Any hopes that the Greenbank Farm Management Group could continue in an advisory role over the farm were dashed Monday night as the farm management group said it’s done.
The Port of Coupeville is moving forward with plans to manage the farm itself.
After outgoing port commissioners Marshall Bronson and John Carr voted last month to cease negotiations with the nonprofit group, lone opposing Commissioner Mike Diamanti had hoped to change the decision.
Diamanti said he planned to raise a motion during Wednesday’s port meeting to reinstate negotiations, which would continue a contract with the management group on Jan. 1.
If that motion was passed, Diamanti said he had hoped to get incoming commissioner John Mishasek, who takes office in November, to join him in reversing the decision.
“I said I would soldier on, but I’m only one, against two,” Diamanti said.
“I believe the management group has the experience and skill set to manage the farm.”
During a public meeting Monday night, representatives of the management group announced they’re walking away.
“The unfolding of events over the last month has led us to conclude that there is no longer any useful purpose in us pursuing management of the farm,” said Judy Feldman, executive director for the management group, reading from a letter sent to the port Monday.
“Therefore, to remove any uncertainty on the part of the community or the port, please regard this letter as formal notification that we no longer wish to be considered in any management role at the farm, either through reconsideration of our proposal by the sitting commissioners or through action by new commissioners later this year.
“Public discussion should now focus on the port’s plans for the farm.”
Many of the same people who attended Monday’s meeting also watched Wednesday’s port meeting. Several called for Carr and Bronson’s resignations and asked that the two incoming commissioners assume their positions early.
Bronson responded that resigning would be an “embarrassment” and Carr said he has ideas about farm management he’d like to explore.
Directors of the management group at Monday’s meeting answered questions ranging from the nonprofit’s finances, port contributions to the farm, what will happen to current tenants and further hopeful questions about what it would take to get the management group to reconsider.
“The tenants really want to make this work,” Feldman said. “Their lifeblood is in this farm. It’s important for current tenants to feel your support right now.”
Jan Gunn, who owns Whidbey Pies Cafe, one of the farm’s most successful businesses, asked how the port was going to manage the farm and run weddings and other events.
To emphasize how important events at the farm are to tenants, Feldman said that, on the weekend of July 25, when the farm hosted the Renaissance Festival Saturday and Bounce Mania Sunday, Whidbey Pies Cafe saw business jump 30 percent from the previous the weekend.
“It’s just so inconceivable this has happened,” Gunn said, referring to the port’s actions.
On Wednesday, Gunn asked Bronson and Carr to resign.
“It’s difficult to enter into negotiations with the current commissioners because there is no trust,” she said.
Other tenants said they are concerned about their leases, which are currently month-to-month because of the ongoing management contract extensions and negotiations.
“This is a pretty emotional meeting for someone whose life depends on the farm,” said Windwalker Taibi, owner of Raven Rocks Gallery. “I want it to be fair. I want the port to profit from us because this really is one community.”
“Come Jan. 1, are we month-to-month with the port or are we just floating in the wind?”
Interim Port Commissioner Carr, a retired real estate agent, was recruited by Bronson because of his real estate knowledge.
During Wednesday’s port meeting, the commissioners directed Executive Director David Day to begin lease negotiations with all of the tenants at the farm.
“Leases need to go up,” Carr said. “But they need to be gentle and reasonable with a plan to increase over time.”
“It’s never been our intent to go in and clean house.”
The three commissioners agreed on three basic principles to begin lease negotiations: two-year contracts, tenants pay the 12.84 percent leasehold tax and each lease has a Consumer Price Index annual increase built in.
Commissioners hope to have leases negotiated and prepared for the Sept. 9 meeting.
The management group raises about $50,000 annually in donations to offset the cost of farm operations, in addition to the roughly $90,000 it collects from tenants and the almost $50,000 fee the port pays.
The management group’s overall gross revenue is about $460,000.
Community member Gary Wray asked many questions, including about the management group’s overhead costs.
Management group Treasurer Steve Holmberg said annual payroll for staff is about $217,000, including the cost of employees at the farm school and wine shop. Payroll for just management group administration is a little more than $100,000.
Wray said he was trying to bring some balance to the meeting, which was heavily in favor of the management group. He said there are people who support the port’s decision, they just aren’t being vocal about it.
“I know all three commissioners,” said Wray. “They’re all good people and they’re just looking out for our tax dollars.”
Feldman said the cost of running the farm reflects the management group’s goals and objectives.
