Fall was in full season at the Fruit Festival this past weekend at the Cloud Mountain Farm Center in Everson, a small town that lies right on the Canadian border. Until a few years ago, the festival was known as the Harvest Festival and the place was a working farm and native plant nursery known as Cloud Mountain Farm.
My friends, Cheryl and Tom Thornton, owned and operated the farm for 33 years. Seven years ago, the farm was converted into a non-profit learning center dedicated to providing hands-on learning experiences to aspiring farmers, experienced farmers, and home gardeners, continuing the work the Thorntons have always done through the years.
The Thorntons still live at the farm but now they are joined everyday by as many as eight paid interns who participate in an eight-month educational program to learn the practices of good, sustainable farm techniques. They study plant propagation, tree fruit production, viticulture, market development, and vegetable production to prepare them to be farm owners, key farm employees or entrepreneurs and professionals involved in the agricultural industry or advocacy.
At the heart of it, of course, are my friends, Cheryl and Tom. Cheryl handles most of the business and marketing side of the farm, as she has done for years. Tom oversees the hands-on educational side, as he has done for years becoming one of, if not the apple expert in Washington state and maybe the region. People from all over have brought their fruit and vegetable-growing questions to Tom and learned from his expertise through the hundreds of workshops he’s conducted for weekend gardeners and industry professionals.
My husband and I headed out to the farm yesterday morning, as we have done in many years past but not recently, to see what was going on. Although the day was cloudy (it is Cloud Mountain remember?) and chilly, the back field by the grape vines were already full of cars when we arrived shortly after it opened. Little kids were scampering down the road from the field to the festival area with their parents close behind. Lines were already formed at the tasting tent where visitors could sample all the different types of apples, pears, cherries, grapes grown on the farm.
I stopped off first at the farm’s main barn to say ‘Hello’ to Cheryl, who was at the register checking out festival goers purchasing five-pound bags of apples and pears. As she became busier, I wandered off to a hot-house where the band, Bridge, had begun to play.
Music has always been part of the festival and listening to Bridge reminded of the year that the band in which my sons and Thorntons’ daughter, Julia, performed at the festival. They were middle-schoolers at the time, all students of musician Ginny Snowe, a wonderful piano teacher who had put the band together in a summer music camp. The kids turned out to be so enthusiastic and good that they stayed together long after the camp to write music and play gigs at schools, festivals and other events.
Known as Switch, their little band actually launched the music careers of some of the band members, including Julia who’s now a professional musical director and pianist; Jeff, who’s rapidly becoming one of the country’s best classical saxophonists and finishing up a PhD at the University of Michigan; and my son, Marshall, a drummer who’s plays professionally with several bands in Seattle one of them being, until recently the funk band, The Fabulous Party Boys. (The band was a subject of another of my blog posts.)
Julia also grew pumpkins that she harvested each fall and sold at the festival to earn money for college. The pile of pumpkins is still there but Julia no longer grows them. Her sister, Cara, however, had brought her young daughters from Seattle for the day to help out and perhaps start another family tradition at the festival.
As Bridge played, volunteers Sue and Burt Weber, twirled thick, yummy caramel around Cloud Mountain apples to hand to young customers. Cooks from Bellingham’s restaurant, Keenan’s, was serving up tasty snack dishes made from local products at the farm at another table. And another volunteer was answering questions and sharing material about the farm center at a third table.
I headed over to the tasting tent where Tom was slicing up pieces of pears for people. He handed me a slice of Rescue, a pair so named because, as he explained, a nursery grower near Vancouver, Washington (Buckley, WA. to be exact) found the species and saved the tree from being destroyed. The fruit was sweet and buttery and nearly melted in my mouth. Next, Tom gave me sample of the Seckel pear,that Tom said is considered native to Pennsylvania, maybe the only true American pears. It’s said to be named after a local farmer who found a “wild sapling” growing on a farm just outside Philadelphia late 1700’s, according to some accounts. The small, reddish-brown pear has a creamy texture and a sweet taste.
My taste tests were interrupted by another pear sampler who had questions for Tom about her own pear trees. This is the kind of thing that happens to Tom all the time, no matter where he is because gardeners and growers locally know that he carries a wealth of agricultural information in his head.
I moved on to the cherry and grape tables before calling it a morning. People were still arriving as we climbed back into our car with the carton of Cloud Mountain cider and a bag of apples. A visit to their farm is always special and welcome, but particularly went the Fall Fruit Festival is underway. If you missed it this year, there will be another next year. It’s a great way to start the season and to celebrate the beauty and bounty of this fabulous farm.