Greenbank Farm Part Two | Weaving the past into the future

Posted in Culinary, More Stories, Visual Art, Winery

Whidbey Life Magazine contribtor
Dec. 17, 2013

It echoed the sweep of land rising up from the blue water in Holmes Harbor to the ridge with the 180-degree view of the Puget Sound, the Cascades, the Olympic Mountain Range and the multicolored, late afternoon December sky. It was a simple gesture — the movement of a man’s arm; a gesture that told the whole story, the story of thousands of years and the story of right now.

Everyday people walk the trails that turn and rise through the orchard grass up the gentle slopes to the dark woods beyond the crest. Some days, they may be joined by people riding their horses. Many of the hikers, if not most, bring their canine friends along. The dogs can scuttle and frolic unleashed, as their human companions enjoy the exercise of walking and the panoramas that invite contemplation, even meditation.

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The trails at Greenbank Farm overlook Saratoga Passage. / All photos by Norm Keseric

A man walks by hurriedly, unlike most of the others out ambling through the trails, a slightly wide-eyed look of concern on his face. At the next intersection of  paths, he asks a woman if she has seen another woman, for whom he is looking. He describes her coat and where he last saw her.

A small group of people with their dogs walk past an older man who warmly greets the animals. One of them, a red merle-coated spaniel — a little overweight and warped with arthritis — waddles up to him and basks in the attention. As the group heads off down the trail, she refuses to heed their calls to keep walking with them. She sits resolutely at the side of the man, as though she has adopted him.

“I think she knows another old dog when she sees one,” the man said. Finally, she reluctantly gets up and follows her people on up the trail.

From down below, towards the highway, a woman whistles and calls out a name.


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Wildlife abounds all around Greenbank Farm on its trails, near the pond and throughout its fields.

She whistles and calls several times, walking up the hill. The older man who met the old dog is walking down the hill, and crosses her path. Her dog is walking with her and cautiously approaches the man.

“I didn’t see any loose dogs up there,” he said, patting her dog’s head.

“Oh, I’m not looking for a lost dog,” she said. “I’m looking for a lost husband.”

The man smiles.

“Ah,” he said. “I think I saw him up the hill. He was looking for you.”

At that instant, Gus comes walking down the hill and is soon reunited with his wife and their dog. They go walking back up the trail together, and then down towards the farm on the other side.

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The clouds settle over the grassy hills at the farm.

On this day, the farm sits under a spectacular winter sky. Most of it is covered with a large mass of clouds, whose variegated hues of gray spread a dark mood across the frigid landscape. It doesn’t quite cover the horizon, though, and the hidden sun, low but not setting, is mocking that sinister feeling with a piebald display of colors ranging from pale yellow to flaming orange, with some pink and purple thrown in just for laughs.

Both mountain ranges are visible below the edges of the cloud mass, the Cascades to the east, the Olympics west. Beyond the Cascades, and partially below the edge of the main cloud, beyond a splotch of blue sky, the sun bounces bright and white off huge distant cumulus clouds. That reflected light is then refracted back in fiery bursts and sprays against the eastern edge of the ominous, giant gray cloud looming low above the snow-capped peaks.

It looks as though the sun is rising and setting at the same time.

The Greenbank Farm buildings seem small beneath the huge drama in the sky. Greenhouses and pea patches lay scattered and tended in neat patterns, put to bed for the winter, except for the last late vegetables. Training Director Steve Aguilar, along with Jessica Babcock who is the Farm Manager and Lead Instructor, have finished teaching the class of 2013 how to produce and market crops at the Organic Farm School.

The school, with its working  farm, embodies one of the most important values of the community-owned Greenbank Farm:  Environmental stewardship that allows for sustainable agriculture to provide healthy food for the community. Certified organic, Greenbank Farm not only provides new farmers a seven-and-a-half-month-long training program that combines hands-on experience and academic courses, but offers 26 garden plots (p-patches) to people in the community, who want to grow their own food. There is also a Market Garden with larger plots for farmers who want to produce enough to sell at local farmers markets, and who are willing to adhere to the strictures of organic growing.

