June 25, 2008 · Updated 9:41 PM
"Try privatizing farm businessTaxpayers in Island County supported the public purchase of the Greenbank Farm in order to retain this critical part of our rural character and prevent a break-up of its 500-plus acres. They probably didn't want the farm entirely managed by a committee of volunteers with its inevitable problems, such as the recent firing of the farm's manager.Since going public, the farm has struggled to make sufficient money from its wine and memento shop to pay for operations, let along maintenance and capital improvements. All involved are well intentioned and should be commended for volunteering their time in an effort to make the farm viable, rather than a drain on taxpayers. But the management structure makes a profitable future unlikely.There are dozens of examples on Whidbey Island of what makes a small business succeed. This generally takes a hard working couple willing to work unimaginably long hours at low pay for many years. They do this because they like being their own boss, and in the hope that some day the business will pay off and provide them with security in their old age. There might also be something left for the kids once the tax man takes his hefty cut. Small business has its rewards, but they are usually far in the future.The enticements of small business ownership don't exist at the Greenbank Farm. You can never be your own boss because of the management committee. And there's probably no worse boss than a committee. Nor is there a long-term hope of a payoff, because the farm is publicly owned.Due to such problems, the Greenbank Farm will likely never become a successful small business as presently organized. The other option is additional taxpayer support, mainly from those residing within the boundaries of the Port of Coupeville. But it's a tiny taxing district with limited resources, and the commissioners have other things on which they'd prefer to spend the public's money.Those in charge of the farm's future should take a serious look at privatization that would guarantee the farm's character will be retained, and that assures future public use of the farm's lands and buildings. Perhaps an experienced retailer with some capital to spend could take over and expand the tourist shop business, giving a percentage to the public ownership group. A small inn, built within the scope allowed by the Island County Comprehensive Plan, might be acceptable to the community. Could the agricultural fields be leased as pasture space for horses, and bids taken for the hay the fields produce? Put some ads in business publications and request proposals.Private solutions to Greenbank Farm's management problems need to be explored. It is too much to expect a committee of volunteers to make it a successful and self sustaining business over the long term. "