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In Praise of Lewis County  RSS feed

 
pollinator
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Location: Western Washington
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This post is going to be a tsunami of information. This is a description of the area in which I live and farm. I've provided a summary at the beginning, but it's still a lot to take in.

I currently live in rural Lewis County, Washington State. A lot of people post on permies trying to learn more about different areas they could live and start their own projects. I want to advocate for some of these people to consider my county or the surrounding areas. Not only will it solidly meet the criteria that many of you are setting, there are also a great many farms, businesses, and people (including me!) that exist out here that will help make your transition more successful.


Some of the pros of Lewis County:

Land is less expensive than other parts of Western Washington, yet urban areas are still very accessible. It's fifty minutes from where I am to Olympia, and an hour and a half (roughly) to Seattle and Portland

The soil in a lot of this and the surrounding counties is very good for no till farming. It's often a silt loam or in some places heavier. It unlocks well with the addition of organic matter. It doesn't seem to lend itself so well to tilled agriculture, which is why it's been preserved.

The terrain is very diverse and includes a lot of hills, mountains, and valley floors. There are a lot of options and a lot of fascinating ways to make permaculture work on different sites. The products yielded are also very diverse and reflect the different conditions and microclimates

We get plenty of rain, though in summer it barely rains at all.

We have a hot summer for growing things and winter is mild enough for winter gardening without a greenhouse

Diverse communities--I'm honestly not sure how to phrase this other than to just say it. Though Lewis county is majority white and overall Republican, there are queer people and people of color here, and more seem to be coming all the time. They include farm and business owners. The Hispanic and native American communities are both sizeable. If you're worried about or interested in what living out here is like, please message me. If I don't have personal experiences relevant to your questions I might know someone who does.

Access to markets. There are plenty of people in the cities (and sometimes closer) who are willing and able to pay for naturally grown food and cottage industry products. I'm not saying it's always easy or smooth, but businesses can be feasible if you work hard, market well, and get lucky


Diversity of agroforestry products. We're in zone 8 here, and people grow an incredible diversity of crops. In agroforestry alone people produce apples, pears, plums, cherries, peaches, hazelnuts, walnuts, chestnuts, figs, mushrooms, livestock of all kinds, berries of all kinds, bamboo (for eating and for building), hardy citrus, cranberries, and in the right microclimates, pomegranate, olives, almonds, and jujubes.



Description of the land:


If I were to describe Lewis county the words that would come to mind are terrestrial, riparian, and continental (riparian refers to the landscape and ecosystems around rivers). Ours is a land of rivers and mountains and rich soil. The summers are hotter than areas of Washington situated along the ocean, though the winters are a little colder as well due to the continental influence (still mild overall).


The landscape is rich with opportunities for foraging, hunting, and fishing. The forests yield edible mushrooms, berries of kinds, nettles, and even wild hazelnuts. Oak trees are also common. Native peoples used to process the acorns for food. I forage for blackberries and elderberries in particular. The rivers, lakes, and ponds have salmon, trout, carp, catfish, crayfish, and others. People hunt elk, bear, deer, and small game.



Existing infrastructure, community, and businesses:

Starting a homestead and/or business is hard. Even under "ideal" conditions it's difficult. The nice thing about this area is that there are plenty of people (like me! :) ) who have already moved out here and started farms and businesses. You can learn from us what works and what doesn't, and then move forward and make your own mistakes. There are established businesses that you can buy supplies from (Raintree and Burnt Ridge Nurseries are located here, for example). There are private individuals like me who often have seeds and scionwood available to sell, trade, or give away. I also know of experienced permaculture designers (not me) down here who are available for hire.


Downsides:

For now Lewis county is not very diverse and it's historically not very welcoming, though this is changing. I'm gay, and being out here can be daunting sometimes. Statistically Lewis county is majority white and conservative. But, all kinds of people are making their homes here and moving to the country.


