Photo provided by Steve Hilborn
                                Island Potato grows potatoes in Central Whidbey.

Photo provided by Steve Hilborn Island Potato grows potatoes in Central Whidbey.

Ebey’s farm leases awarded to organic potato growers

Three properties in the heart of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve will not be leased to any of the Central Whidbey families that have been farming the area for generations.

Instead, organic potato farmers won the right to farm the properties for the next 10 years.

The National Park Service announced this week that Island Potato, LLC was awarded all three agricultural leases following a competitive process in which farmers were asked to submit proposals for agricultural uses on the properties.

Steve Hilborn, who owns Island Potato with Eric Rogers, said there is a limited amount of land on the rocky island that’s suitable for growing potatoes, but the 220 acres of leased land is just right for the starchy tubers.

The leases also include facilities for raising replacement heifers for dairies.

Rob Zipp, operations manager for National Park Service on Whidbey, said nine proposals were received and reviewed by a panel of federal officials, including representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The panel considered criteria set by federal regulations. Zipp said he recused himself from decision-making to avoid a perception of a conflict.

Zipp said the Central Whidbey farmers who didn’t win the leases are predictably upset.

A longtime Coupeville family, the Engles, had owned the property for generations, but the National Park Service acquired the farm in 2001 after it was foreclosed on. Park officials wanted to prevent development on the highly visible properties within the historical reserve, but had intended to swap the land in exchange for development rights.

“Farming isn’t part of our core business,” Zipp said.

Efforts toward a land swap didn’t work out, however, and the Park Service ended up granting special permits to farmers, including longtime farming families. While the leases are a longer-term solution, Zipp said the ultimate goal is still to exchange or sell the farms someday.

Hilborn said Island Potato and Engle Family Farm have worked “side by side” on the properties for years, but the awarding of the lease means his company will have sole control. Members of the Engle Family Farm could not be reached for comment.

The three leases are dubbed “Farm 1,” Farm 2” and “Highway South.”

Farm 1 consists of facilities for raising heifers and about 96 acres of farmland in the area of Fort Casey Road and Terry Road.

Farm 2 is about 100 acres at the intersection of Fort Casey and Patmore roads. Hilborn said Island Potato has already had success growing the starchy tubers at the site. Planting begins this spring.

“Highway South” is 76 acres adjacent to the east side of Coupeville along the highway. Hilborn said the plan is to transition the fields to organic.

The proposal documents state that the fair market value for all three leases is about $18,800 a year.

Whidbey residents may get a chance to taste Island Potato’s crop. While it has been selling to a wholesaler, the owners are looking at local options, Hilborn said.

Photo provided by Steve Hilborn
                                Island Potato grows potatoes in Central Whidbey.

Photo provided by Steve Hilborn Island Potato grows potatoes in Central Whidbey.

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