Bringing farming back to the Greenbank Farm

"What’s brown and dry and looks, quite frankly, like it’s dead?If you ask the folks who tend the fields at the Greenbank Farm, their answer may surprise you — crops.Beans, peas, grains and berries populate the rolling hillsides of the farm these days. But from a car speeding by on the highway, the publicly-owned farm appears somewhat less than vigorous with acres after acre of uninspiring brownness. Even close-up, you have to know what you’re looking at to understand what’s really going on.“We’re testing to see what and which varieties of things grow well here, and grow well here without water,” said Ginny Snyder, a member of the farm’s volunteer agricultural committee. “That’s why the fields don’t look that interesting.”The farm’s dry, windy conditions and rocky, nutritionally-drained soil makes a tough environment for many plants. But the folks who tend the fields say that it’s just a matter of time before the farm will be producing a wide variety of crops.According to another agricultural committee member, Michael Seraphinoff, there are actually more acres of the farm planted and in cultivation this year than last year. A lot of the planting has been experimental.Some crops, such as corn, have been less than successful, but others, such as fava beans, have done quite well despite the tough growing conditions and a drier-than-normal summer. In fact, farm volunteers harvested about 275 pounds of fava bean seed last week after just two hours of combine work. Though it wasn’t a huge harvest, Snyder said it was an important one because it showed that the crop could be grown effectively and because it was the farm’s first cash crop, producing enough of a yield to pay for itself and maybe even make a little profit.Along with the seed, the farm also harvested broad-bean favas which have been purchased by some local restaurants.Snyder said some people may be disappointed that the farm’s fields haven’t returned to the glory days of the early 1970s when the Greenbank Farm was the world’s largest loganberry producer. But she said it’s important to remember what the farm had become by 1997 when the county, Port of Coupeville and the non-profit Nature Conservancy plunked down nearly $3 million to buy the 522-acre farm from winemaker Stimson Lane, Ltd./Chateau Ste. Michelle of Woodinville.Years of overuse, chemical spraying and then years of neglect had left the fields choked with weeds and nearly useless.“The soil was left essentially dead,” said Snyder. In addition, the farm contained threatened wetlands, no irrigation, deteriorating buildings and row after row of diseased and dying loganberry vines.“The progress has actually been nothing short of astounding,” Snyder said. A high point was reached last spring when the farm was given organic certification by the state. The certification means that no chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides have been used on the land during the past three years. It also means that any produce grown on the farm can now be labeled as certified organic.“That’s extremely valuable economically,” said Snyder. Organic growing takes more time and effort but has a higher retail price. As a result, a farmer doesn’t have to grow as much to get the same return. Snyder added that organic crops are becoming increasingly more popular, with consumer demand averaging about 20 percent per year.Seraphinoff said organic farming also fits with the overall vision of the farm as a “people place,” with trails, events, garden patches and play areas.“It’s not right to have kids and dogs running around where there’s (chemical) spraying going on,” he said. “An organic farm is a good match.”Public perception that there is a lack of progress on the farm may at least partially be due to the fact that it is still remembered and referred to as “the loganberry farm.” The community even celebrates an annual Loganberry Festival despite the fact that a loganberry crop hasn’t been produced in many years.When the public first got hold of the farm there was a lot of talk of restoring the loganberry fields, and within the first year, some of the original vines were replanted along with some new vines. But a plant disease eventually led farm workers to pull out all the old vines, and the remaining vines from that first planting are struggling. During this last year, the realities of berry farming, including the fact that they often require chemical use, have made it clear that large-scale berry production is probably not in the future for the farm. “We are going to have loganberries. Probably for U-pick,” said Snyder. “They are part of the history of the farm. When people come and ask where are the loganberries, we don’t want to just show them a picture of some.”The farm’s loganberry future currently rests with several hundred small berry vines planted on less than an acre next to the parking lot. These vines have been produced through tissue culture propagation, which means that they were cloned from the cells of a single plant in a laboratory. Snyder said they seem to be doing well and should produce their first crop next year.Because of soil and weather conditions, Snyder said the Greenbank Farm will likely never have the look of traditional grid-patterned fields. Instead, crop planting will probably follow the contours of the land and will focus on a wide variety of crops. Plans are already underway for another crop of fava beans and possibly lentils in the fall, and land is being readied for 24 family garden plots that will be sold at a “reasonable cost” to people interested in their own organic gardening. Back in the early 1900s the Greenbank Farm land was held up as a model farm playing host to fields of potatoes and other vegetables, fruit, wheat, oats and berries along with cows, pigs, horses and chickens. Snyder said it was a good idea then and it still is.“We want to be a testing area for the rest of Whidbey. By showcasing methods and crops and processing and marketing, we can give local farmers a leg up,” she said, adding that the proof of the farm’s agricultural success will be measured over the long term. “In modeling for the community we have to be economically viable. Whatever goes on here has to be sustainable.”---------------What’s been growing?Fava beans: 4 acresGrains: 6 acresLoganberries: 2 acresNew “tissue culture” loganberries: 1/4 acreCorn: 1 acreRotation crops (Austrian peas/snap peas/pumpkins): 3 acresGroundcover: 1 acreIn preparation for “family gardens:” 3/4 acrePulling peasWant to get in on some of the Greenbank Farm’s first public harvests? You have a chance this week.On Thursday, Aug. 24 from 6-8:30 p.m. and Friday, Aug. 25 from 3-6 p.m. volunteers are needed to pull Austrian winter pea vines and collect seed. Because of the warm, dry weather, the crop ripened too quickly and is now too dry to be harvested by machine. The seed will be used to replant a cover crop this fall.Volunteers are asked to bring a sack supper or snack and gloves and meet at the farm’s equipment barn. Drinks will be provided. If you can bring a pitchfork or small tarp please do.For more information call Ginny Snyder at 360-678-7700 or 360-222-3151. "

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