So you want to be a farmer. But you didn't grow up on a farm. How do you begin?
Studying agriculture in college is one possibility. However, that's expensive, takes years and may emphasize scientific research over tractor repair. How can you find out if your dream is realistic before you invest tens of thousands of dollars?
Increasingly, the answer is farm internship programs, where people live and work for up to a year on an operating farm. People often have a somewhat romanticized view of what it's like to be a farmer, and internships offer an invaluable reality check.
I recently interviewed Miranda Bowman, currently an intern at Cloud Mountain Farm Center near Everson, to find out what her internship experience has been. Miranda and her husband and child came here from Spokane, where she worked in banking.
Miranda says she has long been an avid gardener, and the idea of homesteading and food self-sufficiency for her family was always appealing. She and her husband finally decided to take an 11-week Small Farming and Ranching course at Washington State University in Pullman. That's how they met Cheryl Thornton, a founder of Cloud Mountain Farm Center. Cheryl gave a presentation as part of the class.
Cloud Mountain's internship program is comprehensive. Interns are exposed to as many aspects of agriculture as possible, such as policy, marketing, sociology, research, business, etc., along with crop production. If center interns find that farming is not for them, they will have other agricultural career options available.
Also, if they decide farming to pursue farming, interns get experience that helps them organize their farm business in a way they will enjoy. For example, some find they don't enjoy interacting with the public at a farmers market. Instead, they'll know to focus on alternative marketing methods. Others may find they enjoy plant propagation more than food crop production, so they'll know to design their future farm as a nursery business. In short, internships help new farmers avoid some expensive startup mistakes.
The center's internship is an eight-month, 32-hour weekly paid program. That allows Miranda to continue working one day a week at the bank to maintain health benefits for her family.
Miranda says the most surprising thing about her internship has been the degree of independence Cheryl and her co-founder husband, Tom, allow their interns. "Every person on staff has their own way of doing things, and that's all right here," she says. "There's no one right way."
She also says she has never slept so well in her life. She attributes that to a combination of hard physical work and being outside in fresh air all the time.
Miranda says the program has affected her deeply. "It's made me a lot more aware of plants around me and how they change almost daily over the seasons," she says. "Also, it's taken me from passionate to fiery about plants."
She and her family recently found 2.5 acres to rent next to Cloud Mountain, and will start farming there next summer. They also hope to lease additional land at the center's recently purchased incubator farm being developed nearby.
"It's both scary and exciting," Miranda admits, "but having Cheryl and Tom as mentors gives us access to an extremely valuable support community. The education aspect of this internship is so important."
I asked Miranda if she and her husband had chosen a name for their farm. "We've been working on it for over a year," she laughed. "It's hard because we need a name independent of our location, since eventually we hope to purchase our own land. We've even looked to nursery rhymes for ideas. We like 'Pig and Pepper', but we're not sure if we'll even be raising pigs and peppers."
Whatever name they choose, we wish Miranda and her family much success as they join the Whatcom County farming community!
Cloud Mountain's Rainier cherries and the first raspberries of the season from Alm Hill Gardens star in the following recipe. Lightly sweetened, it's a wonderful dessert to serve if you want to keep the calories down. One sixth of this dish is under 100 calories. It tastes good for breakfast, too!
CHERRY AND RASPBERRY GRATIN
3/4 cup milk (Fresh Breeze Organic Dairy, Lynden)
1 teaspoon fresh mint, finely minced (home garden, Lummi Island)
2 tablespoons honey (Red Barn Lavender, Ferndale)
2 eggs, separated (Red Barn Lavender, Ferndale)
1 tablespoon flour (Fairhaven Organic Flour Mills, Burlington)
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar (BelleWood Acres, Lynden)
2 cups Rainier cherries, pitted and halved (Cloud Mountain Farm Center, Everson)
1 cup raspberries (Alm Hill Gardens, Bellingham)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a saucepan, mix the milk, minced mint and honey. Warm over medium heat until just under the boiling point. Small bubbles will begin to form around the edges of the milk. Watch carefully and do not let the mixture boil. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for about 5 minutes or so.
Meanwhile, using a hand mixer or whisk, beat the egg yolks until enough air is incorporated to make the yellow color lighter. Add the flour and continue to whisk until the mixture is smooth.
Temper the egg mixture by gradually adding the warm milk a little at a time while stirring constantly.
Once the milk and egg mixtures are completely combined, return it to the saucepan and heat again over medium-high heat until thickened. Cooking is done when you can dip a spoon in the mixture, drag your finger across the back of the spoon, and the wiped spot stays clear. Remove from the heat and allow to cool again for at least five minutes.
Beat the egg whites until you can form stiff peaks.
Add the vinegar to the egg mixture. Using about one third at a time, add the whites into the cooled egg mixture. Stir gently and only enough to combine the ingredients to a uniform consistency.
In a greased 9-by-12-inch baking dish, spread the cherries and raspberries evenly over the bottom. Drop the egg mixture gently over the top in spoonfuls.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until the topping is nicely browned.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen, 1313 N State Street, Bellingham
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959
BelleWood Acres, 6140 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-318-7720
Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158
Five Loaves Farm, 514 Liberty St., Lynden
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151
The Green Barn, 211 Birch Bay-Lynden Road, Lynden; 360-318-8869
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190
Joe's Garden, 3110 Taylor Avenue, Bellingham, 360-671-7639
Lynden Farmers Market, Fourth and Front streets, Lynden
The Markets LLC, 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020
Reach Whatcom Locavore columnist Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter. For locavore menus, recipes and more resources, go to whatcomlocavore.com.