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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
For more info you can follow the progress of the Sher/OFS collaboration at http://organicfarmschool.org.
For more details about the future of the Organic Farm School on Whidbey, please call Judy Feldman at 360-222-3171, or e-mail mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
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