Thomas West

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since May 29, 2013
My wife and I run an organic vegetable farm based on permaculture principles, primarily a mix of polyculture and hugelkulture, on the eastern slope of the Mission Valley just outside of Ronan, MT.

2013 is our first season - please feel free to drop us an email if you would like to come see our (expensive) experiment in person!
Pablo, MT
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Recent posts by Thomas West

Aquarius Farms is for sale!

30 acres of prime Montana property described as follows:

2.5 acre lot upper property above canal with mixed fruit and nut orchard of pears, apples, cherries, and plums with 6' deer fencing all around. 1500sq ft heated, wired, and plumbed shop with wood and electric heat, large vegetable start room, and shower facility. 20x24 concrete pad installed to accept a second barn/shop/outbuilding as desired. 1200 sq ft 3 story Amish built custom hybrid log stick frame home with blown in polystyrene insulation making it incredibly energy efficient. Upper story is log and 2x6 construction, lower floor features 9' ceilings and 2x10 construction (!). Entire west facing wall is glass, you can walk in the mud room and out the living room balcony without losing sight of 200 mile views of the mission valley! Entire living room is a gigantic glass bay window bump out sitting high up in the air making you feel as though you are floating above the valley. New well with evian flavored artesian spring water that pumps at least 40gpm (we didn't test it past that as we didn't have a big enough pump), septic is sized for a 5 bedroom 3 ¾ home leaving a TON of room for expansion on existing system. Home is currently 2 bedrooms 1 ¾ baths. However loft bedroom closet is removable with no modifications and will allow an expansion of existing home by an additional 4 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms leaving room for a palatial mansion down the road. Upper greenhouse 20x24 passive solar vented with built in rocket stove heater for your spring vegetable starts.

Separated by the canal the lower property is 27.5 acres with a ¼ mile DEEDED PRIVATE LANE for access off of Clairmont road, again this a deeded lane, not an easement, so you don't have to worry about neighbors when accessing the vegetable farm. Entire 27.5 acres is fenced with 5 wire barb wire fencing suitable for stock/horses and has cattle grates and gates on canal access road. Approximately 4 acres of the lower property has been previously plowed and is groomed and available to plant wheat, corn, barley, hay, etc. The ungroomed portion is prime grazing with scattered stands of Hawthorne, Larch, Ponderosa, Spruce, and Wild Rose.

Centered on the hillside on the southern 1/3 of the lower lot is one of the largest hugelkulture installations in the US! Constructed in the spring of 2013 the commercial garden is 250'x250' enclosure of almost exactly 1.5 acres however due to the folded surface inherent in hill farming this enclosure can produce equivalent to 6-8 acres of flat land garden depending on how you choose to plant it. It is surrounded by an 8' heavy duty commercial deer fence constructed from recycled heavy duty drill piping meaning it will last several lifetimes with little to no maintenance. The garden has approximately 1200 established strawberry plants, 250+ established raspberry plants, countless established medicinal and culinary herbs, and some established fruit trees as well. Hugels were built with 100% on site materials with the woody core consisting of excavator smashed pre-rotted stumps, then sod, then topsoil on top. It has been extensively amended with OMRI certified organic fertilizers and was a certified organic farm for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. State of the art low flow irrigation and weather monitoring systems already installed. Lower property has a private head gate with irrigation rights from Pablo Feeder canal with gravity fed irrigation of the entire property and a holding pond for pump irrigation system feeding hugelkulture garden!

This farm produces record breaking amounts of food with an experienced farmer at the helm! The 2013 season produced approximately 40 standard tons of tomatoes about 60 tons of squash, and we kind of gave up measuring production from there. The entire property is covered in Ph 6.5 deep black loam that is between 3'-10' deep depending on location. You WILL NOT find a more fertile property anywhere in the area. Due to the southwest slope, zone 6a lake effect microclimate, and location on a hillside this garden is frost free from mid-May to mid-October giving you at least 120-140 days of growing season in a part of the state that typically sees 95-100 days!

House construction completed in the fall of 2015 - pictures of home to come but it is absolutely stunning custom Amish construction!

Please do not hesitate to contact for additional information:
Tom West
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Wilma @ Savior Faire Properties
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Google earth from late July of last year - sunflowers got big enough they are visible from space! Check for the little yellow pixels in the center snake garden.
6 years ago
Good morning! It's rainy, I'm bored, and its international permaculture day! Anyhow after posting last night it occurred to me that there is another often discussed property of hugels that can easily explained using the same physics shown in the (very) simplified diagrams above.

1. Self Tilling

This experience bears out quite well for us. Our hugels were soft and ohh so fluffy this spring when the snow melted - better than most flat ground gardens after 2-3 passes with the tiller. This is due to the increased surface area to earth contact ratio - it causes the hugel to both heat up AND cool down more quickly than the surrounding flat ground. This is because once the snow arrives and the ambient air temperature drops and stays down the hugel will cool faster and get much colder than the surrounding flat ground as it has a limited amount of surface area available to harvest the heat radiating up from the earths core (55 degrees 6' down most places) and a much expanded surface area in contact with bitterly cold air - the reverse then occurs as the hugel rapidly heats up once exposed to direct sun where the increased rate of heat capture comes into play. This causes a much increased rate of "frost heaving" from multiple freeze/thaw cycles and "naturally" tills the hugelbed for you. Self tilling will occur at a much reduced rate in warmer temps and likely not at all in climates that do not experience sufficient numbers of freeze/thaw cycles.

