A Passion for Permaculture
Why a couple fled the city life to invest in a sustainable campground
Photos by Sarah Vonderhaar and Diana Terry.
Additional images courtesy of Heart Valley Springs.
Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is investing in a defunct campground in Western Michigan to build an ecologically sustainable agricultural business together.
Those are perhaps not the most conventional of vows, but then again, James Villalpando and Kristina Smith aren’t too concerned with convention.
The two, both Chicago natives, have shared a passion for camping for many years, and when they got engaged in 2015 at a camping event, they decided they’d get married on a campground. While searching for a venue, James and Kristina discovered a defunct property 40 minutes west of Kalamazoo that turned their prenuptial plan on its head.
“People will spend an average of $30,000 on a wedding and invest in their family for that day, but we’re looking to create long-lasting investment not only in our lives but with people, to give them a chance to really spend time and bond with one another,” says Kristina. “With the engagement came our big dream to transition our entire lives to come out here. We basically turned a wedding into an investment but not just for one event.”
Much like love, James and Kristina knew this property was “the one.” In June 2017, the couple purchased the 45 acres of land with a spring-fed lake. They named it Heart Valley Springs, a nod to the property’s former life as a 100-site RV park and family camping resort, setting the intention for it to be a place of community, growth, and connection in nature.
The property will ultimately serve as the backdrop for outdoor weddings, family reunions, retreats, and other events once James and Kristina get the property maintenance under control. For that, they’re looking to methods that reflect their ecological ethos. Heart Valley Springs has been an experiential education in permaculture practices.
Intentionally Nurturing Nature
As a software engineer, James spends his days thinking critically and analytically. He’s taken the same approach to the massive project of managing Heart Valley Springs. He and Kristina have been learning on the fly, researching extensively with books, web courses, YouTube tutorials, and community connections to tackle whatever new hurdles come their way—and there are plenty of hurdles to scale at this stage of development. It was through their research that the pair learned about and developed a connection to the permaculture movement.
Coined in 1978 by Australian researcher and biologist Bill Mollison, permaculture means “the harmonious integration of the landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”
Simply put, it’s a way of managing land by setting it up as a self-sustaining ecosystem, where plants, animals, and other beings nurture each other with little human intervention.
More than a new way (or return to an old way) of farming and agriculture, permaculture is also an ethical and ecological mindset that seeks to spread awareness of environmentally sound practices. For Heart Valley Springs, permaculture is the most natural way—literally and figuratively—for James and Kristina to design and model their budding business.
For example, Heart Valley Springs uses a herd of goats to maintain the property in an ecologically healthy and regenerative way. The all-natural process is called goatscaping, and it involves a herd clearing large swaths of land of overgrown, invasive, or dangerous plants by munching away at them.
“We’ve taken landscapes that were unpassable thicket, and within a week or two, with our small herd of goats, [we] changed the character in the landscape and it’s been really effective,” James says. “Not only are we not impacting the soil and not using fossil fuels, time, labor, [or] tooling, we’re also rapidly cycling those nutrients.”
As another example, when James and Kristina were gifted several blueberry bushes, they looked for spaces on their land with naturally growing plants that complement what the blueberries need, instead of trying to force the bushes to thrive elsewhere.
“Nature abhors a vacuum. Blueberries grow on the edges of wet areas, so we have been replacing the invasive autumn olive growing near water with blueberry bushes,” James says. This method works because autumn olive is a nitrogen fixer, allowing James and Kristina to mulch the blueberries with the autumn olive branches. The nitrogen released into the soil then travels to the blueberry, thus the autumn olive feeds the blueberry, helping it grow faster until the blueberry bushes eventually shade out the autumn olive.
For the Love of the Land
Kristina and James see unlimited opportunities for Heart Valley Springs. One is to plant orchards of indigenous fruit that do well in Michigan’s terrain, such as cherries, raspberries, and blueberries, and hosting “u-pick” foraging events for farm-to-table meal experiences.
“When people come to events here on the property, we want to educate them about these methodologies, as well as feed them with the abundance that will grow here,” Kristina says.
As James and Kristina nurture their land, their excitement grows to share the fruits of their labor, their passion for nature, and their love of camping with the local and larger communities.
“We’re looking to emulate the best of what Michigan landscape has to offer, which is incredibly verdant and productive [land and] one of the richest fruit cultures in the world,” James says