Trading her keyboard for kale: A rock farmer’s tale

Farmers have little time for chit-chat. If it’s not planting time, it’s harvest time, or it’s time to clean the barn or order seed or figure out what’s wrong with the tractor.

On our Rock, that’s true even now, in what farmers call their “shoulder season” between fall harvest and spring planting. At the moment, they’re dealing with mud up to their ankles from too much rain.

That’s why I was delighted to get an hour recently with one of my favorite Rock farmers, Georgie Smith. We met at Sunshine Drip in Coupeville and enjoyed some coffee in a real cup, the kind with a big handle, and we talked about her life and her unlikely journey from newspaper reporter to successful purveyor of Whidbey-grown fresh vegetables to chefs at fancy restaurants.

Georgie grew up on her family’s 100-year-old farm on Ebey’s Prairie. She also lived through tough times in the 1970s when her widowed grandmother and great aunt were forced to put the farm up for sale as a possible residential development. The decision sparked a passionate effort to preserve the area’s rural, agricultural character, and that created Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Land purchases by the government and payments for scenic easements to the Smiths and others staved off most residential development of farmland in the Reserve and kept the Central Whidbey landscape looking about as it always has.

Today, Georgie is glad it turned out that way. “I doubt I would be farming if the Reserve weren’t here,” she said. Actually, it’s a wonder she’s farming at all.

By the time she left for Washington State University in the late 1980s, the family farm had shrunk to just 20 acres and her parents were engaged mostly in non-farm work. Georgie earned her degree in journalism and spent a couple years as a reporter for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. “I had no intention of returning to the farm,” she said, “but I got homesick and mom urged me to move back.” She got work as a sales representative for a Langley business; she met and married Charles Arndt, a local public defender now in private practice, and they had two daughters.

“While I was having babies, I decided to have a vegetable garden like the one I had as a kid,” she said. It became so productive that she and her mother started offering their abundance at the Coupeville farmers market, just as the local food trend was taking off. “Unlike a lot of young people these days who want to do local farming, I had land. I also didn’t set out to be an organic farmer but I became one because I didn’t want to pay for chemicals. I used manure.”

About the same time, Susan Vanderbeek, another Central Whidbey farm kid who left to find fortune on the mainland, had returned to open The Oystercatcher in Coupeville, among Whidbey’s first “foodie” restaurants. She encouraged Georgie to grow fresh vegetables that she could cook in the restaurant. “That’s how it all started,” she said. “A lot of the chefs I talked to didn’t understand the idea of buying directly from a farmer. Some didn’t know how to use the stuff I grew; one asked me what he could do with a leek or kale.”

Over time, the idea caught on. Today, more than 200 Northwest chefs receive Georgie’s emailed list of what she has available. The week we chatted, she had just returned from making 30 stops in one day at Seattle restaurants, dropping off orders of Whidbey-grown Brussels sprouts, carrots, rutabagas, turnips, kohlrabi, cabbage and more. As the weather warms, she’ll add more greens, radishes and kale. “Chef sales are much more reliable than farmers markets,” she said. “And more and more chefs see the value of advertising produce that’s ‘grown on Whidbey Island’ on their menus. It’s part of the ‘experience’ this island is becoming famous for.”

Today, Georgie employs half a dozen farmhands to tend her fields and prepare the orders for delivery. Business is good, and now she wonders where the Whidbey “experience” might lead.

“Visitors come here for a great ‘rural’ experience, take a hike, stay in a B&B and have a great meal with local-grown food,” she said. “They remember that when they go home to Seattle and see my produce on a big-city menu.”

Could that mean her business might become a farm-to-table “visitor experience?” Not any time soon, she said. “I’ve thought about it but it’s not what I really want to do or would be good at. I’ll leave that choice to my daughters, if they want it.”

Harry Anderson is a former writer for the LA Times. His column, “Rockin’ A Hard Place,” appears monthly in the Whidbey News-Times.

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