Anyone who lives in Whatcom County has probably eaten some food produced by the dedicated people at Cloud Mountain Farm near Everson. Have you eaten at Nimbus, Prospect Street Cafe, or Boundary Bay? Enjoyed some of the exotic fruit flavors in Mallard’s ice cream? Some of the ingredients you ate were almost certainly grown at Cloud Mountain Farm.
Founded 30 years ago by Tom and Cheryl Thornton, Cloud Mountain Farm was originally an organic apple farm. Over the years the operation expanded until they now have over 250 varieties of fruit alone, plus vegetables and herbs, certified grape vineyards, and a retail nursery operation for fruit and nut trees, berry plants, and ornamentals. Cloud Mountain also offers landscaping consulting as well as landscape design and installation. If you’re not sure how to make use of the land space you have available, call Cloud Mountain and they’ll look it over for you and make recommendations.
Diversity and experimentation are at the heart of the farm’s approach. They grow an astonishing number of plant varieties. Try their hardy kiwi, for example, which has a smooth skin and can be eaten like a grape. Or sample a josta berry, a cross between black currants and gooseberries, and experience its explosion of spicy fruit flavor. I’ve got to find a special way to use these in a recipe. Other intriguing varieties Cheryl showed us included Shipova, a cross between pear and mountain ash, and Lynden Blue grapes, which she described as “the Whatcom Concord grape.”
Cloud Mountain does research work with Washington State University, testing plant varieties and growing techniques. They also seek and grow rare and heirloom plants, with a special interest in varieties historically grown in Whatcom County. They have a demonstration fruit garden to help people learn how to cultivate fruit themselves. They’re also doing scientific observations related to the new fruit fly recently seen in our area.
Right now, the Thorntons and their team are developing techniques for growing fruits and vegetables in hoop houses (see photo). Cheryl Thornton, who gave me a tour of the farm last week, says the covered hoop houses help control heat and disease, requiring fewer chemical controls. For example, tomatoes aren’t as likely to split or develop rot when they are protected from rain.
Though Cloud Mountain started as an organic apple farm, Cheryl said they quickly realized that idea wasn’t going to work. For example, the natural, organic controls they used contained some sulfur, and the amount they had to use to control pests and disease was actually harming beneficial insects and soil microorganisms. They abandoned the idea of growing organically, at least temporarily.
That doesn’t mean their earth-friendly values have changed, though. The Thornton’s now use an Integrated Pest Management system (called an IPM) which focuses on using minimal non-organic controls, and ensuring whatever they use has no effects on ground water. Three years after they started the IPM, soil tests showed that their soil was actually healthier and more alive with beneficial microorganisms than when they practiced purely organic methods.
They constantly look for ways to become more organic, efficient, and sustainable without the negative side effects. At the moment, Cheryl says their tomatoes are completely organic, and the cherries are “moving that way” thanks to the benefits of the hoop houses they’ve built. Their nursery takes advantage of a “pot in pot” technique, which makes for easier and healthier transplanting. A large pot is set into the ground, with the top at ground level. A slightly smaller pot containing the plant is lowered into the larger pot. The plant grows as if it was growing in the ground, but when sold during the dormant season the plant doesn’t have to be dug out of frozen ground, and the root ball doesn’t have to be disturbed. The smaller pot is simply lifted out of the larger pot. The nursery also has propagation rooms (greenhouses) with radiant heat under the ground for healthier plant starts.
Extensive grape vineyards at Cloud Mountain are certified to sell plants internationally. They also do custom grafting for growers who want that sensitive process done by a professional.
Cloud Mountain sold fruit to Haggens grocery stores for years, but recently shifted their focus to direct marketing, now selling to restaurant chefs and to consumers at the Bellingham Farmers Market. Cheryl says they like direct sales because they get to know and interact with their customers. She also is quick to say they respect and appreciate the efforts Haggens makes to carry local foods.
Part of the direct marketing emphasis includes consumer education. Cloud Mountain offers free workshops on raising fruit, food preservation, sustainable gardening, landscape planning, gardening with native plants, and growing in tunnels and hoop houses. See their catalog or the workshop schedule on their website.
October 2nd and 3rd will be their Fall Fruit Festival, a day of fun and flavor that has been an annual event for over 20 years. More than 200 varieties of fruit and fruit products will be available for tasting, along with live music and u-picking in Julia’s Pumpkin Patch.
Julia’s Pumpkin Patch was started as a small side business to help their 5-year-old daughter Julia learn about the farming business. Julia selected and planted the seeds, and helped sell the pumpkin harvest. All proceeds were put into an education fund, which the now grown Julia used last year to study abroad in Ireland.
Cloud Mountain has an online catalog and ordering for their nursery plants, and they have a farm store if you’d prefer to pick up your plants. Located about 15 miles northeast of Bellingham, the drive to Cloud Mountain is a beautiful route through Whatcom farmland. During the summer season, they sell some fruits and vegetables at their farm store as well, though most are sold at the Bellingham Farmers Market. Check out their website for store hours and other information.
This week’s locavore menu: