Friends of Farms plants seeds for the future

Farm interns Maggie Godard waters vegetable plants while Reneé Tiemann moves flats being stored in one of three greenhouses used for early plantings on the Morales Public Farm property off Lovgren Road. The boxes have pipes embedded in sand that keeps the plants warm with 72-degree water circulating.   - Dennis Anstine/Staff Photo
Farm interns Maggie Godard waters vegetable plants while Reneé Tiemann moves flats being stored in one of three greenhouses used for early plantings on the Morales Public Farm property off Lovgren Road. The boxes have pipes embedded in sand that keeps the plants warm with 72-degree water circulating.
— image credit: Dennis Anstine/Staff Photo

Reclaiming enough agricultural land on Bainbridge Island to create a working farm community is beginning to move from a pipe dream toward reality because of a growing public demand for homegrown food and a dynamic back-to-the-land movement that has young farmers looking for land to work.

Locally, the driving force behind the movement is Friends of the Farms, a 10-year-old nonprofit that was known previously as Trust for Working Landscapes. The organization has increased its profile during the last five years and is currently negotiating with the city for a long-term contract to manage the 60 acres of city-owned farmland on the island.

Ryan Vancil, an island land-use attorney who is also a Friends of the Farms board member, said this week that the critical piece of the puzzle required to strengthen the local farming community is a legal contract between the city and Friends, which would then sub-lease the city land to farmers, most of whom are already working the land.

The city and Friends are two years into a five-year contract, but the agreement is vague in the terms of management and responsibilities, Vancil said. The city, for example, has no staff dedicated to managing the 60 acres, which have an estimated 14 farmers working on the land. And city land off Day Road, which includes a variety of row crops, grapes and berries, virtually has a “loose agreement” at best, Vancil said.

“The council doesn’t want the city manager to deal with it so they’d like to lease all the city’s farm properties to us,” he said. “We’d be the middleman and then we’d sublet it to the farmers. The important part is that a lot of issues that keep coming up would be answered with this legal infrastructure.”

Bart Berg, an island native and board president of Friends, said a lump sum of money from the city could be part of the deal because “there are a huge amount of infrastructure issues, including the need for more water wells, purchase and maintenance of equipment, and clearing land. That’s going to be very expensive.” Also, he said, the Friends will need a full-time manager, “someone who’s there full time to identify the problems and needs.”

Berg calls the potential agreement a “99-year lease, if conceivable” though he admits it could be for fewer years.

“We will need a long-term lease and city funding to go with it if we are going to get a toehold on the many needs of the community going forward,” Berg said. “If you go to a bank to borrow money, 99 years is the magic number for banks to secure loans.”

Berg said there is “no doubt” that the Friends of the Farm is the best organization to manage the city’s property and private land that is either donated or purchased for farming purposes.

To that end, Friends recently hired Wendy Tyner as its part-time executive director, freeing the board from running events such as the Harvest Fair.

“The energy is outside of us,” he said. “There’s a growing need by people to buy local food, and it’s a movement on the island and elsewhere that is feeding our actions whether it’s public or private land. We are having realtors coming to us saying, ‘Here’s some property for sale that is farm related,’ and others that are saying they have an acre that they would like to see turned into farmland.”

Berg said that while the movement is especially strong on the West Coast, “we have all the positive elements here. We have people coming here to be interns, at least a dozen a year, and college graduates with farming degrees from WSU, UC-Davis and others who want to get their start in small farms, not agribusiness. They’re looking for land and we don’t have enough to offer.”

Friends hopes to eventually undergo an intensive analysis of all the physical properties on the island in an effort to identify those that are best for farmland, he said, with the purpose of fulfilling the need.

The city’s Comprehensive Plan calls for 1 percent of all public lands to be used for agricultural purposes, which would mean about 180 acres.

“We’ve got one-third of that now,” Berg said, “but our goal is unlimited. Simply put, our No. 1 priority is to find more farm land, period. We want more land to grow more food for islanders.

“And we have no restrictions on how we get it,” he added. “It could be private land gained through a direct purchase, through a conservation easement, working with park district or the land trust. For example, there are four or five acres on top of the Hilltop property that we would like to set aside for the public.”

Brian MacWhorter, who has farmed on the island for about 25 years, said he and JoAnn and Gerard Bentryn, Betsey Whittick, Karen Selfors, Akio Suyematsu and many others have been laboring for years with the goal of reawakening the farm ethic on the island.

“It’s incredible what’s going on here and elsewhere,” said MacWhorter, who is a Friends board member and board president for the island’s Farmers’ Market. “It’s about going back to nature before it’s to late to save this planet. People are finally realizing the importance of not only producing our own food, like we used to, but also the need to support ourselves.”

Berg said Friends has been kicking in some money, like the $40,000 it will spend for putting a pump in a well to be able to augment the water capacity at Day Road’s city property. The city spent $33,000 last year and that’s down to $20,000 in 2011, with nothing set aside thereafter.

“We have a project list that would cost on the order of between $600,000 and $800,000, though we know we can’t do it all – just what the city can afford now,” Berg said. “But we will need a certain amount of money to take over the management of the city’s farmland.”

Berg thinks it is inevitable that Friends will take over management of the public farmland.

“It will happen because the city wants to be out of the farm business, which they really haven’t been in anyway, and they’re embarrassed about it,” he said. “We’re both really pushing to move this along. I think it could happen by the end of year.”

Berg said a contract is critical for Friends in order to raise money from foundations and private sources.

“When we go to foundations, like we did this week, they are looking for capacity, more structure from our organization so we can handle this thing,” Berg said. “A long-term contract will help us  get loans and donations, where they come from foundations or individuals.”

Friendly potluck

Friends of the Farms, formerly known as Trust for Working Landscapes, will have its annual membership meeting at 3 p.m. May 15 at Suyematsu/Bentryn Farm on Day Road.

Following the membership meeting, the public is invited to a potluck beginning at 4 p.m.

This annual gathering is a time to come together and celebrate local farming and the work of the organization. The afternoon will include  live music, creating a maypole and a grape cane bonfire.

Gerard Bentryn, co-founder and operator of Bainbridge Island Vineyard and Winery with his wife Jo Ann Bentryn, will receive the 2011 Akio Award. The award, established last year in honor of another long-time Bainbridge farmer Akio Suyematsu, honors an individual farmer or friend of farming, for their outstanding contribution to local farming.

The potluck is picnic-style and plates and utensils will be provided.  All ages are welcome.

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