A new home for Whidbey’s Organic Farm School

By Valerie Easton

Special to The Seattle Times

Originally published June 22, 2016 at 7:00 am 

Small-scale farming might well be saving the planet’s soil while stoking consumer demand for fresh, local, organic produce. It’s also a hot new career choice, yet it can be a tough row to hoe. Whidbey Island’s Organic Farm School was recently up against possible displacement or closure when the management of its home at Greenbank Farm changed hands.

In a lovely bit of synchronicity, Ron and Eva Sher had begun thinking about how to return some of their Maxwelton Valley acreage to agriculture. The Shers, owners of Third Place Books, wanted to use their beautiful island property to support sustainable agriculture, and the Organic Farm School leapt at the chance to collaborate.

The school already is transitioning to the Maxwelton Valley site, where it will continue its work in growing farmers, food and community. Applications are now being accepted for 2017.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle garden expert and freelance writer. Reach her atvaleaston@comcast.net.

This sunny and expansive Maxwelton Valley property will be the new home of Whidbey Island’s Organic Farm School, thanks to the generosity of Ron and Eva Sher. (Courtesy Judy Feldman)

This sunny and expansive Maxwelton Valley property will be the new home of Whidbey Island’s Organic Farm School, thanks to the generosity of Ron and Eva Sher. (Courtesy Judy Feldman)


Organic Farm School plants new roots in Maxwelton Valley

by KYLE JENSEN,  South Whidbey Record Arts And Entertainment, Parks, South Whidbey Fire/EMS

Jun 22, 2016 at 8:00AM updated Jun 23, 2016 at 8:41AM

The Organic Farm School has found a new home in the Maxwelton Valley, and it’s now accepting applications for enrollment.

The school set up shop on four acres of unused farmland near the intersection of Maxwelton and Campbell roads. Organization leaders are excited about the new location and its partnership with the property owners Ron and Eva Sher.

“We’re excited about this opportunity because it positions us in a very distinct place surrounded by farmers and supported by a community that genuinely supports local farms,” said Judy Feldman, executive director of the farm school.

Previously located at Greenbank Farm, the farm school began searching for new digs following the Port of Coupeville’s controversial decision last year to end its long-standing contract with the Greenbank Management Group, the organization that ran the farm. The split resulted in a loss for school funding, and rather than trying to stay it looked for greener pastures, Feldman said.

The school directors’ search for a new home brought them into contact with Sher, an off-island book store owner and self-proclaimed environmentalist. Sher also has acres of unused farmland on his property in Maxwelton. When approached about the possibility of using his land, Sher welcomed the opportunity with open arms. A land use agreement was signed in January.

“It just felt like the right thing to do,” Sher said. “We’re excited about the farm school coming here. We have a good arrangement for them to start and they have a lot of growth potential with what they’re allowed to do with the land.”

Sher and his wife have been involved with the Whidbey Camano Land Trust for years and are advocates of preserving the farmland and the wetlands of the Maxwelton Valley. It’s something he believes in so much that he has made an agreement with the Organic Farm School for them to use the land free of charge. Feldman says they won’t be charged for rent as long as it’s evident the farm school is serving the community.

The farm grounds are within an old horse racing track that hasn’t been used since before the Shers bought the property. The tilled ground takes up about half of the track’s inside, and there is plenty of room for potential expansion in the future, something Sher is open to if “there is a lot of positive energy around it.”

“As we progress beyond year one, if we need more space then we’ll work with the Shers to figure out how we can expand responsibly,” Feldman said.

Organic Farm School Director Judy Feldman shows off the farm school’s new home. Their new farmland is located at an old horse racing track. — Image Credit: Kyle Jensen / The Record

Organic Farm School Director Judy Feldman shows off the farm school’s new home. Their new farmland is located at an old horse racing track.

— Image Credit: Kyle Jensen / The Record

Despite free rent, Sher has laid out financial goals for the farm school. He has asked the school’s directors to prove the community supports the program by raising $100,000 by the end of the first school year. He has also requested the school build a reserve fund for stability.

The school never built up a reserve fund while at Greenbank Farm, but Feldman says that is due to their prioritization of hitting the $0 mark financially, owing no money to any entity. The farm school has hit financial balance every year since it was established seven years ago.

The farm school is funded with tuition, grants and profits from produce sales. Tuition costs $6,500, although Feldman says it actually costs $10,000; the school needs to regularly fundraise to keep tuition low for their students. Some of that money comes from the produce the students sell. The profits are always returned to the farm school, Feldman says.

“Yes, it’s a revenue stream, but it’s part of the educational process,” Feldman said. “The students need to know how to sell and interact with potential buyers.”

