Growing Community Through Education
By Alex Smith
We all know that good food is important. Eating well is one of the most beneficial things you can do for general wellbeing. We don’t all eat well all the time, though. There are a number of reasons why, but in many cases it’s simply because we don’t know how. Where can we find healthy food? How do we grow our own food? What do we do with it once we’ve got it?
This type of education around food is crucial. Teaching people to understand every aspect of food not only allows them to be healthy, but supports the local farms and food producers that are so crucial in providing us with food and other agricultural goods.
At Cloud Mountain Farm Center, agricultural education has been a key component since the first season in 1978. For over 40 years, Tom and Cheryl Thornton have been teaching people how to grow and eat the bounty of Whatcom County.
Cloud Mountain started as a for-profit farm with an emphasis on educating the consumer as well as encouraging home growers. Beginning with apples and garlic, the variety slowly expanded and before long the farm was producing several varieties of fruits and vegetables. Eventually they started selling nursery products for home gardeners and grafting grapes for commercial growers.
After 30+ years of farming, Tom and Cheryl decided to turn the farm into a nonprofit education center in 2011. While this move didn’t signal a major shift in philosophy, it did allow the farm to create new programs to offer the community even more. In addition to producing food and nursery stock, Cloud Mountain now offers educational workshops and advice to home gardeners and homesteaders.
Another major shift has been in farmer training. For years, Tom and Cheryl have been helping farmers become more successful through mentoring and partnerships. They have been mentors in the Sustainable Connections Food to Bank On program for many years, and the nonprofit has allowed them to provide even more services to beginning farmers. Aspiring farmers can be a part of the 8-month internship program where they learn how to grow everything from lettuce mix and tomatoes to apples and grapes. Weekly education days also provide chances to take a deeper dive into topics like soil health. Farming requires a diverse set of knowledge and the internship provides a combination of book learning and hands-on experience to prepare people to start farming.
Farmers with more experience can also take advantage of the incubator site. Located near the main farm, this program provides the resources needed to start farming so farmers can get a running start to their farm business. Cloud Mountain offers land for lease, the use of equipment and infrastructure, and assistance with on-farm issues. Starting a farm is a huge investment. Land, tractors, irrigation equipment, greenhouses, and seeds are all big costs. By offering many of the necessary components in one place, the incubator program makes it easier to get going without spending tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
These farmer education initiatives just strengthen the commitment to education that has always been at the heart of Cloud Mountain. The mission has moved beyond educating the public about the importance of eating local food and into the realm of growing a new generation of farmers. With the average age of farmers in Washington State approaching 60, this work is more important than ever.
If you’d like to learn more about growing food, or you’re looking to buy plants (and get advice on what to buy and how to grow them) you can come visit the farm! The nursery is currently open 10-5 Thursday through Saturday and 11-4 Sunday. You can also stop by from 10-4 on Sunday September 8th for the Whatcom County Farm Tour and get a guided tour of the farm. Finally, you can come to the Fall Fruit Fest October 5th-6th and try some of the amazing fruit being grown on the farm.
You can also find Cloud Mountain produce on the menu at many local restaurants like Boundary Bay and Keenan’s at the Pier. The Cloud Mountain Farm Center website also lists workshops open to the public and other events going on at the farm. However you decide to interact with Cloud Mountain, and whatever your level of knowledge, I can guarantee you’ll learn something.