Support grows for Whidbey agriculture

Local farmers seen as key to island food resiliency

With a handful of lively farmers markets and countless farm stands, it’s not difficult to see that Whidbey Island fosters an appreciation for its agricultural side.

Yet Whidbey’s agrarian roots run farther and deeper than what the average “eater” may see. Many farmers have adapted to serve a community with a growing appreciation of the value of producing food on an island home.

Several Whidbey-based nonprofit organizations work, often in concert with each other, to support farmers, ranchers and food producers and to educate eaters on the diversity of food available to them in Island County.

“I get excited when I think about what the potential our robust food system has for the future,” Marian Myszkowski of Goosefoot said.

During the pandemic, food growers and producers, agricultural resource groups and allies, and charities addressing food insecurity began meeting as the Whidbey Island Food Resiliency Consortium, which is spearheaded by Goosefoot, a South Whidbey nonprofit.

The consortium is working with county government leaders to establish an agricultural resources advisory committee modeled after the efforts of San Juan and Whatcom counties. The committee would support farmers and help guide policy decisions toward building a resilient food system.

A healthier way of farming

A growing number of Whidbey farmers eschew mechanized, conventional farming processes and are instead opting to return to their roots with traditional practices known as regenerative agriculture, which benefits the overall resiliency of the local food system.

“People think regenerative agriculture is new. It’s not. People have been doing it for a long, long time, especially people of color,” said Judy Feldman, the executive director of the Organic Farm School.

As the Poughkeepsie Farm Project pointed out, scientist George Washington Carver and horticulturist Booker T. Whatley were known to practice this form of sustainable farming.

On Whidbey Island, the Organic Farm School near Clinton trains a new crop of farmers-to-be every year and leads them in a regenerative direction. Feldman said regenerative practices taught at the school involve a mixture of “judicious tilling,” cover cropping, tarp placement, and use of animals for pest control and as sources of natural fertilizer.

Students also learn how to develop and prep soil, propagate plants, harvest and market. They develop a business plan over the course of seven months.

“Our goal is to get people who actually want to run a farm business, so our impact is a little bit more long-lasting,” Feldman said.

For farms that have been cared for by generations of Whidbey families, there have been recent shifts to get back to this natural way of farming.

“I think regenerative agriculture is an attempt to recognize that we live within an ecosystem and that ecosystem functions as a system,” Kyle Flack of Bell’s Farm in Coupeville said. “Instead of us trying to engineer our way out of nature, it’s a way for us to farm in a way that actually increases the health of our land over time.”

Flack and his wife Paige co-own the farm with their parents. The couple transitioned into making the majority of the farm’s decisions starting in 2016.

Diaries of the farm’s founder indicate he was planting cover crops and using animals to improve the soil. In later years, the pressures of “Big Ag” and making money became dominant, and the farm headed in a commercial direction involving seed and grain crops and the use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides.

When they took over, Flack said they went “cold turkey” in order to reset the health of the soil.

Animals on Bell’s Farm, such as pigs, are essential in maintaining healthy soil when used in moderation.

Seven miles north at Beach View Farm in Oak Harbor, animals are also paramount to the regenerative agricultural operation Cory Fakkema is running on his farm.

Fakkema prefers for his herd of Wagyu beef cattle to do the bulk of the restoration work, which involves rotating them often through different sections of pasture to graze.

“All the reparation we’ve done has been under the hoof of the cows,” he said.

Fakkema, who studied environmental science, pitched the idea of regenerative agriculture to his father and uncle, who inherited the farm from their parents. He received their blessing and has been running things since 2015.

“The diversity of the greens has popped and the quality, the thickness, the lushness, the resilience when we don’t get rain for a while, all of that has dramatically improved over the years,” he said, “and we’re working towards a stable point where if we have a three-month drought in the summer, we still won’t have to irrigate because we’ll have built that soil up enough.”

Farther south, Jake and Aja Stewart of Sweetwater Farm in Clinton are involving the trees in their farming – rather than cutting them down for timber – in a regenerative practice known as agroforestry.

“There is clear research on the important role these forest systems play with so many of the ecosystem services we all rely on, from flood prevention, rich soil production and erosion prevention, critical aquifer recharge along with native pollinator habitat,” Jake Stewart said.

A healthy forest supplies the 24-acre farm with loads of organic matter and micro nutrients that get integrated into compost, such as fallen leaves, decaying wood and wood chips from naturally felled trees. Using the microclimate of the forest and felled alder trees, the Stewarts have cultivated and grown a variety of culinary mushrooms including shiitake, a variety of oyster mushrooms, lion’s mane and reishi.

In addition, Jake Stewart explained that the trees hold soil moisture during the dry months of summer and slow the flow of wet winters by reducing flooding while increasing aquifer recharge percolation.