With the new home comes new aspects of the farm school program. Feldman says this year the farm school will focus more on specifics within the business realm such as building markets, record keeping and how to use loans responsibly. While giving more focus to the business side of things, the program will also include a week-long tractor maintenance segment as well as more livestock training than what was previously taught. Feldman says the school is not abandoning its existing core program, just adding new facets to it.


Whidbey’s Organic Farm School Moving from Greenbank to the Maxwelton Valley

BY WHIDBEY LIFE MAGAZINE STAFF
March 30, 2016

The Organic Farm School (OFS) on Whidbey Island will begin relocating to the Maxwelton Valley this April, setting up shop for students to arrive in March of 2017. Faced with an uncertain future at Greenbank Farm, as new Port Commissioners wrestle with defining a vision for use of the acreage there, the non-profit farmer training program began looking for alternative sites in January of this year.

“We loved being at Greenbank Farm,” says OFS Executive Director, Judy Feldman, “yet we realized that last year’s changes gave us an opportunity to look for other locations that might provide more stability and a more unified vision for our work.”

A new view.

A new view.

That opportunity made possible a conversation with Ron and Eva Sher in Maxwelton Valley. They have been reassembling pieces of the historic Feek Farm for years, and just this past December had begun to ask themselves how they could return some of the farm acreage to agriculture.

“We didn’t have any clear sense of a path forward, but we trusted that something would come to us,” Eva Sher said.

Thanks to an abundance of community connections, including mutual relationships with the Whidbey Institute, Whidbey Camano Land Trust, Greg Gilles and more, the Organic Farm School reached out to the Shers at the exact time they were looking for ways to support place-based, sustainable agriculture.

The result has been invigorating. “I’d say it’s exciting,” Feldman said, “but it’s deeper than that. There is no doubt that the Shers offer us a level of support and land access that we could not have imagined last fall. But what is also remarkable is how they share our land ethic and the desire to train a new generation of farmers that can adapt to a rapidly changing world in environmentally sensitive ways. They get what we do, and they want it to be part of their legacy…growing hope through good agricultural practices taught here and taken out into the world.”

This view gives a sense of the shape of the space we’ll be farming. “The Organic Farm School,” Judy Feldman noted, “will soon begin planting cover crops to increase soil fertility and organic matter inside what once was a training track for race horses.”

This view gives a sense of the shape of the space we’ll be farming. “The Organic Farm School,” Judy Feldman noted, “will soon begin planting cover crops to increase soil fertility and organic matter inside what once was a training track for race horses.”

It’s only March, and Feldman first talked with the Shers at the end of January. There is still a lot of work to be done in fleshing out the agreement. But no one sees any roadblocks.

One of the elements that makes the endeavor so desirable is the neighborhood of like-minded contributors already working in the vitalization of the Maxwelton Valley. It is an area steeped in agricultural history. “We want to make sure that everyone currently working with us sees the inclusion of the farmer training program as a positive addition,” Ron Sher said. “So far, we have confirmation that it is.”

A 7.5-month experiential program based on agroecology principles, the Organic Farm School has graduated 41 students over the past seven years. It is run by a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that funds the program through a combination of tuition, grants, farm revenue generated by vegetable and seed production, and donations. To date, 78% of its graduates continue to farm, and 11 new farms have been started on Whidbey and beyond.

With 91 million agricultural acres needing new farmers in the next five years, and only 8% of our farmers under age 35, the OFS is part of a national network of training programs meeting a very real and urgent need.

Kristin Ohlson, author of The Soil Will Save Us, looks on as Training Manager, Jessica Babcock, and Assistant Program Director, Sebastian Aguilar, take a look at the soil they’ll be working with at the Sher Farm. Everyone is looking forward to incorporating climate/carbon-aware farming methods as the ground is prepared for cover crops this year.

Kristin Ohlson, author of The Soil Will Save Us, looks on as Training Manager, Jessica Babcock, and Assistant Program Director, Sebastian Aguilar, take a look at the soil they’ll be working with at the Sher Farm. Everyone is looking forward to incorporating climate/carbon-aware farming methods as the ground is prepared for cover crops this year.

“Like the Shers, we subscribe to an ethic of working with the land, not in spite of it,” said Jessica Babcock, Lead Instructor. “It’s critically important that we offer training in ag, business and marketing skills, but it’s equally important that our students see the land as their business partner, and that they learn how to observe natural systems for guidance in their farming activities.”

The Shers and the OFS anticipate finalizing written agreements by mid-April. The OFS will be undertaking a significant fundraising campaign to support the transition from Greenbank to the Maxwelton Valley.