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Permaculture education focus at Shambala Farm

Jul 2nd, 2013 | Category: Community

by Jessamyn Tuttle

When I showed up at Shambala Permaculture Farm and Nursery, a group of small kids was busy eating salad. Over the course of several visits, their class had worked the soil and sowed seeds in a small plot on the farm. They weeded, tended and harvested the greens. They washed the produce, learned about barter at the farm stand, then sat down to a meal of absolutely fresh salad. Some ate with enthusiasm, others more dubiously, as Shambala owner Nancy Chase heaped their plates and passed around pepitas and almonds.

Owner Nancy Chase with her dogs in the greenhouse. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

This kind of hands-on education is what Shambala is all about, whether for five-year-olds or adults. Between workshops, farm tours, a farmstand, the edible gardens and the livestock, the farm creates opportunities for visitors to learn about sustainable living and food production through permaculture, which is defined as “human settlements and agricultural systems that mimic natural ecologies.”

Chase herself is a certified permaculture designer, and is available to help people design edible gardens for their own yard or property. “Our desire is to help people have food in their front yard,” said Chase, creating what she thinks of as “food empowerment.”

Chase was no stranger to farming before she started Shambala, spending time on her family’s farm and raising and showing livestock. Her grandfather had property on Orcas that she remembers as a wonderful permanent landscape, full of paths to explore. “I feel like I’m duplicating what he had,” she said, while putting her own spin on it. For many years she worked in the travel industry, but over time felt that she wanted to put her energy into more sustainable, close-to-home options. She has owned her property on north Camano for 15 years, but about three years ago she decided to take it in a new direction.

Part of that was sourcing as much food as possible from her own land. “I wanted to walk around in the morning and eat my breakfast,” she said. That wish has come true with a vengeance, as the farm now hosts dozens of fruit and nut trees, artichokes, berries and any number of perennial herbs and vegetables. “It’s been an interesting journey.”

But she also wanted to help others learn to be self-sufficent. Realizing that the project she had in mind was too big to do alone, she began inviting people to come work with her. Through Permaculture Convergence and farm networking websites, she collected partners and interns to come out to Shambala and begin turning it into a self-sufficient farm and resource for permaculture education.

After that first year, they’ve been able to add to the farm staff by word of mouth and personal referral, and now consider them “associates” rather than interns. “They’re guests in our home, welcome to stay, welcome to go,” Chase said.

Each person brings their own energy to Shambala, and leaves their own mark. One person built a cob oven on a corner of the property, while others might be more interested in planting a new garden or teaching landscape design classes.

“We’re all trying to live sustainably,” she said. “It’s easier together.”

There are many different gardens in progress on the property. The oldest area is the “food forest,” which is built around some mature fruit and nut trees and many edible perennial plants. “Perennials are five times more nutritious than annuals,” said Chase, as well as easier to grow than typical annual crops. Nearby is the herb spiral, which is only a couple of years old but includes many quickly maturing plants, like lavenders and roses.

Several gardens use the principle of guild planting, where plants are chosen that systemically work together, like one plot where blueberry plants are mulched with rhubarb leaves and surrounded by comfrey, which serves as green manure and a natural barrier between the garden bed and the lawn grass. Other plantings are on “hugelkultur” berms, where woody debris like old barn wood or cut branches are used as a base with manure and soil on top. This has proved to be an effective technique for areas with a high water table, the wood serving as a moisture sponge and barrier, keeping the plants’ roots out of the water.

The rest of the property is a mix of garden beds, wild areas used for camping and foraging, and pasture, where Shambala is working with the local conservation district to set up responsible grazing areas for livestock and protect existing waterways. An open lawn surrounded by a new “food forest” planting is being used to host weddings, with a nearby barn for receptions. The barn also serves as classroom, meeting room and hang-out space for the interns. Shambala offers classes in fermenting, cob oven building, using woody yard debris, marketing, and anything else they feel promotes sustainable living. In August they will be offering a residency class in permaculture design.

Customers have a choice of joining Shambala’s CSA or just visiting the farmstand, which has regular weekend hours and is open by appointment. They sell organic produce, vegan and gluten-free breads and muffins, and edible plants in the self-serve nursery. On open days a farm tour gives customers a chance to see how the food is grown and visit with the goats and other farm animals.

For more information, visit Shambala Permaculture Farm and Edible Nursery at 395 E North Camano Drive, Camano Island,  call (360) 387-4114 or see

Published in the July 2013 issue of Grow Northwest

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