March 23, 2022
Farmer-artist counters food, fuel uncertainty — through permaculture
Chris O'Neill

Permaculturist Brian Kerkvliet is a practitioner and teacher of the concept of building a self-reliant lifestyle based on systems and patterns observed in nature. Everything on family-run Inspiration Farm is “an element with multiple functions” — including his steer Button. (Chris O’Neill photo © 2022)

March 23, 2022
Farmer-artist counters food, fuel uncertainty — through permaculture
Chris O'Neill

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The past two years since the outbreak of COVID-19 have been turbulent and uncertain times for many. As fuel and food prices rise, the drive to become more self-reliant is also on the increase.

Ask Brian Kerkvliet about how to do that and he’ll tell you about permaculture.

Kerkvliet and his wife, Alexandra, are proprietors of Inspiration Farm on East Laurel Road near Bellingham. It’s a small, family-run, organic farm that not only applies permaculture techniques but teaches them as well.

The term “permaculture” was coined by environmental psychologist Bill Mollison in his 1978 book, “Permaculture One.” The practice is to recognize environmental systems and patterns present within nature and to build a sustainable lifestyle around those systems, rather than forcing systems on nature and lifestyles.

“Permaculture is often referred to as a design science,” Kerkvliet said. “It’s a lot of upfront work thinking things through very carefully, how you can stack your functions and work the edges and design from that big pattern down to the small details.”

Kerkvliet explained that everything on his farm is an element with multiple functions, from the seedlings in his greenhouse to the cattle grazing his pasture.

A system of ditches that distribute water also serve as a catch basin for leaves and other organic matter, resulting in a continuous source of topsoil at Inspiration Farm. (Chris O’Neill photo © 2022)

His livestock are upslope from his planting areas so nutrients work their way down downslope into swale systems and are passively distributed.

The swale system is zigzagging ditches cascading down from the high point of the property. The swales capture and retain rainfall, allowing it to slowly absorb through the slightly sloped grounds.

“I can come through here every few years and harvest the most beautiful topsoil out of these ditches because that’s where leaves fall and get deposited and decompose and just all the organic matter goes into there,” Kerkvliet said. “So, it’s a catch basin as well.”

 “Once I set up this system, it’s just good to go,” Kerkvliet said. “I don’t have to worry about hoses or pumping water out of the aquifer; it just grows.”

As nature intended

In the pasture, Kerkvliet greeted his small herd of cattle, and paused to scratch Buttercup, his oldest cow, who had provided his family with milk for 10 years but now is surrogate mother for two male calves brought onto the farm. 

The calves, Button and Fergus, also came over to get some attention. Button will be slaughtered this fall, Kerkvliet said as he scratched behind Button’s ears. Kerkvliet said he didn’t enjoy slaughtering his livestock but took comfort in knowing that their lives were spent living the way nature intended.

“It’s a different kind of connection than going to the store and buying a saran-wrapped steak,” Kerkvliet said. “I would rather eat an animal that I knew lived a happy, healthy life than one that could’ve been raised in a feedlot under inhumane conditions.”

Journey to permaculture

Kerkvliet hasn’t always lived the life of an organic farmer practicing and teaching permaculture. Before settling down with his wife and starting a family, he had a fulltime career working with glass. 

He grew up on Whidbey Island in the ’70s and attended an alternative school where he apprenticed with a stained-glass maker. After several years working in stained glass, he took up glassblowing. 

“Glass was definitely my first major career,” Kerkvliet said. “I worked for a few different glass studios and after about four or five years I was like, ‘Ok I’m just going to launch on my own’.”

After Kerkvliet and his wife purchased what would become known as Inspiration Farm, his wife chose to focus on raising their children and sold her jewelry company. Kerkvliet took that as a cue to ramp up his glasswork operation and ran his own company for several years. However, he found it to be too time-consuming and very stressful due to overhead costs.

In artist mode: Brian Kerkvliet forms a small glass goblet in his studio on Inspiration Farm. (Chris O’Neill photo © 2022)

One high cost was his old natural gas furnace which required year-round glass production to make its operation worthwhile. Kerkvliet took two years off to assess what he was doing.

During that time, he also designed a new furnace, one that was much more efficient and economical. The new design not only slashed his monthly gas bill but also allowed him the flexibility to blow glass at a more enjoyable pace. He decided to post his furnace design online, allowing access to anyone interested in copying or even improving his design.

“My main driving factor was really to live within my means and to keep my carbon footprint as minimal as possible while still being able to do what I love,” Kerkvliet said.

For Kerkvliet, diversity is one of the guiding principles present within permaculture and one that reflects in his multifaceted professional life. Finding a happy medium between his art and regenerative farming, Kerkvliet now spends the winter months doing his glass work when his farm slows down. In spring and summer, he farms. This provides him financial stability and contentment.

“Diversity is resilience,” Kerkvliet said. “I acknowledge that in the natural world and I try to bring that into a physical acknowledgment in my glass work.”

Kerkvliet’s glass work runs from small goblets to large-scale, intricate chandeliers. His work has appeared in Las Vegas casinos such as the Aladdin and found in the homes of private buyers. He said it was important also to create smaller, more practical pieces so his work could be accessible to the public. “I’d rather more people enjoy my glass. I like to make beautiful things that people can use.” 

Scaled to fit … anyone

While he said he realizes that running a farm on top of a professional career is not for everyone, said the principles of permaculture can be scaled to fit anyone’s lifestyle. 

When he consults on a design, Kerkvliet said, “the first thing I look at is your solar aspect, your soils and your terrain. And then I go to what are your goals, what’s your diet like, and how much time do you have to put into this project.” 

Even a small grow project can be a great start, Kerkvliet said, but the key is tapping into the community along with it. He explained that a core concept of permaculture is to recognize that none of us can be completely self-sufficient, and that finding the community to exchange ideas and crops with is more of the point. 

“Permaculture is not just about gardening. The culture part of permaculture is often overlooked,” Kerkvliet said. “You don’t have to have a garden to be integrated into permaculture.” 

“I love teaching and inspiring people to go off and do this,” Kerkvliet said. “They make the world a better place and provide for their family, and that’s great.” 

— Reported by Chris O’Neill

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