Vintnter touts year-round product sales

Farming is an amenity that adds value to Bainbridge Island, vintner Gerard Bentryn says.

“People like to live in beauty,” Bentryn said. “Farming makes their land more valuable.”

But land on the island has become so valuable that the existence of farming is threatened.

On behalf of the farm community, Bentryn is asking the city for help.

“Farmers are trying to live on $14,000 to $20,000 per year,” he said, “and it needs to be $30,000 to $40,000.”

As a step in that direction, Bentryn has suggested changes to the city code that will allow all island farmers to sell processed products from their farms throughout the year, not just during harvest season.

“There is very little money to be made out of selling raw agricultural products,” Bentryn said. “If we are going to have agriculture at all, the farmer has to sell processed products.”

Under the current code, farming is permitted in all zones with lot sizes of a half-acre or more. Harvest-time sales are allowed, as is the processing of island-grown crops. But there is no provision for non-harvest sales for those outside of commercial zones.

That issue is critical to Bentryn, whose main operation is on Day Road but who also makes and sells his wine on commercially zoned land in Winslow, next to SR-305.

“We can’t afford to keep all the land we have, and we need to retrench,” Bentryn said. “It makes sense to move to Day Road and open on a smaller scale. But we need to be able to sell our wine year-round, and Day Road isn’t zoned commercial. This is critical to our remaining on the island.”

Limiting agricultural processing and retail sales to island-grown crops is reasonable, Bentryn said – “If you allow everyone in all areas to sell products of all kinds, you don’t have residential areas.”

The city council last week forwarded the ordinance Bentryn proposed to the planning commission for its review.

The proposed ordinance amendment is the first step in a broad examination of how to preserve agriculture on Bainbridge Island.

The ultimate objective, as set forth in the Comprehensive Plan, is to preserve at least 1 percent of island land – roughly 170 acres – in agriculture.

“I define farming as producing more from the land than you put into it,” Bentryn said. “If you’re putting more in than you’re taking out, it’s a hobby.”

Using that definition, he does not believe there is more than 20 acres of agricultural land on the island, the majority of it being part of or adjacent to his land on East Day Road.

Bentryn said that of his 26 acres of land, only 17 are in production. Other than that, he knows of a few small, scattered parcels that are producing food crops.

The total expands significantly – he does not know exact numbers – if non-food crops such as Christmas trees, flowers and pasture lands are included, he said.

Moves the city could take to assist farmers, he said, would be to allow clustered housing for farm workers; allow clearing and grading of farm land; allow sales of small parcels of farmland “stripped of all development potential”; and putting farmers first in line for city permits, because “crops will not wait for planners.”

He would also like to see the city implement an “agricultural overlay district” with regulations favoring farming, because, as he stated in a memo to the council, “farms are farms’ best neighbors.” Such a district, he said, would allow farm-friendly land-use measures such as clearing and grading that would not be desirable island-wide.

Councilwoman Deborah Vancil said that farm policy is one of the council’s goals and objectives for 2003. The land use committee, of which she is a member, wants to invite area farmers to an informal briefing session in the near future.

Towards the end of the year, the council will ask the mayor to appoint a 90-day task force to develop a package of agriculture-preservation measures.

“That would not be just farmers, but would also include developers, real-estate professionals and finance people to help figure out how to reverse the loss of agricultural land,” Vancil said.

Ultimately, creating more farmland on the island is going to require making land more affordable, Bentryn said, which might involve the city buying the land and leasing it for farming.

“People want to farm if the underlying land prices are reasonable,” he said. “But we don’t want to staff farms with city employees. Hopefully, the community will support what people grow and sell.”

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