Drought. Our summers are dry. Almost no measurable rain falls during these months. There are ways of overcoming this, but it is a reality to be aware of.



Transportation:

This county is well placed geographically. We have two major highways that connect us to the rest of the state, and Oregon. Interstate five runs North-South and connects us to places like Olympia, Portland, and Seattle. Highway twelve runs east to west and connects us to eastern Washington. We also have waterways that were used historically and that might be restored for travel and commerce. The chehalis river flows from the western part of the county into Gray's Harbor County and into the Pacific ocean. Like the Cowlitz River, the Chehalis used to see more cargo and passenger boats. There are people advocating for that to return, including for shipping farm goods. The cowlitz is another that flows from the north and eastern part of the county. It crosses most of the county and then flows south. It eventually reaches the Columbia River, and via the Columbia potentially connects us to Portland and the Pacific Ocean. Like the Chehalis it used to be used for trade, and hopefully will be again. This sort of traffic is not without impact on the environment, but is probably less than that of roads and railways.


Amtrak

Amtrak runs from Vancouver, Canada all the way down to California. Two train lines run through Centralia, a town in Lewis County (see below). It's possible to go to Portland or Seattle via these routes.


Town/city/area profiles:

Centralia/Chehalis

These are the two largest towns in the county. They’re close to one another and are beginning to merge. Both have nice downtowns with a lot of potential. A lot of money and talent are leaving the larger cities and beginning to make their way here, where it’s more affordable. There’s already a farm to table presence which includes some local sheep dairies. Amtrak has a station in Centralia, and there’s a public bus system in and around these towns.

Salkum/Onalaska

These are separate but relatively close together. Of the two of them, Onalaska is more of a town. It has a well-ranked public school system. I have friends out here who have farms. Both have excellent soil and a solid growing season. Onalaska is surprising in that it has a lot of people interested in natural medicine and alternative living. Both Salkum and Onalaska are peaceful and quiet. People are unobtrusive but not unfriendly, which I appreciate. They are near the Cowlitz River and Mayfield Lake. They both have access to highway 12 and 508, both of which connect to Interstate 5.



Randle/Packwood

Randle and Packwood are in eastern Lewis county. It's incredibly beautiful out there; both are in a mountain valley within the Cascades. Both sit along highway twelve, as does Morton (see below). But these two towns are also fairly remote. If memory serves me right it rains more out there, and the soil is also good. They're more accessible to eastern Washington (Yakima).

Morton

Morton is a town that is also situated in a pretty mountain valley. It's more remote than where I am, and less than remote than Packwood or Randle. I've heard good things about the community in Morton being tightly knit. Another gay man who grew up out there who says that he was accepted. I go to church here. If you buy land here be careful about orientation in terms of the sun. Some areas on the north side of the mountains get little to no sunlight in winter.

Rochester

Pe Ell/Winlock/Boisfort etc (east of I 5)

I know less about these. I have a friend who has a really incredible farm/set of projects out there. He has good soil too, and access to the Chehalis River. He sells in Portland and feels it’s not too far to be involved with the community there. Be aware of potential flooding in this area, though.

Olympia

Olympia is the capital of Washington state. It's a decent sized city and I like visiting it. It's built on the water (the southern Puget Sound). There's a lot of nice shops and restaurants in addition to all sorts of services. In terms of marketing there's a decent sized middle class made up of government workers and people in supporting service industries. A lot of them are at least casually interested in sustainability and healthy eating. It also has a great farmers market which acts as a hub of buying, selling, and networking.


Final Note

I grew up on the Olympic Peninsula. For those of you unfamiliar with the area, it’s a really wonderful place to live with a generally high quality of life. The towns up there are built between the mountains and the water, and have a large crowd of artsy, fun people who are often interested in the outdoors and sustainable living. I still really love it up there.


