Living large: East-side intentional community stresses simplicity, sustainability

Five years ago Bevan Williams drove a Cadillac and brought home a handsome monthly salary as a construction administrator. Today he gets around in an mid-1980s Toyota.

He couldn’t be happier about the transition.

By ROD DANIEL Staff Reporter

Seeking to preserve the cultural heritage of Native Americans by applying and practicing permaculture techniques, a group of self-described back-to-the-landers are building what they hope will be a sustainable community northeast of Corvallis near Birch Creek.

After refining his ideas for more than 30 years, Williams founded the Western Cultural Heritage Institute four years ago and set out to build a model community on 10 acres of east side bench land, blending centuries-old building techniques with state-of-the-art technology.

"They say ‘if you build it, they will come,’" Williams said Monday. "I guess that’s really what we’re trying to do, build something that people can learn from for years."

Currently the fledgling community consists of a variety of earth ships – plastered, earth-sheltered structures built from dirt-packed tires and sporting south-facing windows – straw-bale buildings, greenhouses, chicken coups, and paddocks, all linked by a gravity-driven irrigation system that recycles water five times before it leaves the property.

Eventually, Williams and other members of the village hope to build a self-sustaining community that generates its own power by using solar and bio-diesel engines, grows all its own food using minimum-tillage and water-saving farming techniques, and educates interns who want to establish similar sustainable communities.

"Some people refer to it as an ecovillage," Williams said. "I prefer to think of it as a permaculture community. It’s really not unique; there are thousands of them all over the globe."

About 20 people currently live in the community located on Knightmare Drive east of Bailey Lane, Williams said, but eventually he expects around 50 folks to live year-round in the earth-sheltered, passive solar buildings.

John "Mac" McQuaid, who is one of the institute’s five board members, said his goal is to have six staff members and their families live in the community full time, "producing food and teaching others."

"We could do all this and keep it to ourselves, but we’re trying to teach others," McQuaid said. "A lot of what we’re doing here is experimental."

McQuaid moved to the valley more than 20 years ago from Colorado and, in addition to selling real estate, the jack-of-all-trades is an accomplished machinist. He’s well on his way to completing an earth-sheltered, passive solar home on the institute property that will be heated by burning cooking oil recycled by restaurants.

"The oil will heat the water, and the water will heat the house," McQuaid explained, pointing to the stained concrete floor that has hot water pipes running through it. "We’re striving to use things that other people throw away."

Adjacent to his bright, comfortable abode is a machine shop, complete with welders, a metal lathe and mill – all powered by a diesel generator that runs on a mix containing one-third recycled vegetable oil. McQuaid said as soon as he "tinkers with the machines a little" he’ll be able to run the generator on "100 percent spent vegetable oil."

Part of the mission of the institute calls for operating conservation farms in different climatic regions of the country "to conserve the traditional heritage of crops, seeds, farming methods, cultural values and self-reliant lifestyle" by creating sustainable-living systems though permaculture.

To that end, the institute houses what Williams said is the largest open-pollinated seed bank in the state, and grows vegetables year-round in its naturally temperate greenhouses using organic growing principles.

"The thermal mass cools in the summer as well as heating in the winter," Williams said of the bermed greenhouse in which his oldest son, Travis, transplants tomato and beet seedlings. "Every morning and every evening we monitor and record the temperature."

Connecting the half dozen or so super-energy-efficient buildings, are gravel roads lined with fruit trees – 250 of them, with 150 more to be planted this year – slated to help feed the staff and students working at the institute. The trees as well as the farm’s one-and-a-half acres of food ground, are irrigated by a simple irrigation system that utilizes water from the big ditch as well as that which flows naturally from two artesian wells on the property.

The intensive garden area utilizes methods and techniques touted by garden gurus like John Jeavons, Elliot Coleman and the father of permaculture, Masanobu Fukuoka. Many of the tools used in the gardens are made locally following designs from modern-day farm and garden manuals.

Williams said their methods include starting everything in the greenhouse and later transplanting the seedlings in succession to the garden in order to get three or four crops a year from the vegetable beds.

After searching far and wide over several decades for a suitable site for his conservation farm, Williams returned to the east side of the Bitterroot Valley.

"I looked all over from Arizona and Colorado to here and all over the mountain West," he said, "I’d lived here before, and I thought ‘maybe it’s in my own backyard.’"

Williams said he wanted to specialize in northern-acclimated seed crops and liked the long summer days and relatively mild winters of the Bitterroot. The Corvallis farm wasn’t his first attempt at starting such a community, he said.

"I tried starting this in 1970 and started over eight times in different places," he said. "This is my ninth try. This last time it really fell together. I felt like there was a purpose in being here."

The basic premise behind the Western Cultural Heritage Institute, Williams said, is that, in order to fully understand the principles of sustainability, a person must live them. To that end the institute seeks to promote by example seven principles – voluntary simplicity, crop and permaculture practices, seed production and conservation, sustainable architecture, sustainability, holistic health and local economic enhancement.

The institute’s Web site – – describes in detail the mission of the non-profit organization and the educational programs they offer. Their summer intern program is funded by sponsorships, and information on the program is also explained on the Web site.

To allow people to see and experience what the people in the permaculture community are doing, Williams invites volunteers to spend Wednesdays working on the 10-acre parcel off Birch Creek Road.

"Every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. is Volunteer Day," he said. "And we’d love for people to come up and get their hands dirty working on our continuing projects."

On Wednesday, April 14, at the Bitterroot Public Library in Hamilton, the Sustainability Action Group will hold an organizing meeting as part of the institute’s local economic enhancement program, Williams said.

"That doesn’t mean economic development like Kmart on the corner," he said. "It’s more tied to developing small organic farms and ranches."

Even though Williams said they’ll never really finish their work in the sustainable community, he believes it will be well established in another two years with a number of families sharing in the learning. As that scenario unfolds, the former building administrator wears a contented grin.

"Basically we came here on faith with zero dollars," he said. "I turned it over to God, and this is what he’s given us.

"I walked away from $10,000 a month," he said. "I have more now than I had then."

For more information about the institute and its conservation farm, call Williams at 961-4419.

Reporter Rod Daniel can be reached at 363-3300 or [email protected]

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