Lifestyle

The Farm That History Built

If Greenbank Farm wanted to adopt a mascot, a phoenix would be a good choice.

Like the mythical Egyptian creature said to rise from the ashes to recreate itself every 500 years, Greenbank Farm has pulled itself from the brink of extinction more than once. What better reason for a party.

Saturday will mark the beginning of a year-long centennial celebration at the farm with an open house and day of festivities, to honor the farm’s past and look to the future.

The farm’s bumpy history started at the turn of the century when Calvin Phillips created a model dairy farm, in hopes of luring commerce to the island. Using immigrant laborers, he cleared 125 acres in 1906 to reveal the rolling hills seen today along Highway 20.

The farm prospered for several decades before its cattle herd was hit by tuberculosis and had to be destroyed.

The farm limped along until the early 1930s, when it was sold to John Molz, who planted the fields with their most famous crop — loganberries.

According to Molz’s daughter, Mary Jo Stansbury, Greenbank Farm became the largest loganberry farm in the United States, with 125 acres of berry vines trellised across the hills.

Sold under the Pommerelle label, loganberry wine gained popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, although it was never a “high class” wine.

Molz, a first generation German immigrant, became interested in growing grapes instead, and shifted his time and attention to Eastern Washington, where the climate was more amenable to grape production. The Washington wine industry was non-existent at that time, but one could say it was started at Greenbank Farm.

Molz’s Eastern Washington venture turned into the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, a name now synonymous with fine Washington wines. Molz sold Ste. Michelle and Greenbank Farm to U.S. Tobacco in 1971.

John Sinema managed the berry farm from the early 1950s until he retired in 1970, when Mun and Carolyn Kawasaki took over.

Carolyn Kawasaki, now 87, still lives in a modest house within a stone’s throw of the farm. She remembers the years spent overseeing the fields, when hundreds of Whidbey Islanders picked berries for summer wages.

“The good pickers were the conscientious ones, the ones who came to pick,” she said.

With many of the pickers young and frisky teens, picking could give way to spirited berry fights with the slightest provocation.

“We had to separate the boys and girls,” she recalled.

Pickers who stayed for the whole season, roughly July through mid-September were paid 10 cents a pound. A really good picker could harvest 300 pounds of the delicate berries in a day, raking in $30.

Although the Kawasakis toiled in the fields to keep the berries producing at their peak, Chateau Ste. Michelle, under U.S. Tobacco management, lost interest in Greenbank Farm, and production began to decline.

A March 1983, a South Whidbey Record article said, “the future of the farm is in doubt.” The climate and soil at Greenbank were never ideal for loganberries, but they had been laboriously nurtured by the caretakers, with the addition of herbicides and pesticides. The article noted that the fields should have been sprayed in the winter to prevent insects from laying their eggs in the buds, but they weren’t.

Mun Kawasaki did what he could to keep the berries going, but production declined. Carolyn Kawasaki still has records of when fields were replanted, and how many barrels of berries were produced in a season. In 1982 they set a record with 748 barrels. By 1988 it was down to 400 barrels.

While the loganberries were withering on the vines at Greenbank Farm, Ste. Michelle had a backlog of berries in cold storage.

In 1987 the company decided to use that backlog to produce Whidbey’s Liqueur, and a rebirth for the farm was once again trumpeted in the press.

“Rainbow shines on winery celebration,” a Whidbey News-Times headline on Feb. 4, 1987 read. “Chateau Ste. Michelle’s liqueur production facility and visitors’ center at the site may be a pot o’ gold for Whidbey Island,” reporter Janice Keller wrote.

The opening of the new winery and visitor’s center was attended by then-president of Ste. Michelle, Allen Shoup, who said, “As rich as its history is, we think its future is more exciting.”

Chateau Ste. Michelle manager Gary Ando moved his family to Whidbey Island in 1987 to oversee this revitalization of the farm. He was excited about the project, and about bringing a community feel back to the farm.

Local teens were once again employed to pick berries and senior citizens were given the task of hand making ribbons and medallions for the liqueur bottles.

“I want the community to be proud of us,” he told the Whidbey News-Times then.

Part of the community involvement was the Greenbank Farm Loganberry Festival, started in 1988, which still continues today.

The liqueur production, however, did not last. Once the backlog of berries was depleted, Greenbank Farm couldn’t produce enough berries cheaply to meet the company’s needs, and production was shifted to Oregon.

The farm once more fell on hard times, and in 1995 was in danger of being sold to developers. The local community rallied to save the farm, and in 1997 a deal was worked out between the Port of Coupeville, Island County and the Nature Conservancy to purchase the entire farm.

Ando stayed on as director of the newly formed Greenbank Farm Management Group until 1999, but he said he left because they could not pay the salary that he was getting from Ste. Michelle.

He stayed on Whidbey though, and now manages the garden center at Ace Hardware in Freeland.

“I love the island,” he said. “I’ll never leave.”

Ando also has strong feelings for Greenbank Farm, so much so that last weekend was the first time he was returned since ending his tenure.

He seemed impressed as Laura Blankenship, the farm’s executive director, showed him the changes made in the last few years. The wine shop, Whidbey Pies Cafe, and the renovated main barn, all fit the goal that Ando held for the farm.

“I want the farm to succeed,” he said. “The main thing is to preserve the character of times past. They’ve done a good job of that.”

Barn number two, which the Port recently remodeled, is now named in Ando’s honor, for his contribution to the farm’s history.

With the farm set to receive $1.5 million from the state this year, it would seem safe to say the rainbow has returned to Greenbank Farm.

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Nov 19
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates