rows of flowers interspersed with food plants to attract pollinating insects.
Plantings for the elk corridor will also attract birds that will help control pests on the farm, she said.
Retzlaff and Coleman moved to the North Coast six years ago and up until last year leased 20 acres of land on the former Ostman dairy farm in Seaside where they grew flowers, herbs and edible plant starts to sell at local farmers markets.
"We wanted to live a more simple life," Retzlaff said. "I always liked the idea of growing plants for a living, to follow the seasons, work outside and pay attention to what is going on in nature."
Over time on the Ostman farm, their vision for food production grew.
It took two years for them to finally secure the Olney farm to realize their broader vision, which is coming together this year. Retzlaff currently works for the North Coast Land Conservancy in Seaside, and Coleman is a baker at the Blue Scorcher in Astoria.
On the Ostman farm, the couple grew tomato and lettuce plant starts and sold them at farmers markets in Cannon Beach, Manzanita and Astoria. They loved sharing people's joy when they successfully grew their own food, and they're learning from local gardeners what may be possible for their new farm.
"When we first moved here we were told you can't grow crops here," Retzlaff said, "but when I look at people's gardens I see people are growing all kinds of things, so I think it's possible."