Taking advantage of the amount of acreage that often accompanies rural property in Lewis County, many homeowners plant and harvest their own vegetables, legumes, fruits and anything else that grows in the ground, adding some sustainability to their lives. Derek and June Noble, owners of A Simpler Past Homestead in Chehalis, take it several steps further, overseeing an organic farm where all natural resources are utilized in the production of their home and gardens, as well as bypassing modern machinery to improve the quality of their land, and by extension, their crops.
A native Washington resident, Derek started cooking and baking at a young age. After graduating culinary school while still in his teens, he switched gears and joined the military shortly after 9/11. While in the service, Derek used his cooking skills and experienced the first instances of creating unique meals with limited resources.
“I had an unusual job – I went in as a paratrooper and I got stationed with the Special Forces unit. We cooked for the Green Berets and deployed with them. The military would have field cooking competitions in Virginia. We had these mobile kitchen trailers that would be thrown out the back of an airplane. We would follow it, set it up and start cooking good meals for 200 people with an ingredient list handed to us.”
While stationed in Thailand, Derek met his wife June, who had experience in the food industry, as well as harvesting vegetables in her native country. “I try to cook what we have locally into traditional Thai dishes, as well as grow Asian vegetables into our garden,” says June.
When Derek and June came back to the states, their gardening skills increased while living in Graham. After learning that they couldn’t raise chickens in their neighborhood, the Nobles started researching sustainability regulations in other counties. Multiple trips on Chehalis’s North Fork Road brought them to their current location, where they have been for four years.
“We have 20 acres – eight of them are about 60-year-old timber that we won’t do anything with,” says Derek. “It’s kind of our buffer from the Weyerhaeuser plant. Then there’s two acres of alders that act as our firewood collection. The rest is all pasture that’s been our focus – turning the pasture back into something useful, getting the garden and the farm going, and building the house.”
In the center of the land sits the greenhouse, where they’re currently growing potatoes, cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes. To the south of the greenhouse are 10 grow beds, each one of them 50 feet long. These beds house the squash and corn crops.
The Noble’s house, which they hope to have completed by the end of the summer, was created with the same sensibility as their crops. The wood was harvested and cut via a local mill, and a masonry heater serves as the main heat source, where the heat will burn and circulate throughout the house. Derek and June hope to use their house to host cooking classes and farm-to-table meals.
While a tractor does sit on their land, June admits that it’s “for show.” Derek explains: “The way we garden is very unusual these days, it’s somewhat cutting edge, and at the same time incredibly old style. It’s going back to a time before tractors and inexpensive petroleum to power farming machinery. It’s all done by hand, and we do that partially to keep costs down, but from how we understand it with the science of the soil, it’s better for the plant, which makes it more flavorful and nutritious. We don’t till, we basically continually build up and add to the soil. By not disturbing the soil as much as possible, we don’t bring weed seeds to the surface.”
The lack of weeds in the Noble’s garden allows them to set their time and energy on the planting and harvesting process.
“We’ve had great success so far. The longer we do it, the healthier our plants look. We’ve only been operating in our greenhouse for two years. Last year, our tomatoes that were in the ground looked a little iffy. This year, they’re really green and nice-looking.”
Derek and June hadn’t planned to sell any of their produce at farmers markets, but a random encounter with the managers of the Winlock Saturday Market, combined with a successful harvest in 2016, inspired them to give it a shot. Their produce was a big hit, and A Simpler Past Homestead quickly gained a loyal fan base within the Winlock community. Derek and June looked around for other areas to sell their wares, and discovered that the Gig Harbor Waterfront Market didn’t have a produce vendor.
“The market manager was excited to get us there immediately, so we stretched everything we could in the garden and managed to just barely make it with what we had, but it worked out perfectly.”
Another Lewis County-based event that’s a perfect match for A Simpler Past Homestead’s crops: the Chehalis Garlic Festival. Indeed, Derek and June’s varieties of garlic, from Inchelium Red and Metechi to Siberian and Armenian bulbs, are a popular vegetable among the farmers’ market crowds.
“We went to a rare seed expo in California last year, and we ran into a gentleman who had 200 varieties of garlic seeds.” The combination of rare seeds and the Noble’s meticulous and unconventional harvesting methods resulted in great-tasting garlic.
“When we bundle the garlic, we sort them by eye and spend time choosing what we’re going to sell,” says June. The tinier heads that don’t pass the Noble’s test are used in their kitchen.
As A Simpler Past Homestead continues to cultivate their crops and prepare the house for future culinary-related projects, Derek and June are currently enjoying the local residents who keep coming back to their market tables, appreciative of their finely crafted fruits and vegetables.
“Our goal is to grow the tastiest food, and hope in the end that it’s the most nutritious,” says Derek. We’re trying to live by example rather than telling other people what to eat – just trying to eat really good food ourselves and share it with others.”