“What a tremendous resource we have to have water falling from the sky,” he said. “If you’ve grown up here, you take it for granted.”

Turkeys, ducks, chickens and sheep graze parts of the forest, referred to as “silvopasturing,” which helps reduce feed costs for the animals. Food scraps or waste go into an in-ground worm bin, which the worms turn into fertilizer. Chickens also eat the worms, and ducks feast on slugs that trouble the gardens.

Getting the farm to the fork

Besides a farmers market or a farm stand, one obvious place eaters can look for a wealth of Whidbey food is through Whidbey Island Grown Cooperative’s food hub. What began as a branding idea in 2009 has since morphed into an online store where people can find and buy a number of products from farmers, ranchers and value-added producers.

Currently, the food hub has 39 different vendors. Shannon Bly, the cooperative coordinator of Whidbey Island Grown, said about 60% of these are beginning farmers.

The underlying theme of the organization, Bly said, is that everyone in the community participates in the agricultural industry, and they all benefit from a strong local food system.

The food hub launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s only gotten more popular. Whidbey Island Grown received 150 new customer registrations in December.

“We had triple our sales in January, in the dead of winter,” Bly said.

Retail customers can choose to pick up the goods at a North, Central or South Whidbey distribution location.

The organization recently purchased a refrigerated truck for its wholesale deliveries, thanks to the generosity of two anonymous donors. Before, Whidbey Island Grown had been packing everything into a van, which Bly said was “a nail-biter.”

South Whidbey School Farms has invited young consumers to participate in the island’s food system since 2014.

Cary Peterson, the farm’s first manager, said the program allows kids to grow, cook and eat their own food. The students learn about growing food, which is later used in culinary classes or eaten in school lunches.

South Whidbey School Farms also distributes the food grown to Whidbey Island Nourishes, a nonprofit organization focusing on providing food security to kids and families in need.

Most recently, a farm stand installed in front of South Whidbey High School provided fresh vegetables to the public while teaching students how to grow food and manage the stand.

“It’s a myth that children don’t love vegetables,” Peterson said. “What they don’t like is old vegetables that don’t taste good.”

South Whidbey kids have even been known to go wild for peas at parades. Peterson said that during past Fourth of July parades in the area, kids went for them instead of candy.

Unusual crops such as mouse melons, ground cherries and sour plums have been planted at the South Whidbey School Farms.

Previously, Peterson started the garden at the Good Cheer Food Bank in 2009, which has blossomed since then.

The South End food bank partnered with the school district in 2015 to create the Big Acre, a garden located behind the old Bayview School building. Besides the food bank, produce grown there has also been distributed to the school cafeterias and the farm program.

Stephanie Turco, the garden coordinator for Good Cheer, said the two gardens yield about 20,000 pounds of produce per year. Food bank patrons can enjoy everything from root vegetables to hearty leafy greens to herbs.

“I think that for our scale, something like this is not that common,” Turco said.

And sometimes there has even been excess produce. When this is the case, the food bank either processes the abundance so it can be preserved and turned into items (such as salsa, tomato sauce or pickles) or reaches out to a network of partner organizations (such as Whidbey Island Nourishes, Island Senior Resources or Coupeville’s Connected Food program) and invites them to come pick in the gardens.

Connecting education

Whidbey is home to a number of education-based organizations supporting farmers and local food, some of which the general public may not even be aware of.

Goosefoot is supportive of the local agricultural community through grants, marketing assistance and collaborative efforts aimed at strengthening the resiliency of the Whidbey food system. The organization has been partnering with the Port of South Whidbey to secure funding for a full-service, professionally equipped commercial kitchen located at the Whidbey Island Fairgrounds.

Most recently, Goosefoot received a $347,000 federal grant for the project through the congressional earmark program as a result of a request made by U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen. The grant will provide the additional funding needed for renovations and improvements to the kitchen at the fairgrounds.

In the past, the organization provided $270,000 in seed money to the South Whidbey School Farms.

“We wouldn’t have this program without their support,” Peterson said. “Goosefoot and the Goose made this place happen.”

South Whidbey Tilth teaches and demonstrates sustainable agriculture on its 11-acre campus just outside of Freeland, which includes garden plots, chicken coops, a farm stand, a seed library, a recently renovated commissary kitchen and a Garry oaks meadow. South Whidbey Tilth is a branch of the Washington Tilth Association, which formed in 1974.

Susan Prescott, who serves as membership, community relations, and development chair, said the organization currently consists of 130 members, most of whom are eaters. Some have an interest in gardening or livestock.

