No one said owning a farm would be easy | Rockin’ a Hard Place

There are many qualities to admire about us Whidbey folk.  One that I notice frequently is how fiercely we battle to keep things just the way they are.  We fight tooth-and-nail against big development, environmental travesties or any sign of America creeping toward our pristine shores.  We’d sooner jump off the Deception Pass Bridge than permit a billboard or neon sign, for instance.

Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, we also love to argue with each other about such things and almost everything else.  That makes achieving consensus – and progress – a very tough row to hoe.  No wonder our political leaders often look so tired.

And that leads me to the current kerfuffle over the Greenbank Farm.  I won’t raise your blood pressure by sharing all the details.  The Cliff Notes version is this:  many folks are beside themselves with angst and anger over the Port of Coupeville’s decision to manage the farm itself, kicking out the nonprofit management firm that’s done the job for nearly 20 years.  Adjectives and expletives galore have been expended in the weeks since, a fair number of them printed in this newspaper.  Everybody’s afraid of what all this could mean.

It boils down to people not wanting the farm messed up.  They like it just the way it is.  But here’s my question:  Just what is the Greenbank Farm supposed to be?  We seem to know what we don’t want it to be:  A condo project (bite my tongue!), a 20-bucks-a-head water slide park (say what?), a bunch of university offices (blissful cocoons for pointy heads?).  Not on your life!

The fact is, however, that the farm has always been changing over its more than 100-year history.  It really did begin as a working dairy farm until it was sold it in the 1940s to John Molz, who planted loganberries and made loganberry wine.  Over the years, Molz’s winery was merged with others and eventually became part of Washington wine giant Chateau Ste. Michelle, and its Greenbank winery became a major Whidbey tourist attraction.

But then in 1995, the Rock was shocked to bedrock by the company’s decision to close the winery and sell the land for a residential subdivision.  In 1997, a consortium of Island County, the Nature Conservancy and the Port of Coupeville came together to buy the farm and preserve it.  The county and the Conservancy took the farm’s 370 acres of surrounding woodlands, while the Port – a tiny entity that also owns the Coupeville Wharf but gets taxes from just a fraction of the island’s property owners – took the 151-acre operating farm.

It took a dozen years before the Port completed a master site plan for the farm. That plan does say lots of good things about its intentions:  preservation, stewardship, sustainability and education.  Over the years, well-liked businesses settled into the space, festivals and conferences have been held, and a training center for young people interested in sustainable farming opened.  All well and good.  But meanwhile the loganberries disappeared and the majority of the 151 acres are not used for much except off-leash dog trails and a solar array.  Driving down Highway 525, visitors can see the barn but must wonder where the farm is.

We know what we don’t want; that’s easy.  The Port of Coupeville lacks the resources to keep up with the farm’s capital and maintenance requirements, none of us is eager to pay more taxes, and businesses at the farm say they can’t afford to pay a lot more rent.  So the hard part is figuring out a future that keeps the farm just the way it is – but also makes its economically viable to survive another 100 years.