Many locals know and love Cloud Mountain Farm Center. Perhaps they’ve been out for the Fall Fruit Festival or started their spring garden with help from Cloud Mountain’s outstanding nursery. But what people might not know is the farm has gone through a metamorphosis in recent years. Functioning now as a non-profit, there’s a heaping pile of progressive, creative farming programs going on behind the scenes out there. It’s a veritable beehive of local food education and production.
I had the privilege of sitting down with the original owner, Cheryl Thornton, who began the 20-acre Everson farm in 1978, with husband, Tom. From their humble beginnings as a small nursery focused on woody plants and trees to the bustling farm and education center they are today, a lot has happened at Cloud Mountain in the last 35+ years.
After starting their orchard in the late ‘70s, neighbors began showing up on their doorstep, asking about their farm, their grafting practices, and if they had extra trees for sale. The demand was there, and soon enough, their business grew and they began offering more plants and edibles, education programs and events.
Cheryl and Tom are longtime locals. Cheryl attended Huxley College and Tom attended Fairhaven College. The two met at Western Washington University and have been in Whatcom County ever since. Well, that is, except for their independent international farming. Cheryl spent two years studying Scandinavian farming practices in Norway, and Tom studied agriculture around South America. Coming back together with their wealth of social, environmental and international farming perspectives, Cloud Mountain Farm was born. And it’s no surprise that sustainability and community are central to everything they do.
A quick look at Cloud Mountain’s website reveals a catalog of nearly year-round courses and workshops and access to their extensive e-commerce nursery, not to mention their free growing tips page. The evolution of programs and farming never seems to slow down at Cloud Mountain Farm, but I was also struck by how much of what they currently do was actually part of the original plan.
“We have always wanted education and sustainability to be major components of what we do,” Cheryl says. “In fact, we’ve been doing workshops here for over thirty years. It’s not just trying to do better. It’s that, but it’s also looking in great detail at what we are doing to the air, to the water, to the land on a whole through our farming and business and trying to improve all of those constantly, along with thinking about conservation.”
In Cheryl’s previous catchall role as co-business owner, she coordinated everything on the business and marketing end, while Tom handled the farming and teaching. “Throughout the years, running Cloud Mountain, we always had a focus on producing what grows well here,” Cheryl adds. “It simply didn’t make sense to us that you’d want anything else. And we’ve always had a commitment to producing more local food.”
So how did the evolution of Cloud Mountain the business shift to Cloud Mountain the non-profit? It was all set in motion because of a definitive need to nurture new farmers. Indeed, there is a shortage of young farmers. The national age of U.S. farmers is 58.
And so in the years leading up to the transition, there was a group of local food and farming organizers looking for a place that could support beginning farmers and food systems research — essentially a piece of land to use as an incubator. After years of fruitless searching for the right land (soil, water and structures) to make the incubator project a reality, the group started approaching existing farms. Cloud Mountain was one of them, and the rest is history. Cheryl and Tom made the decision to sell their farm, transition their roles and form a non-profit organization.
“It was a huge cultural shift going from profit to non-profit. We have nearly a whole new team,” Cheryl explains. “Tom and I are still intimately involved, but it’s been such a relief to have a whole team supporting and growing Cloud Mountain. We can do so much good together, and Tom and I can be more focused in our roles.”
Tom is now executive director and Cheryl oversees business development and finance. As part of the transition to a non-profit, Cloud Mountain has brought on a Development Manager, Operations Coordinator, Education Coordinator, Nursery Manager and Farm Lead, among others.
In the last five years, since Cloud Mountain has reformatted, they’ve focused on their mission of, “Building experience, knowledge and community to expand dynamic local food systems.” The three legs of the stool are to support existing farmers, new farmers, and eaters and gardeners. And they are doing precisely that, with gusto.
They’ve built an extensive internship program, managing seven new paid farming interns every year (they’ve already had 27 interns come through the program). “We teach about agriculture with a big ‘A.’ It’s not just growing. We teach the science, business, philosophy, policy, and all that is rolled into sustainable farming,” Cheryl explains. “In addition to our own interns, we assist in teaching interns from other area farms, as well as support our incubator farmers. This program overlaps with Sustainable Connections’ Food to Bank On program, which is very cool to read up on. There is clearly a lot going on at Cloud Mountain when it comes to new farmers!”
Supporting eaters and gardeners is another main tenet of Cloud Mountain’s mission. In addition to their wide-ranging courses and workshops for the public (most of which are free), they are also partnering with local restaurants and the Community Food Co-Op to get local food out into the community.
But Cloud Mountain takes its efforts even further, providing far-reaching benefits to the community. One way the non-profit does this is through Whatcom Farm to School. With its own on-site processing facility, Cloud Mountain is able to produce food for local schools. Additionally, Cloud Mountain serves as the northernmost Regional Food Hub for the Northwest Agriculture Business Center. With Food Hubs located all along the I-5 corridor, Cloud Mountain serves as the program’s aggregation site and distribution center. In this capacity, Cloud Mountain helps farmers get their goods to other cities in an affordable, timely and environmentally-friendly way. Since its inception, the Regional Food Hub program has helped generate an additional $900,000 in revenue for local farmers.
While talking with Cheryl, it was clear just how proud she is of what Cloud Mountain has become. “Tom and I feel fortunate that we can see what we started lives beyond us,” Cheryl says. “And we know it will be a part of the community for a long time. It’s really humbling. Now we can just step back and watch it go.”