South Whidbey Tilth hosts a series of educational events and workshops, with topics ranging from growing hot-weather crops to fruit tree grafting to a Garry oak planting work party. Prescott said more cooking classes will soon be offered in the updated kitchen on the premises.

South Whidbey Tilth has partnered with both Whidbey Island Grown and the Organic Farm School for events. Slow Food Whidbey Island is an additional partner.

Like South Whidbey Tilth, Slow Food Whidbey Island focuses on educating eaters and supports other like-minded organizations. The website is a directory of sorts, with a list of the island’s meat farmers and their contact information.

Slow Food Whidbey Island is a chapter of Slow Food USA, a nonprofit organization based on an international movement started by activists protesting a fast food restaurant at the base of the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Mervyn Floyd, president of Slow Food Whidbey Island, said Whidbey may have one of the larger chapters at 150 members, which has remained constant throughout the pandemic.

“Most of our members are members of several other groups as well,” he said. “We have a very faithful following.”

The Whidbey Island Conservation District is a locally staffed resource for landowners looking to take action in keeping the air, water and soil healthy. Conservation districts formed after the Great Depression as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Allison Rinard, the natural resource educator at the Whidbey Island Conservation District, explained that conservation districts are a community-oriented way to implement federally funded programs and policies targeting agriculture.

“Folks new to land stewardship might not know we offer a customized, tailored approach to each situation and goal that a landowner has,” she said. “We’re not focused on a specific objective.”

The conservation district additionally produces educational content and outreach campaigns. The organization also connects farmers to each other. Most recently, a farm walk program has been popular and essential to forging those connections across Whidbey.

“I think there’s a lot of untapped potential in North Whidbey,” she said, adding that the local conservation district is currently working on securing some grant opportunities relating to more urban agricultural projects.

Weaknesses in the system

Like any food system, there are areas for improvement that food-focused organizations and farmers have identified on Whidbey.

One obvious gap is the limited number of processing facilities available for farmers harvesting meat. A total of two mobile butchers service the island, and wait times currently average over a year.

“Your hogs aren’t even bred before you have to decide how many you want killed, in 18 months from now,” Fakkema said. “It’s pretty difficult.”

The island’s microclimates and diversity in soils can also prove challenging. Turco said she has heard from South End farmers that fields are too wet during the winter to plant.

“There is a big market for winter production that some farmer could come along and fill very easily,” she said.

Up north, it may be less wet, but the soil can get rocky and tough to irrigate during the warmer months.

Larger socioeconomic issues for farmers abound, such as a lack of affordable farmland and housing.

Alanah Lawrason, owner of Foggy Hill Farm, said the rising costs of seeds, soil and fertilizer have nearly priced her out of farming. Raising the price of a bunch of carrots to $10 is not an option.

“It is hard because I’m trying to pay myself and my employee a livable wage, and I also want to make food still affordable to people,” she said. “I don’t want people to not be able to eat. That’s so important.”

In addition, the convenience factor of big-box grocery stores can be hard for eaters to resist.

“It’s not easy to sway some people from the simplicity and easiness of a supermarket,” Fakkema said, “but we’ve had a great response from the community in terms of demand and how much they like what we have and how much better it is than other stuff that they’ve had.”

Hopes for the future

When asked about the possibility of a county-wide agricultural resources advisory committee, farmers and their supporters were enthusiastic. They were also optimistic about the resiliency of Whidbey Island’s food system.

“I feel like people are supportive of local food here on the island, so it makes it feel a little less scary,” Lawrason said.

Flack pointed out that emotional investment is key.

“I believe that we have the ability to have a really robust resilient food system, we just have to put our heads down and invest in it in a real way, both in terms of time and resources,” Flack said.

Stewart said the connection to policy at the county level is the final link in the food system.

“Whidbey Island is uniquely positioned with a diversity of farms and practices. We need them all and by working together we can insulate ourselves from the challenges of a global supply system under stress,” Stewart said. “It won’t solve every problem but investing in a healthy, resilient local food system is a pretty wise move. As far as I know, everyone still eats, regardless of politics or world view.”

Photo by David Welton
Animals, like these Wagyu cattle, can play an important role in regenerative agriculture.

Photo by David Welton Animals, like these Wagyu cattle, can play an important role in regenerative agriculture.

Photo by David Welton
A Berkshire piglet at Beach View Farm.

Photo by David Welton A Berkshire piglet at Beach View Farm.

Photos by David Welton
Pigs at Beach View Farm root through deep bedding, helping compost materials to return to the pastures.

Photos by David Welton Pigs at Beach View Farm root through deep bedding, helping compost materials to return to the pastures.

Photo by David Welton
A Berkshire pig at Beach View Farm happily munches on some grass.

Photo by David Welton A Berkshire pig at Beach View Farm happily munches on some grass.