It takes a cool night to get winter squash just right for harvest.
A light frost hardens the rinds of the heavy fruits, whose tangled vines started from seed in early spring. There's a sliver of time for farmers to gather them from the fields before cold night temperatures swoop into Whatcom County for the winter.
"If there's a hard frost it will damage the squash, and you need to harvest them before the rains come in and produce mold," says Gretchen Norman Woody, owner of Spring Frog Farm, which grows organic fruits and vegetables in Everson. "It's kind of tricky."
Woody's booth at Bellingham Farmers Market offers a bounty of the best of fall produce by September each year. It's not just squash that fill up farmers' market bins and farm stands each autumn. Grapes, pumpkins, apples, currants, peppers, tomatoes, herbs and other fruits and vegetables grown in the county make autumn a grand time for Whatcom locavores.
Whatcom County's fall bounty is more accessible than ever. Grocery stores recognize residents' demand for locally grown produce, so it's easy to find Whatcom squash, apples and tomatoes at such stores as Haggen, Cost Cutter and The Market.
"There are a lot of farmers bringing the local harvest into the mainstream grocery store," says Woody, whose heirloom tomatoes and strawberries are sold in Haggen stores.
Whatcom County's mild maritime weather is ideal for farmers who want to grow a variety of crops.
"I can't think of anything you can't grow here," says Woody, who grew up in learning how to garden with her father in Georgia's blistering heat.
While she acknowledges that items like black beans might not receive the heat needed to produce as much as in warmer climes, she says she can still get some legumes to grow.
Tomatoes are sometimes difficult to grow for home gardeners in Whatcom County because of mold and diseases such as blight. Woody grows her tomatoes through September in hoop houses - basically a plastic greenhouse without artificial light.
Cheryl Thornton, who founded Cloud Mountain Farm with her husband, Tom, has conducted trials on a variety of fruits and vegetables to learn what grows best in the county. She knows it's the amount of light - not heat, per se - that matters when it comes to growing things here.
"Plants will grow and produce based on the amount of light given during a certain time of year," she says. "When the days get shorter, plants just start shutting down."
While the county's cool weather doesn't produce enough warmth for southern European grapes like syrah or cabernet, the county is a great place to grow northern European grapes, Thornton says.
And given the county's mild temperatures, some vegetables, such as leeks, beets and kale, can stay in the ground all winter. In fact, kale becomes sweeter after a frosty night. Thanks to a blanket-like garden cover to keep them warm, Thornton says she was selling local leeks to restaurants until March last year.
With cold storage, local apples, squashes and potatoes are sold through much of the winter.
Earlier this year, Cloud Mountain partnered with Whatcom Community Foundation to become a nonprofit organization, Cloud Mountain Farm Center. That means Cloud Mountain will focus even more on farming education and fruit and vegetable trials. The farm's annual Fall Fruit Festival this year will be Oct. 6-7.
CYCLE OF LIFE
Steve Pabody, can't wait for his first apple harvest this September. He's a caretaker at Sm'Apples Orchard, 1197 Willeys Lake Road, in Ferndale, along with his wife, Sarah, and their children, Trey, 5, and Chloe Wren, 2. Sm'Apples' longtime owner is pursuing a call to ministry in the seminary.
Pabody says his grandfather always told him a man wasn't fully formed until he worked on a farm. "He told me that every young man needs that consistency and character," Pabody says.
Pabody expects to get that tenfold this fall as he and his family enter apple harvest season with 3,000 trees and five varieties of apple. He also has a pumpkin patch and his wife grows cut flowers for sale under the name Triple Wren Farms.
"I'm already starting to get geared up for 24-hour, nonstop work," Pabody says.
After the harvest, which runs September to November, Pabody will continue to sell apples from cold storage. Just around the corner, in January, it's time to prune the orchard.
It's a cycle Pabody loves to share with his children, who have already watched the trees flower and produce tiny, marble-size fruit that have grown into tennis-ball-size apples on Akane and Jonagold trees.
"As a first-time orchardist, I'm teeming with excitement waiting for these apples to be ready," Pabody says.
RECIPE: APPLE SOUP
Cheryl Thornton at Cloud Mountain Farm Center offers this savory twist on the sweet apple harvest:
3 tablespoons oil
1 kohlrabi, diced
3 carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 green pepper, seeded and diced
2 tomatoes, diced
21/4-quarts chicken stock
6 large tart apples, such as Gravenstein, Fiesta or Karmijn de Sonnaville
3 tablespoons flour
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
2 or 3 tablespoons lemon juice
Freshly ground pepper
Lemon wedges and crusty bread
Heat the oil in a large saucepan, then add the kohlrabi, carrots, celery, green pepper and tomatoes and fry 5-6 minutes, until just soft. Pour in the chicken stock and bring to a boil.
Lower the heat and simmer about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, peel (optional) and core the apples, then dice. Add to the pan and simmer 15 minutes longer.
In a bowl, mix the flour and cream. Slowly pour the mix into the soup, stirring well, and bring to a boil. Add the sugar and lemon juice before seasoning.
Serve immediately with lemon wedges and crusty bread. Serves six.
Ericka Pizzillo Cohen is an Ohio-based freelance writer and former reporter for The Bellingham Herald.