The community gathers regularly on Greenbank Farm on Washington State’s beautiful Whidbey Island. They learn about seed saving and sustainable farming. They may also walk its nature paths, enjoy its demonstration gardens, or purchase food or art from several local businesses that generate income for the farm.
Not so long ago, though, this historic former-loganberry farm was about to succumb to residential development. But the local citizens rallied to save it, and turned it into a Mecca for nature lovers, sustainable farmers and gardeners instead.
History of Greenbank Farm
In the early 1900s, the farm encompassed 522 acres. The owners harvested its woodland trees and ran their dairy in the fields. It was eventually sold to John Molz in the 1940s. By 1970, Molz had turned the property into the largest loganberry farm in the country. In the early 70s, a wine company purchased ownership of the property. But in 1995, that company revealed plans to sell the property for residential lot development.
Between 1995 and 1997, locals and friends of locals rallied to make a plan to rescue the farm from development. By 1997, a consortium was formed made up of Island County (the county in which the farm resides) the Nature Conservancy, and the Port of Coupeville (Coupeville is a town near the farm). Together, they purchased the entire 522-acre property. To be exact, the Port of Coupeville acquired the 151-acre operating farm, while Island County and the Nature Conservancy now own the remaining woodlands.
By 2008, the Greenbank Farm Ag Training Center was established. And in 2009, community volunteers developed a new Master Site Plan which was approved by officials; they call it their “road map to the future.” Today, the farm’s main barn dates from 1904. The former farmhand’s house is still in use and is called the “Jim Davis House.” The rest of the buildings replicate those of early 1900s farms.
The Farm Today
The working farm segment of Greenbank Farm is now involved in a variety of sustainable agriculture and gardening projects. For example, it shares knowledge about saving and improving open-pollinated seeds, touching on heirlooms but also how to improve and manage locally adapted seeds. “We have had several workshops around seed saving,” Sebastian Aguilar, Training Director of the Greenbank Farm Ag Training Center, said. “Our focus has been to teach the principles of seed saving and variety improvement to farmers and gardeners in the hopes that not only will they preserve heirlooms but that they will adapt and improve them and other varieties to meet the current and future needs of our local sustainable agriculture.”
“We also grow variety trials to assess which varieties are worth saving,” Aguilar said. For this, Greenbank Farm holds public field days where people can compare, for example, 12 varieties of carrots and beets. In the winter they host seed workshops at the farm with classes on seed-cleaning techniques, seed marketing and seed breeding. “We are also launching a discussion group soon that will focus on seed-saving issues and starting a seed equipment rental program,” he said.
And that’s just the beginning.
Agriculture Training School
This segment of the Greenbank Farm project consists of four areas of focus, all of which synergize and overlap. The first two areas of focus are the residential Organic Farm School and the farm’s CSA. Students who are aspiring small-scale organic farmers cooperate to manage 8 acres of Greenbank Farm which are operated as certified organic production of vegetables, poultry and bees. The farm serves a 70-member CSA program, a farmers’ market, and local food retailers. Along with those crops, the school farm grows seed crops, berries, research plots and cover crops. Students also learn to operate tractors and build greenhouses. The school runs full-time for 7-1/2 months.
“I would say about one half of the students are from Washington and Oregon and the other half are from everywhere else,” Aguilar said. “We have had students from Georgia, California, North Carolina, Maryland, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Illinois, and elsewhere.”
Besides managing the farm, students attend weekly lectures, discussions and demonstrations which help them learn about direct marketing, business planning and many other aspects needed for small farms to succeed.
There are very proactive aspects about this farm school that stand out to those with an affinity for restoring small local farms to the landscape. As small farming in the 1980s gave way to corporate farm businesses, “field work” somehow split off from the definition of farming, leaving the business end to the big boys who never touched soil. But field work is only a segment of successful sustainable farming, and farmers are taking back the true livelihood of small farming again, which means being business savvy and knowing their customers well.
Also, small local farms are each unique to their climate, soil and the community they serve. There are certain growing methods that can be applied to most locations, but sustainable local farms aren’t operated on a generic set of rules that applies to all locations and all communities. The 3-acre farm that serves a bustling seaside resort town of world travelers will be different than the 3-acre Midwest farm serving a small-town community steeped in tradition with its own very different history and tastes. At Greenbank Farm’s Organic Farm School, students also take part in their own independent research project and create their own personal business plans. Plus, they take regular field trips out to other farms to see variations and hear the stories of other producers. It’s a model any farm school could be proud of.
Greenbank Farm’s community supported agriculture farm segment offers 20 weeks of delivery to several local small town pick-up locations on either Tuesdays or Fridays. They offer a “basic share” and a “bountiful share,” with a work/trade opportunity to pay for the share fee. The shares include herbs, strawberries and both traditional garden crops and specialty or heirloom varieties such as heirloom amber tomatoes.
The third focus of the Agriculture Training School is the Organic Seed Project. This segment receives grants to offer organic vegetable seed education, and production and improvement activities, including seed trials. States the seed program’s online description:
“In our trials we grew 12 varieties of each crop in our search for open-pollinated, high-quality, fresh-market varieties that we could both market and save seed on…
Unfortunately, our current seed system is dominated by a limited diversity of hybrid and GMO varieties, owned and developed by multinational corporations whose primary goal is profit, not stewardship of this genetic resource and the development of a sustainable seed system.
To ensure proper stewardship of our seed heritage, we need farmers to become the foundation of our seed system… from preservation and improvement to production and distribution. By engaging in seed stewardship and farmer education, Greenbank Farm is contributing to the development of an organic, farmer-based, regionally-strong seed system.”
The fourth focus is the Agriculture Training Center’s workshops and events and community school that both students and local community can participate in. Throughout the year, various volunteers offer classes and workshops on such topics as organic soil for farmers and gardeners, creating and using farm budgets, and how to use and benefit from cover crops. Most are held right on the farm like the veggie variety trial field days and Sunday farm and flea markets.
Others are arranged as field trips or outreaches to other farms. For example, they hold various organic seed production and improvement workshops throughout the season, including one at another Washington State farm. It’s sponsored by the WSDA Specialty Crops Block Grant program and taught by the staff of the Organic Seed Alliance. Participants learn about seed harvesting and cleaning, and crop-improvement techniques. They experience evaluating a variety from a field trial, view seed crops and watch seed-cleaning demonstrations.
Greenbank Farm maintains walking trails for the community, and its extended land beyond the working farm is utilized and preserved in a variety of ways, including more off-leash nature trails. It also rents space out for one-time events like weddings, as well as to various private ongoing businesses which in turn generate awareness about the farm and attract people to visit it directly. This potentially brings in additional revenue for and awareness of farm projects. These on-farm ongoing businesses include the very popular Whidbey Pies Cafe which specializes in artisan pies. Another is Greenbank Farm Cheese & Specialities which sells organic cheeses along with other special kitchen items. There is also a wine shop and various art galleries.
Surrounding the shops and galleries are a patchwork quilt of well-maintained gardens through which visitors enjoy strolling. These include a shade garden, a rain garden (with more rain gardens planned), and a pond and wetlands. These are maintained by both the Washington State University’s Master Gardeners and a local garden club — the Greenbank Garden Club. Rain gardens help collect rain from roof run-off, and other human-made causes for excess erosive water, and naturally filter it and percolate it back into the groundwater as nature intended.
Greenbank Farm also maintains a p-patch for the community. There are 26 plots people can rent on a yearly basis. Each fenced plot is either 10 by 20 feet or 20 by 25 feet with soil that has grown in fertility over the years from previous gardeners. “Basically our p-patchers are local folks who want some nice gardening space — full sun and good soil,” Aguilar said, “and are interested in organic production. Many of them have been part of the p-patch for many years now. We provide the spaces for a minimal fee that covers their water use.”
As well, there are slightly larger plots for rent nearby. “There is yet another garden area very near the p-patches called Market Gardens,” Julie Dougherty Winger said, which “are approximately 1/8 acre in size as opposed to the much smaller p-patches.”
“While the p-patchers mostly grow food for themselves, the three market gardeners we have tend to take their produce to market or process it for their prepared food business,” Aguilar said.
One could accurately describe Greenbank Farm as the farm that was saved. But it is now doing a lot of saving in return — saving seed, saving land, and saving the ongoing progress of sustainable farming and gardening.
To visit or learn more, visit www.GreenbankFarm.biz.
Barbara Berst Adams is author of the books Micro Eco-Farming, and The New Agritourism: Hosting Community & Tourists on Your Farm. Find more of Barbara’s writings online at www.Local-Farm-Living.com and www.MicroEcoFarming.com.