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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Small Plot of Organic Farmland in Central Washington Shines Amidst Endless Acres of Orchards

March 9, 2012 |

Large-scale agriculture dominates the Columbia Basin in Central Washington. Circle-irrigated fields of wheat, alfalfa, potatoes and other commodity crops stretch as far as the eye can see. Situated amidst 1000-acre fields and endless orchards near Royal City, Wash., is Cloudview EcoFarm, a unique small-scale organic vegetable farm that clearly stands out.

It’s not only the small plots containing a diversity of vegetables not typically found in the area that are unique at Cloudview, but also the farm’s approach to strengthening the local food system. Instead of trucking produce to Seattle – where it sells faster and at higher prices – Cloudview EcoFarm prefers to sell locally and cultivate a regional market for their food. They have even started selling shares of their 85-member CSA program to some neighboring commercial-scale farmers.

“I really wanted to focus on growing food that the people in the area eat,” said founder and owner Jim Baird. “This area considers itself a large agriculture area, but the farmers don’t grow stuff that people eat.”

Rows of Organic Greens at Cloudview EcoFarm. Photo courtesy of Cloudview EcoFarm.

Baird isn’t just building a local food scene; he’s building a community of young farmers who live and work on his land. The farm functions like a cooperative. Employees at Cloudview EcoFarm refer to each other as co-creators. They live at the farm and have titles like planning focalizer, seed program focalizer and perennial focalizer.

“I call it plop-down management,” Baird said. “It’s a combination of working together for the group effort and also allowing some room for individual ideas and passion.”

In just five years, Cloudview EcoFarm has had some success in building a regional market and spreading sustainable agriculture in this agribusiness-dominated region. In addition to the CSA, Cloudview EcoFarm sells produce at three farmers markets, and provides food to local schools, restaurants and a food cooperative.

Cloudview EcoFarm is a main producer for the budding Ellensburg Food Cooperative, 50 miles west in Ellensburg, Wash. “Jim Baird has been sort of like a founding member,” said Karen Ingalls, secretary of the cooperative. “Cloudview really has been an essential source of information for us.”

Roots in Big Agribusiness

Baird is no stranger to big agribusiness. He has grown commercial-scale circle-irrigated crops and hundreds of acres of apples for more than 38 years in Royal City. Even now, Cloudview EcoFarm exists along side Baird Orchards, Baird’s original industrial-scale farm. The orchard and circle-irrigated crops, which are separate from Cloudview EcoFarm, are all organic or transitioning to organic.

Before Cloudview EcoFarm started, Baird felt his work didn’t line up with his principles. That changed five years ago when a young couple approached him and asked to use some of his land. They had just finished an internship at the Bullock Brothers Permaculture Homestead in Western Washington and wanted an acre of land for an organic market garden.

“They gardened that land and I helped out and it was more fun than I had in the previous 20 years of growing.” Baird said. “From there, more and more ideas came to me about how I could blend my farm with small farm opportunities for people.”

Baird found organic market gardening so fulfilling that he did it again the next year, even though the couple had moved on. Since then, with the help of family, interns and young farmers, Baird has grown the one-acre organic garden to the 15 diversely planted acres that now comprise Cloudview EcoFarm.

Sustainable Practices

While Cloudview EcoFarm is a certified organic farm, Baird and his crew don’t stop there. They strive to go beyond organic by implementing biodynamic and permaculture practices.

To add fertility to the sandy soil, Baird developed a soil-building program that uses biodynamic practices like intense cover-cropping, mulching and amending the soil for trace minerals. Other permaculture and biodynamic practices on the farm include insectary plants for attracting pollinators, edible perennials like Siberian pea shrubs integrated into hedgerows, and a seed-saving program.

When Jim McGreevy came to Cloudview EcoFarm three years ago, he brought his passion for saving seed. Now, most of the farm’s carrots, potatoes, garlic, mustard and many other greens come from seed that McGreevy saved. “We’ve saved enough seed to really make an impact on our seed purchases this year,” he said.

Thanks to a diverse supply of flowering plants, Cloudview EcoFarm is the only farm in the region that doesn’t need to resort to trucking in honeybees to pollinate its crops. By letting cilantro, arugula and wild mustard produce flowers, Cloudview EcoFarm attracts native insects from miles away, which pollinate crops while they forage for nectar and pollen.

Challenges

The sparse population isn’t the only challenge of Cloudview EcoFarm’s location. Wind frequently blows at 50 miles an hour during the growing season. The farmers can’t work their soil until they get irrigation water in April to keep it moist. Otherwise, the topsoil would blow away.

A variety of wind-blocking trees, including quaking aspens, pines and poplars have been planted to protect the farm’s fields. The co-creators at Cloudview EcoFarm manage these wind blocks carefully. They harvest tall trees to reduce shade while letting smaller trees grow and provide shelter form wind.

Cloudview EcoFarm recently gained nonprofit status. “I want Cloudview to be a long term entity,” Baird said. “People come to me that really like what I’m doing, the outreach to the communities. I like to offer opportunities.”

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