When I finished college I really wanted to move back but found that land (and taxes) were too expensive. Zoning was also too restrictive. I’ve talked with friends from all over who have had similar experiences in places like Seattle, the Skagit Valley, Ashland Oregon, and Asheville North Carolina. I realized that these places are “nice” because people like us made them that way (which then led to gentrification, another topic entirely). These places used to be like Lewis County, Remote, poor, and undeveloped. Then farmers, artisans, performers, and other creative productive types moved out to them and carved out a decent place to live. That’s what I’m trying to do here, and I invite you to do the same.


Some disclaimers:


This post is not intended as trying to detract from trying to live and farm anywhere else, and I hope it doesn't garner that sort of attention from anyone else. Each area has advantages and disadvantages


I'm not an expert on the areas I've mentioned. Some of what I wrote is fact, and some is my subjective impression. I invite anyone who lives or has lived in these areas to share their thoughts.


Please feel free to message me or post below with any questions.

Much of what I have to say about Lewis county also holds true for adjacent counties in western Washington.
 
James Landreth
pollinator
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Here are just a couple of photos of my gardens as well as my farm at sunset and sunrise
Lewis1.jpg
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Lewis2.jpg
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Lewis3.jpg
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Lewis4.jpg
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James Landreth
pollinator
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Here is a picture of a two year old peach tree, a local lake, and two pictures of my field, which I am transitioning into a food forest
AvalonPeach.jpg
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ColdwaterLake.jpg
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FieldSunset.jpg
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SummerField.jpg
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pollinator
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Nothing like local knowledge. Looks lovely, thanks for sharing the good and less good alike.
 
Posts: 13
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And Lewis county has best the bee-keepers association in the area LCBA

I also 2nd the endorsements of burntridge and raintree nurseries.  I'm in Mason county (sandier soil, also beautiful) and i also endorse Lewis County :)
 
James Landreth
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Joseph Michael Anderson wrote:And Lewis county has best the bee-keepers association in the area LCBA

I also 2nd the endorsements of burntridge and raintree nurseries.  I'm in Mason county (sandier soil, also beautiful) and i also endorse Lewis County :)




I lived in Belfair for a while growing up (on the South Shore of the Hood Canal). I also lived in Sequim and Port Angeles. I can feel your pain about the sandy, rocky glacial till up there. I gardened there as a child. Still, it is also a beautiful place to live :-)
 
master steward
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I used to have relatives in Chehalis/Centralia and we know and have visited permies in that area - great description, James!

When you say dry summers, I'm thinking it might help to make that a bit more relative. I grew up outside of Seattle where the annual rainfall was around 40-60 inches per year, though also with mostly dry summers. Now, I live in Western Montana with annual rainfall only half the lower end of that, though usually fairly evenly distributed across the year (except for a couple recent drought summers).

In my experience driving from Seattle to Oregon to visit relatives several time a year (over 15-20 years, no less!), we could almost bank on it being VERY rainy through Centralia/Chehalis on I-5.  So I'm thinking annual rainfall is likely higher than around Seattle, yes? What's the annual total like?

 
Jocelyn Campbell
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James and Joseph, I agree that Burnt Ridge and Raintree Nurseries are awesome, too!

Check out this 2018 Burnt Ridge Nursery tours thread. Hopefully, Laura will post their 2019 tours this year as well.

Also, check out this thread for Nurseries in and around Olympia - which has some discussion about Burnt Ridge, plus links for native and conservation district plant sales in Western Washington.

 
James Landreth
pollinator
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It's a great question, Jocelyn. Thank you for bringing that up.

Centralia gets about 47 inches of rain a year. Other parts further east can get 75 or more. That being said, it rains very little in summer--often less than an inch a month. Still, with a well designed landscape and good water capture and conservation, it's a challenge that's not impossible to overcome. My impression (having lived in and near Oregon too for a while) is that rainwater collection laws are much more relaxed here than down there.

As an aside, here's a list of places that I've lived. I've gardened and worked on farms in most of them. If anyone has questions about these places please feel free to also shoot me an email.