This also means you need to be careful what you plant on top of a big hugel with a narrow base if you intend to overwinter it. We planted an entire crop of garlic on the top of one of our large round hugels and it appears to have frozen to the last clove - all of it is dead. The thermodynamics work in both directions with Hugels - they get warmer faster and attain an higher absolute soil temp than surrounding flat ground, they also get colder faster and attain a lower absolute soil temp than surrounding flat ground. The physics indicate that anything you want to grow on the top of a hugel in this climate that has frost sensitive roots is going to need to be HEAVILY mulched and even then it might not be a great idea unless it is a perennial that develops roots large enough in the first season to get down past a much deeper frost zone. We had a much increased rate of death/stress on perennial herbs planted near the tops of the hugels vs. those planted near the bottoms and I am certain this played a part in that observation.
6 years ago

If you have access to a big hugel we will happily sell you a few starts so you can try it this year! Our starts should be on sale 15th of May.

6 years ago
Where do you get your numbers RE water efficiency? A 2x decrease in water for the same amount of production is huge given all the physical factors involved. Where do you arrive at a 4x increase in productivity? Is that a per sq ft number accounting for the increased surface area?

Does anyone know of any empirical data on relative water efficiency with hugels vs. a flatland farm under good organic soil management?

The physics imply that we may be mixing up the source of productivity increases and water use with hugelkulture.

Our experiences make me lean towards a line of thinking that the extra production isn't really "extra" in that you would produce a similar amount if you farmed and equivalent amount of "flat" ground you just do it in less absolute sq ft with a hill farm and increased soil temps provide an additional "boost". There is solid physics behind this.

I remain highly skeptical that hugels provide any meaningful increase in water use efficiency - they may be able to store water but it's a minuscule amount compared to what is needed to sustain commercial production. Without some solid side by side numbers, which we captured last year in rough form I remain highly skeptical that hugels provide anything more than a minor increase in water efficiency.

Remember water stored in a hugel is still water that gets used and when it runs out it has to be replaced somehow.
6 years ago
We put them in perforated 1020 trays - works great just let them get a bit low on water before you move them or the trays can be very heavy. I will post a pic tomorrow - we fit about 55 cups per tray.
6 years ago
Here is a picture of a plant from another nursery at approximately the same stage of maturity. Notice the abundance of foliage and bushy "short" stem - if you were to pull both plants and rinse away the soil they would weigh approximately the same amount - the difference being the biomass in our start is slanted towards roots/stem and theirs is slanted towards foliage. All that extra stem we produce is an early investment in biomass that substantially raises its productive potential in later stages of development as all the stem we create, then bury in a trench planting, will turn into an enormous root system the start below is incapable of developing - even if trench planted - because the stem (or scaffolding for future root development) is short and underdeveloped. Appearances can be funny things - in this case the bushy green plant below represents a 2-3x decrease in production vs. our trench planted "spindly" start.

6 years ago
As promised - a video on how we make newspaper cups has been posted to our youtube channel.

6 years ago
Here is an example of an 8 week old Black Cherry tomato start done with our methods. You can see roots poking out of the paper near the bottom of the cup - the stem of the plant is buried all the way to the bottom of the cup where it comes out of our 1/2" rock wool cube. By the time it goes in the ground we will trim back all but the last couple of leaf sets and trench plant it with only about 4" remaining above the surface. This gives you a 4" start with 18-24" of root behind it; combined with the elevated soil temps afforded by hugels and we grew over 40 tons of tomatoes on 1.5 acres in a polyculture, in Montana, with "cold soil". Hooray for physics and biology!

6 years ago
Something that occurs to me as worth mentioning that I haven't seen expressed often on Permies. The carribean indians independently invented and practiced hill farming (hugelkulture) prior to the Germanic people. The interesting thing is they are manipulating the same property, surface area, to achieve a different result. When you run out of land on an island you have to figure out something or you are going to starve. Hill farming provides an increase in absolute surface area per sq. ft. of growing space and so that is the solution they landed on. They also build them out of trees and organic material - for the same reason - to make up for a much reduced thickness of topsoil due to increased surface area. The key difference is they build their hills to be very large but with low slope angles and a wide base - this is to achieve the maximum amount of surface area while MINIMIZING soil temperature increases as that is a problem in the tropics vs. a solution in our climate.

I am an engineer so I am naturally suspicious of "one ring to rule them all" sorts of solutions. There are an infinite number of ways to correctly construct a hugel and as many ways to screw it up. As with any form of geo-engineering building the "right" hugel boils down to "What problems am I trying to solve and what solutions does this tool afford me in solving those problems?".
6 years ago