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Building a working farm from the soil up

 
June 4, 2021
Julie Newcomb rolls up the plastic on a covered row to let in some cool air on Cloud Eleven Mountain Farm.
 
By Mike Weland

When Edward and Julie Newcomb bought the 10-acres of land off Old Highway 2 Loop that would become Cloud Eleven Mountain Farms in 2015, it was forest growing from the hardpan glacial silt that comprises much of North Idaho, fine for giving trees a toe-hold, but hard scrabble for much else. Today, it’s growing so much certified organic produce they’ve had the privilege of bringing in a long-time customer to help two days a week.

Edward was an engineer and millwright, Julie a computer systems scientist, both with a passion for growing things with them from childhood. Instead of retiring, as do most folks after long and successful careers, the two 50-somethings kicked the dust up on that rocky glacial till, envisioned a working subsistence farm and built that vision from the ground up.

“You’re too old for this,” a local gardener told them early on, and the gauntlet was thrown.

After buying the land, they moved to Boundary County with their son, Seamus, an Eagle Scout and 2020 graduate of Bonners Ferry High School. After much work, they put in their first garden in 2017 and started selling at the Bonners Ferry Farmers Market in 2017. Later, they tried the Libby Farmers Market, where they met and became friends with Rudy and Bonnie, owners of Hoot Owl Farm, but had to step away in admiration over the remarkable way the Libby community supports “their” organic small farmers.

Now, they provide produce for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and sell each week, May through October, at the Bonners Ferry and Sandpoint Farmers Markets, not only selling the freshest, most tasty in season organic fruit, vegetables, herbs, mushrooms and more, but sharing what they know with others interested in growing their own food and learning all they can from others.

Seamus, their “slave labor force” who enjoys all aspects of it but the weeding, is home for the summer from his freshman year at the University of Idaho, where is studying fashion and business. He’s working the farm when not at the Bonners Ferry City Pool, where he is a life guard. Steve Ergenbright, who has been a regular customer of theirs at the Bonners Ferry Farmers Market since they began selling and who long offered to help, is happy to be an invaluable part of Cloud Eleven Mountain Farm, imparting not only his hard work, but a vast store of knowledge of North Idaho and of growing things.

“After four years, it seems to be working,” Julie said.

The difference between the rich humus they’ve focused on
building and the glacial silt typical to much of North Idaho.
That once barren, light-colored silt is now rich, veined with mycelium, the branching white threads of the mushrooms they sell and one of the first steps toward building up the deep, rich humus in which life teems. Thanks to grants and assistance through the Bonners Ferry Natural Resource Conservation Service, they built a high tunnel last year to lengthen t heir growing season and they’re planning on building a second one soon.

They rely heavily on the resources made available by the good folks at the University of Idaho Extension Service, and consider educator Kate Painter, along with her husband Gray Henderson, both of whom are key members of the Bonners Ferry Gardeners for Regional Organic Well-being (GROW) program, as “the dynamic duo,” both community treasures.

They cleared forest and built 1,200 feet of deer fencing, digging each 4×6 post by hand. Their three big dogs romp and play and thanks to their presence, the deer and elk stay away even though the fencing isn’t yet to full height.

They’ve planted two orchards and have converted about an acre and a half into rich and fertile 30-inch beds interspersed with 30-inch path that not only provide wider than normal walkways, but are specifically designed to support and bolster the richness and fertility of the no-till growing beds, holding moisture and providing nutrients from the decay of hardwood chips they get from Nelson Mast’s cabinet shop.

“I love building a farm,” Edward said. “The day to day isn’t so fun, but the rewards of building a farm are great.”

Everything that goes into the farm that isn’t produced on site is produced locally, and all is intertwined for cyclical regeneration; permaculture designed to improve with age and grow more fertile with each successive year.

The first high tunnel greatly benefitted operations at Cloud Eleven
Mountain Farm.
A second will be built this year.“You tend to the soil first and the rest will follow,” Edward said. “This is farming of the future. Industrial agriculture leaves behind sterile soil and unhealthy food that looks good but is lacking in everything except how it looks and holds up for market. It is not sustainable as each year they have to add chemical fertilizer just to grow their crop. What we grow here might not be as pretty as what you’ll find in the supermarket, but it is natural — it hasn’t been waxed or gassed or polished.

“You can tell the difference with a single taste,” Edward said.

They don’t scrub most of the produce they sell, which is never stored but placed before customers within hours of being picked; a quick wash or rinse and it’s ready and better suited for storage, to be washed before it’s eaten or cooked. They dislike using plastic bags, but rather than bring their own totes, their customers demand them; they’ve tried setting out unpackaged produce but it sits while the very same in plastic bags sells out in minutes.

They grow a highly diversified assortment, selecting from over 460 varieties. “Try this,” is a good summation, and they still work to determine what grows well here and what sells.

In addition to selling produce, Julie and Edward offer those who ask tips, tricks and ideas to help them grow their own gardens, and they hand out brochures and information on various programs available to small farmers from the NCRS and the extension office. If you ask, they’ll even invite you to visit Cloud Eleven Mountain Farm to see for yourself how prolific the ground can be when it all works together from the soil up.

You’ll find them at the Bonners Ferry Farmers Market each Saturday and at the Sandpoint Farmers Market each Wednesday, and you can learn more just by stopping to visit or by calling (208) 267-4743.
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9B.News
Mike Weland, Publisher
mike@9b.news  

6931 Main St.
P.O. Box 1625
Bonners Ferry, ID 83805
(208) 295-1016

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