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Golden grasses lay wintery color across the farm’s open areas.

Next to the farm, just north of the big, red barn, is a row of art galleries and shops. These privately-owned businesses help support the non-profit mission of the Farm by paying rent. The also provide a model for how economic activity can co-exist with a sensitive, natural environment.

The iconic barn itself serves as the centerpiece to the complex of fields, farm, wetlands, pond and buildings. The community has maintained its essential “barn-ness”. The old beams and rafters inside have been left exposed, even though insulation and sheet rock could make the interior more comfortable for the wedding parties and other occasional renters, especially during cold weather.

“We’re preserving the past by keeping the barn,” said Judy Feldman, Executive Director of the Greenbank Farm Management Group. “We’re changing the function, but respecting the fact that it is a barn.”

The statement reveals much about the sensibilities that underlie the preservation of this place, The reflex to connect to the past, to feel part of a place and the history of it, is a deep-rooted human need. At its worst, it can irresponsibly prevent progress that would be good for the community. At its best, it weaves the threads of the past into the fabric of the future, providing continuity without sacrificing creativity.

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Horseback riders frequent the trails at Greenbank Farm, the perfect place for a sunny-day ride.

A solar array sits west of the barn, near Highway 525. It is another community engendered and maintained project, providing supplemental electrical power to a neighborhood nearby. In tandem with the output of produce at the organic farm, it yields a harvest of sunlight with as low a negative impact on the local environment as possible. It’s just one of many other uses of the Farm that the community and the Farm Management Group have been able to implement in the spirit of sustainability and careful connection of past to present and future.

With the approach of the weekend, about 30 local artisans, artists and farmers will set up their wares inside the barn for the annual Holiday Market. Running every weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas, its organizers and vendors hope that Whidbey Islanders will shop locally this holiday season. The Market predates the creation of Greenbank Farm as a community-owned, non-profit enterprise.

“Twenty years ago, we would set up here with the conveyor belts,” said Nancy Skullerud, one of this years volunteer organizers of the market, who is a vendor as well. Back then, the Farm was owned by Chateau Ste-Michelle, which bottled its wine in the barn.

The market is full of local, hand-made items and products. Skullerud and her fellow organizers, Caroline Gardiner and Barb Munndell, have worked hard to keep out “imports” this year. Though the market is relatively small, the range of things for sale is impressive; candles, knit caps and scarves, chocolates, wooden writing pens, paintings, wooden spoons, herbal soaps; all of it made on the island.

Frank Parente, garlic grower and author, is there selling one of his soft-necked varieties.

“It’s been kind of slow this weekend,” he said. “But I’ll be here for the whole four weeks.”

Before long, new customers walk into the barn and a little flurry of activity breaks out. People are buying, selling, trading, doing that age-old thing that humans in their communities do.

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Dramatic skies over the farm’s trails change daily, making the farm a favorite place for day hikers and dog walkers.

Outside, the sun is getting low in the sky again over the Farm. A Swinomish Fisherman stood on the dock next to his well-worn, fishing boat, as he and his partner prepared to leave early the following morning to fish for geoduck near Kingston.

“I never heard of Greenbank Farm,” he said.

“But I know Greenbank. My people used to live here, all over the island. It was all covered in forest then. It’s all gone now, except maybe for the forest at the park at Deception Pass. There were lots of big cedar trees back then.”

He paused and said, “We were four tribes, all related, about 12 or 15 thousand of us.”

With a sweep of his arm towards the Swinomish Community and Reservation he said, “Then they moved us here.”

One day in the future, if his people gather again at Greenbank, it will be there, waiting for them.

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Trees once covered the land of Greenbank Farm in dense forest, before the area became the site of the country’s first Loganberry Farm.

Russell Clepper is a singer-songwriter who plies his trade locally and around the country. He also is a substitute teacher for the Oak Harbor School District.

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