“We’ve emphasized a lot of community engagement because we think it’s important to the farm,” she said. “That costs, and we’ve been able to fund that level of community involvement.”
Feldman said it’s unknown how port finances will cover the cost of the farm because it depends on how commissioners decide to run the facility.
The port had not publicly discussed plans on how it will manage the farm and where it will emphasize its goals and cash flow.
Decisions made by the port must be made during a public meeting and the port only meets once a month.
Two of the three commissioners — Diamanti and Bronson — were present for Monday’s meeting, but neither participated in the discussion because their presence constituted a quorum.
Bronson said Tuesday he found the tone of the meeting interesting as it was facilitated by the management group and well attended by farm supporters.
“The Greenbank Farm Management Group is a nonprofit,” Bronson said. “They can meet when they want and discuss what they want. We are restricted to meetings. We can’t be as responsive as they’d want.”
Each commissioner did present their ideas Wednesday for how to proceed with management of the farm.
The commissioners directed Day to meet with management group staff to develop an understanding of the day-to-day operations of the farm and personnel.
Feldman, who would be the person working with Day on this directive, will be out of town for three weeks starting Tuesday. She said she emailed Bronson suggesting that, in the meantime, the port focus on lease negotiations and building a list of questions for her.
Bronson presented his ideas for staff positions the port would need to hire for management of the farm including a farm director, activities coordinator and a facilities manager, who would oversee both port properties.
In his proposal, Carr included a timeline and suggested Day have candidates for new staff positions presented during the November port meeting.
While the nonprofit management group will no longer play an advisory role in the farm after Dec. 31, it will continue leasing agricultural land at the farm until March 2017 for the Organic Farm School.
However, the school will be in limbo for the 2016 season.
“We’re in a position where we can’t take students next year,” farm school manager Jessica Babcock told commissioners Wednesday. “We have to step back and figure out the future.”
By not accepting students for 2016, the nonprofit group has time to think and restart the program in 2017, Feldman said.
The management group does not know if that will include staying at the farm.
“That is what the year is for,” Feldman said. “There are some things we’d like to explore, to expand and build on.”
The program may look at things like more livestock and pasture management.
“It’s not that we’re saying we don’t want to be at the farm anymore,” Feldman said. The school will take the time to explore options and see what kind of opportunities are available.
During Wednesday’s port meeting, the commissioners said they were surprised to learn the school isn’t taking students.
“I like the school,” Carr said. “I think it’s great.”
If the management group needed further written confirmation of the port’s wanting the school there, Carr said he’s open to exploring that.
“That’s great,” Feldman said. “But it’s the nonprofit that runs the school, and the port has said they don’t want the management group.”
The management group does hold the lease on 10 acres of agricultural land and irrigation use, both at no cost.
Feldman said the school will still use the land in 2016 and have a presence.
Several of the farm school students may use the land for an incubator program or the school may use it for seed production or host workshops and classes.
“There are a lot of conversations to be had and not a lot of time,” Feldman said. “We’ve had students inquire about the program but they also ask about the port and what’s going on with it.
“We’re not quitting, not closing the program.”
Some of the questions still to figure out are finances and staffing.
Feldman said the nonprofit is in a position where it’s got a bit of a reserve built up and management is looking at what it can afford.
“While we didn’t ask for this, we’re excited we can do this a bit more intentionally,” she said.
The reserve was built through donations and tuition to provide a cushion in case student enrollment fell through.
Even though the management group says it’s done, some community members were still trying to rally with hope the group could stay.
Community member Gwen Samuelson asked about transferring the group’s nonprofit status to others interested in being involved in the hope newly elected commissioners could turn things around at the end of the year.
“We can’t wait that long,” said Mike Stansbury, president of the management group. “We have staff to think about. We’re at the point of being dismantled. This is the end.”
Stansbury said they’ve spent nine months negotiating with the port and it doesn’t appear to have found a solution. The process resulted in conflict and damage, he said.
“Part of our decision grows because it appears we are a part of the controversy,” Stansbury said. “We’re stepping out because we think our absence will be better for the farm.”
While some of those community members continued with those hopes Wednesday, others moved on in the hope of having new port leadership take over soon.
Many said they’ve lost trust in the port commissioners.
Steps being taken by the management group include finalizing an inventory list.
Feldman said the management group is past the point of being mad about the situation.
“We’re at the phase where we’re not going to be taken advantage of,” Feldman said. “There are some things that belong to the port and there are some things that belong to the management group.”