Greenbank Farm managers seek financial help
June 25, 2008 · Updated 12:50 PM
"The fields at the Greenbank Farm were freshly tilled this week. The holiday lights brightly outlined the main barn and the gift shop and wine tasting counter were doing a brisk business. But beneath the festive facade, the publicly-owned Central Whidbey farm is having a tough time making it. Though business has been good, the money-making potential of the farm's wine and gift sales has not been enough to cover the cost of needed capital improvements such as reroofing the barns, replacing the aged water tank or structurally upgrading existing buildings. As a result, the farm runs on a skeleton crew with only one full-time employee; some farm buildings have become unusable for events; and the money that should be going for inventory or salaries is being drained away to fix old broken pipes, shore up foundations or replace inadequate wiring.Private donations have tapered off and with no one on staff to adequately organize fundraisers or apply for grants, the volunteer Greenbank Farm Management Group has pretty much exhausted its existing resources. Meanwhile things continue to deteriorate.In recent months and again last week, members of the management group went to the Port of Coupeville seeking assistance. The Port is one of three stakeholders in the 522-acre farm which was purchased in September of 1997 after a concerted citizen effort to stop the land from being sold for residential development. Island County and the Nature Conservancy joined in the purchase and manage the undeveloped forests and wetland areas. The Port oversees the 150 acres that includes the agricultural fields, barns and gift shop - in other words, the part that can make money. At the time of the purchase, the Port signed a contract with the Greenbank Farm Management Group to act as day-to-day managers of the farm's operations.Charlie Knutila, president of the management group, is pretty clear about what needs to happen to keep the farm viable.You can't make capital improvements out of operating income. No business will do it that way, he said. What the farm clearly needs is an infusion of capital. The type of infusion the group is looking for is in the neighborhood of $90,000 to $100,000 the first year with decreasing contributions in subsequent years.We'd like to change our relationship with the Port. We want them to become a partner and less of a landlord, said Knutila.But port commissioners, so far, have sent the group home empty-handed. The three-year contract between the two parties has expired and while they plan their next move the commissioners have put the management group on a short leash by continuing the farm-operation contract on only a month-to-month basis.Port chairman Michael Canfield said there is definitely a financing problem and he realizes something needs to change. But he isn't sure that handing over a lot of money is the best plan.The Port is not a lending institution, he said this week. Canfield said he was not a member of the Port board when the contract with the management group was first signed but he knows that regular funding was not part of the agreement. The commissioners had no desire to become a financial supporter of the farm.Canfield said the current port commissioners have been somewhat disappointed in the progress the farm has made under the leadership of the management group stating that, it was supposed to pay for itself. On the other hand, Canfield praised the group for their effort and he said that some sort of Port funding is still an option.Marcia Comer, secretary for the management group, said expectations for the farm were set high at the start and she questioned whether it was realistic to think any kind of business could succeed without solid backing at the start.It's a startup business. If you look at what has been accomplished without any capital, it's miraculous really, she said. It's true that the farm has made strides. It is the site of numerous cultural and seasonal events, the gift and wine shop is making more money each year, the agricultural fields are back in limited cultivation after a decade of neglect and recently qualified for a prestigious organic certification. Comer said all of it had do be done with the money the farm could make itself or through significant private donations.One of the big misconceptions is that we've been getting money from the county or the Port or somewhere. We haven't gotten a dime from them since the beginning, she said. Knutila pointed out that similar public farms and garden spaces around the country are supported, in part, by endowments or other types of ongoing outside funding. He said the infrastructure problems at the farm have plagued it since the start and need to be dealt with if any progress is to be made. To underscore the point, the management group presented the Port with a five-page list of facility concerns ranging from lack of heat and emergency lighting to a leaking wooden water tank and crumbling foundations.Canfield said the port commissioners will likely hold a meeting with their attorney in early January to see what is legally possible. He said that in addition to the new proposal from the existing management group, the commissioners are also looking at a plan by another group with an interest in the farm. Canfield did not elaborate on the options but said that the public should not worry that the farm is in jeopardy. The original purposes of preservation and viability are still the main focus, he said, and with the Port paying on the farm's purchase bond until 2017, they're not likely to change anytime soon. That does not mean that the Port would rule out the farm's operation by a privately-funded corporation however. As far as the possibility that the farm could fall into the hands of residential developers, Canfield said no way.That's not going to happen. We're not going to do that, he said.The Port is expected to make a decision about the farm's future management at their next regular meeting Jan. 10. "