Photos by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times Coupeville farmer Georgie Smith, left, speaks with Willowood harvest manager Alanah Lawrason last week while she rinsed off Mokum carrots in the farm’s newly constructed packing shed. Nearly three months after a fire destroyed a historic barn on her property, Smith has watched a steady recovery and is overwhelmed by generosity from the community.

Out of the ashes, Smith farm operating

On an early afternoon in late May, Alanah Lawrason stood in a newly constructed packing shed at Willowood Farm, spraying water on bunches of freshly plucked carrots.

It was harvest day and time for Lawrason and other workers on Georgie Smith’s farm to get carrots, radishes and other crops cleaned and packed up for the next morning’s delivery.

Unless you knew otherwise, you would have thought the operation inside the packing shed was business as usual on Smith’s farm.

But the devastation from the fire that burned down the historic Smith barn three months ago is still everywhere and just one step outside the packing shed that rests in the former shed’s footprint.

“It’s beautiful to see how far we have come from that,” said Lawrason, the farm’s harvest manager. “We had no tools, nothing to process produce anywhere. We didn’t even have a shovel.”

“And we had a bunch of crops in the field,” added Melony Edwards, the farm’s packing shed manager.

The progress on the farm since the March 6 fire has been eye-opening and the result of both hard work and an island community’s caring and generosity.

With help from various fundraisers, Smith has been able to keep the business operating this season and has even begun talks with an architect about rebuilding the barn next spring.

Another community-driven fundraiser sponsored by Slow Food Whidbey Island is planned for Sunday, June 11 at Sherman Pioneer Farm in Coupeville.

Titled the “Smith Family Farm Raising,” the benefit will include culinary tastes from many of Whidbey’s best-known restaurants and an auction inside one of Liz and Dale Sherman’s squash barns.

Dancing also will be part of the occasion with Janie Cribbs and the T. Rust Band performing.

The event is 3-7 p.m. Tickets are $100 and may be purchased online through Brown Paper Tickets (search for Smith Family Farm Raising) or in person at any of the participating restaurants: the Oystercatcher and Christopher’s on Whidbey in Coupeville; Frasers Gourmet Hideaway in Oak Harbor; Orchard Kitchen, the Braeburn, Prima Bistro and Roaming Radish in Langley; Gordon’s on Blueberry Hill in Freeland or Adrift in Anacortes. Serendipity Catering from Coupeville is another sponsor.

There will even be a chance to purchase a ticket for $50 to take a helicopter ride over the prairie.

The event is the latest fundraiser to help Smith and her family recover from the fire that not only destroyed the barn, but virtually all of her farm equipment, supplies, tools and seed stored inside it.

Smith has received fundraising support from Seattle chefs who serve her produce as well as a groundswell of support locally on Whidbey.

A sold-out event held at the Rec Hall last month raised $8,000.

“I can’t control all this, Smith said, shaking her head.

“I am overwhelmingly grateful. It’s amazing how the community has come together to support us. I feel very humbled and try to do everything I can to deserve the support that is sort of overwhelming at times.

“To be honest, if we’re going to survive this, we’re going to need it.”

The support has allowed her to keep her business operating, continuing harvest and deliveries to restaurants.

Although insurance money has allowed her to purchase a new delivery van, the money that has been donated has helped with replacing tractors and paying the salaries of the workers on the farm, among other rebuilding efforts.

A walk-in cooler also has been built on the same cement pad of the one that was destroyed.

“We didn’t burn up the concrete,” Smith joked.

The focus is squarely on this growing season. She hasn’t received an insurance check yet to help replace the barn or equipment.

She knows an exact replica made of heavy timbers to replace the iconic barn is “cost prohibitive” and out of the question. But she is well aware how important it is to build a structure with a design and materials that blend in and fits the character of the prairie and Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.

“The barn will feature open spaces for community events,” Smith said. “We want to be able to give back to the community going forward.”

Smith estimates business will be cut in half from last season, amounting to a reduction of at least $100,000 in sales. And that depends on how well the farm does during the critical months ahead.

But considering how things looked in March, Smith knows just how remarkable it is to be in business this spring.

Lawrason does, too.

The Monday night of the fire was her first day of work this year.

She was upstairs in Smith’s parents’ home when she saw light outside and thought it was a vehicle. She then looked out a window and saw the barn engulfed in flames.

“It definitely made my whole body shake,” she said.

“It was one of the most traumatic things I’ve ever seen.

It was not just the structure burning, it was the whole business.”

But, out of the ashes, the business keeps going with the support of many friends.

 

Melony Edwards, the packing shed manager at Willowood Farm, prepares to rinse radishes at Sherman’s Pioneer Farm then store them in a cooler there. The Shermans have let Georgie Smith’s crew use their walk-in cooler until they replace the one lost in the fire. Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times