Georgie Smith, Coupeville fourth-generation farmer, speaks to an employee with Skagit Farmers Supply about a soil test that was supposed to be conducted on her farm Wednesday. From her kitchen window, Smith can see the debris pile that remains of the family’s historic barn that burned down Monday night. Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

Farmer overwhelmed by community response

Sunshine returned to Ebey’s Prairie Wednesday, and along with it, a smile from Georgie Smith accompanied by some of her quirky humor.

It was clear the shock from Monday night’s barn fire that buried a century’s worth of family history had worn off some and the tears that flowed so freely Tuesday were kept at bay, at least for the time being.

The sun that filtered through her kitchen window seemed to lift her spirits, as did the steady stream of well-wishers who brought food and encouragement to her doorstep.

“I’ve had a school friend recently who lost her son and another good friend whose husband died suddenly,” Smith said. “Yeah, it’s hard — it’s a beautiful barn, and there was so much history, but it was material things in the end. It was not people. I feel glad about that.”

The investigation into the cause of Monday night’s fire that took down the historic Smith Barn in less than 20 minutes is on hold, pending the insurance adjuster’s authorization to bring in heavy equipment to move some of the debris, said Ray Merrill, the Oak Harbor fire chief who heads up a regional fire investigation task force.

Smith, a fourth-generation Coupeville farmer, lost nearly every asset she’s invested into Willowood Farm, including five tractors, a backhoe, a combine and a customized, refrigerated delivery van she had just paid off this month.

Also gone were her tools, two walk-in coolers, her father’s old, reliable Peterbilt truck, two 19th century wagons stored in the attic, seed stock for more than 200 different varieties of vegetables she was preparing to plant and roughly $15,000 worth of dry beans, including her trademark Rockwell variety.

She couldn’t even look at the twisted pile of metal and timber where the barn once stood until Tuesday afternoon, then openly questioned whether it made sense economically and emotionally to invest again into her family’s tradition or whether it was time to cut her losses.

“Things are really unknown right now,” Smith said.

Smith took a financial hit during a drought-filled 2015 growing season, then was feeling better about the future following a solid 2016 season that helped her recover before Monday night’s fire dealt her a wicked blow.

Encouraging news about her business insurance policy brightened her hopes.

“I do have more coverage than I thought or so they say,” she said.

“I don’t know how much it would cost if we were like going to say, ‘Let’s rebuild this same barn out of wood.’ But I think it’s going to be a couple hundred thousand dollars. And even if I get all of the money on my insurance on just the structure, it wouldn’t be that much.”

The support she’s received this week from other farmers on and off Whidbey Island, along with friends, family, restaurant owners and complete strangers, has completely floored her.

So far, more than $45,000 has been raised online through a GoFundMe site to help Smith recover.

A friend set up a benefit account for the Smith family at People’s Bank in Coupeville.

The Roaming Radish in Langley is holding a chefs’ dinner benefit for Willowood Farm on April 1. Chefs from Seattle who are customers of Smith’s will be attending.

“I do not have any idea who about 98 percent of the people are who put money into (the GoFundMe account),” said Renee Smith, Georgie’s mom. “I couldn’t believe it. Georgie knows some of them. But she doesn’t know some of them, either.”

The giving spirit has moved the family.

Farmers have loaned Smith tools and equipment while one family has offered use of their barn. Customers who still have some of her dry beans in their inventory are offering to return them to her so she can start again.

Since she has some hardy varieties of vegetables in her fields that have over-wintered, and three employees who live on the farm, she has pledged to continue farming for at least the short term. A temporary washing and packing station was set up and a delivery to Seattle was scheduled to take place late this week.

Volunteers, including crews from other farms, have shown up in her fields past two days to get their hands dirty and help. They harvested more than 600 pounds of parsnips and carrots Thursday.

“Owning property on the (Ebey’s Landing Historical) Reserve has always been weird because it’s your property and it’s everybody’s property, too,” Smith said. “Or at least, that’s how I’ve always felt about it. And we’ve loved sharing it with people.

“This is something I have known about our property and have come to terms with for a long time. We might be the owners here and the people that are financially responsible for this property but so many people feel a love and ownership for this property.”

Smith started to cry.

“So when a barn starts burning like this, the whole community, it’s like everybody lost their favorite grandpa or something.”

Smith said her dad Bill Smith, who lives with his wife in their historic home near the barn, already is strategizing ways to rebuild. He’s been the biggest caretaker of the barn and equipment over the years and grew up on the farm.

He and Renee were sitting in their living room when they saw flames engulf the barn through their window. Bill Smith said it was if a bomb went off. He knew there was no saving it.

He remains optimistic.

“On the good side, we’ll replace the barn and maybe in 120 years from now that will be an antique barn,” he said.

 

The Vrable family drops off food and a gift to Georgie Smith and her family Wednesday. Smith said she’s been heartened by the outpour of community support since her family’s historic barn burned down Monday night. Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times