Port Orchard, Washington
Belfair, Washington
Sequim/Port Angeles, Washington
Duchess County, New York (for about 3.5 years)
Woodland, Washington
Ashland, Oregon
Lewis County, Washington (I currently reside here)
 
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This is a really interesting thread to me! Thank you for posting your experience.
My spouse and I are hoping to buy land in a few years and are currently in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. There is no way to afford land here. 500k to a million for tiny plots of land. We were considering Eastern Oregon, but it's really hit or miss and there's lots of pockets of unpredictable weather. Even that area is getting expensive for land. However, I've been looking at Eastern Wa recently and the land generally seems a bit easier to work with and the climate seems great. Slightly better prices on land too, it looks like. We are strongly considering moving.
 
James Landreth
pollinator
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Thanks Christina. I'm glad you like it.

Where in eastern Washington are you considering? You might've seen this or done research already, but I've attached a precipitation map. Some parts get quite a bit of rain--that's where I'd personally recommend aiming for. My grandparents lived out in Ephrata and Ellensburg for a long time. As I"m sure you know, water is a big thing.

I too have seen too much good land paved over. Sequim has a fertile loam and is in an extremely mlld climate, which made it attractive for paving over for retirement homes :(

rainfall_mapWA.jpg
[Thumbnail for rainfall_mapWA.jpg]
 
James Landreth
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Apparently the map legend is separate lol. Here it is
rainfall_legend.jpg
[Thumbnail for rainfall_legend.jpg]
 
Christina Doyle
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We honestly havent nailed down a specific spot, in some ways we aren't picky.
We are both interested in fiber arts, are learning to spin our own yarn and raise our own angora rabbits. Eventually we'd like to consider yaks or or larger fiber animals, so colder and snowy winters are nice.
The map for precipitation is great! We were planning on dry eastern oregon, so little rainfall isnt a deal breaker for us. Mainly, we want to stay out far enough east to not be horribly affected if the huge cascadia quake happens. Im simply not lucky enough to try it with a 9.0 quake.
Ill look around the areas you mentioned specifically too.

I can't get started talking about paving and over development without heading down a multi paragraph rant ending in the broad condemnation of all mankind lmao, but yes. I hate it. The valley here is being eaten alive and it's horrific to witness.
 
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Thanks James, for such a good description of the region very close to where my husband and I moved to 16 months ago--west of Longview, in Cowlitz County just south of Lewis County.  Do any of you from this area know of any permaculture books specific to what works in SW Washington, West of the Cascades, or the Pacific Northwest?   I have Gaia's Garden and Steve Solomon's "Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades," but am still looking for more that joins what works with gardening into what works in permaculture here.  Thanks.  
 
James Landreth
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I don't know of any off the top of my head. The encyclopedia of country living is one of my favorites though, in general. If you'd like you're welcome to visit me and probably some of my friends around here, to see how we garden and ask questions. We're always learning but collectively we have a lot of experience
 
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Just north of you in Olympia/Lacey. Looking for property around the area, or possibly working my parents place in Yelm.

I do like the area, and am considering possibly Lewis County for land purchase if I keep having trouble finding a good spot in Thurston.

I am going to start putting together a list of plants to start at my parents, I'd like to get a bunch of stuff growing this spring to get stuff started until I can spend more time there. Want to grow mostly nitrogen fixing/green manure plants and trees to add some much needed hummus. Most of the area is rocky soil that drains super quick. Do have some wetlands though but they are a bit lower so hard to harvest the water to rest of the property. Hoping to build a swale on contour to get stuff started
 
James Landreth
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That's great. I go to Olympia all the time. In fact I should be working to develop a site up there this spring. It sounds like you're going in the right direction at your parents' place. Down here we've been planting black walnut, heartnut, butternut, mayhaw, and jujube in mounds in really wet areas. We use Pacific crabapple and American persimmon as rootstock for these areas too
 
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