How Do We Raise More Farmers?

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I may have come across the future of American farming. Mind you, what I found was small-scale farming, but if farming and rural communities are to survive, it may come down to farm internships and incubators to nurture young farmers.

When Rose and I were visiting family last month in Bellingham, WA, we went to the Saturday Farmer’s Market. In the midst of vendor stands full of veggie samosas, meat pies, cut flowers and produce, I found Cloud Mountain Farm. Business was booming. We bought plums, fat figs and little ‘Centennial’ crab apples. I asked a few questions, but there wasn’t much time. Annah Young and Aram Dagavarian were managing the farm stand. Annah is Cloud Mountain Farm’s Education Coordinator, and Aram is a farm intern.

Bellingham Farmers Market

A crowd was waiting behind us. We didn’t linger long.

I was intrigued. I wanted to visit the farm and find out more. The next day Rose and I drove to Cloud Mountain Farm Center (CMFC) in Everson, WA.

American farming and rural communities have been under siege since Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, directed farmers: “to get big or get out.” Land grant universities followed suit, teaching agriculture students to step up. Be more efficient. Never mind huge capital input and worrisome debt. Focus on what’s going to make the biggest return. Count your barnyard chickens before they are hatched.

Chicken Little was right. The sky is falling.

If “Eating is an Agricultural act,” as Wendell Berry wrote, then we will need young farmers. The average age of an American farmer is an alarming fifty-eight.

‘Centennial’ crab apples

Big agriculture has been in a race to the bottom. Although food costs are low, bigger hasn’t always been better. America currently produces too much.

Soybeans and corn are overplanted in the U.S. The production costs are outpacing net returns.

Tariffs are the latest hit on big agriculture’s operating profits.

Donald Trump threw a lifeline with a $12 billion subsidy for soybean, corn, dairy and hog producers, intended to soften the body blow inflicted by the tariff war.

It won’t stop the bleeding.

Cloud Mountain Farm Center (CMFC) offers a healthier, diversified farming alternative to Get Big:

Get Better.

Rose and I arrived at CMFC late in the morning. Andrew Tuttle, a tall, fit 27-year-old former Marine, met us in front of the office. (Andrew spent part of his service as a mechanic on Marine One, traveling with President Obama.)

Tempting plants in the well-stocked CMFC Garden Center

We were surrounded, on one side, by a tempting and well-stocked garden center. We couldn’t carry back large containers on the flight home, but I made a note of an elderberry called ‘York’ that was labeled: “Most productive variety.”

There was a beautiful paper bark maple near the office’s front porch. Adjacent columns supported an Akebia vine and a climbing Hydrangea. Below the office was a picnic area and garden with Japanese anemones, a weeping spruce and lavenders that caught my eye.  I also spotted a beautiful Daphne ‘Carol ‘Mackie’ that brought back painful memories of my own repeated failures to grow this lovely, variegated, sweet-scented shrub.

Andrew must have sensed my heartache. He asked if I knew the paw paw tree. “Yes” I said enthusiastically, my confidence momentarily restored. (We have several, large colonizing paw paw patches growing naturally along the Salt River in Salvisa, Kentucky. I didn’t want to spoil our moment of enthusiasm by telling Andrew that it’s always a race with raccoons to see who gets the first ripe paw paws.)

Andrew pointed us up the hill where grapes and cherries are undergoing crop evaluations—a vital role that CMFC plays. Elsewhere there were walnuts and kiwis in trials.

There is a lot going on at Cloud Mountain.

‘Hope’ grapes

CMFC is currently accepting applications for their 2019 Internships. The internships provide a “vocational learning program for those interested in starting their own farm business and/or being a key employee on a farm.”

Similarly, the Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky, is collaborating with Sterling College in Vermont to educate and train young farmers.

I was particularly interested in Cloud Mountain’s Incubator Program. CMFC has leased young farmers two acres for $500 a year. They also provide equipment sharing for $25 an hour. It’s an inexpensive way to dip your toes in the farm pond and manage a small agricultural holding. The hope is that this will be the jumping off point for young farmers before they decide to embark on their own.

Cloud Mountain Farm Center was started as a for-profit nursery and farm business on 20 acres in 1978 by Cheryl and Tom Thornton. Educational workshops began a few years later to encourage a vibrant farm community. Six years ago Cloud Mountain Farm was sold and converted to a 501 (c) (3) non-profit. Their mission: “…to build experience, knowledge and community to expand local, dynamic local food systems.” There are an additional 22 acres for the farm incubator. Cheryl and Tom Thornton are still at the helm.

When he was growing up, Andrew Tuttle spent time with his grandparents, on their dairy farm, a few miles down the road from Cloud Mountain.  CMFC left a big impression on the young boy. Andrew remembers the fall fruit festival when he was six years old. He loved the apple press and the fresh cider.

Andrew Tuttle in the garden of Cloud Mountain Farm Center

Andrew has been working this year at the Center’s plant nursery as retail and nursery assistant, but he and his wife Mary have ambitious plans to begin their own careers this fall. They will stay tied to the community on eight acres of their own, adjacent to CMFC’s vegetable production. Andrew and Mary are starting a landscape design and installation business that will focus on permaculture designs that will incorporate wildlife habitat restoration and edible landscaping. “Mary is a great artist and does beautiful work,” Andrew said.

Andrew and Mary hope to use a portion of their land for a small native-plant tree farm (for their landscape projects), with a little left for giveaways to visiting school kids. They also hope to pursue wildlife restoration and set up incubator farm leases for other young growers.

It is almost magical to think of how pressing apple ciders could change a young man’s life

The early memories brought Andrew back to Cloud Mountain Farm Center to: “join the community of farmers, gardeners, students and plant enthusiasts.” Andrew will be leaving CMFC later this fall, to launch his dreams, but already he has plans to continue teaching courses at CMFC next year. “Teaching is a big part of my calling,” he said.

Hopefully, one day Andrew and Mary Tuttle will be able, in the words of Wendell Berry: “…to speak in the same breath of work and love,” as they walk their land and support their community.

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