Farm package before council

Farmers say year-round retail sales would boost local agriculture.

Farmers love good weather during growing season. The economic forecast may be looking up, too, as the city finally considers letting them sell value-added products year-round.

“On a small farm, you can’t make a lot of money just growing crops,” said Krista Martin of Meadowhawk Farm, “but if you make it into wine or create a product people appreciate, it changes the value of your crop a lot. The potential for income changes completely.”

Tonight, the City Council will introduce an ordinance sought by island farmers for years, to allow the on-site sale of farm products – wines, jams, herbal teas, and other refined wares – year-round, to make farming more economically viable. The current code only allows sales when crops are being harvested.

A recent study by Friends of the Farm found that value-added goods make up as much as 100 percent of income for two-thirds of island farmers surveyed.

“Just selling at harvest time (works) if you have a big crop that could support you for the rest of the year,” Martin said. “The issue is we’re not talking about big-time farming.”

Martin said 10 pounds of herbs dried and packaged in herbal teas makes more economic sense then just selling them as harvested.

In the revised ordinance, small-scale sales would only require a $180 fee with an “Agricultural Retail Plan” subject to review by the city. The first year, the $180 fee would be waived.

“Major agricultural sales” – defined as generating more than 12 vehicle trips per day, or four special events a year – would require, at the determination of the planning director, either a regular conditional use permit process for $9,900 or a less onerous administrative CUP for $4,500.

Causing some grumbling, minor farm sales would be allowed to generate only 12 vehicle trips per day regardless of location, whereas educational home occupations – like piano lessons – can generate unlimited vehicle trips if they are on an arterial road.

Still, farmers say the code change offers hope. Martin says she would like to give up her part-time job and concentrate on agriculture.

“I don’t see how I could do it with the growing season as the sales time.”

And the continued existence of an island landmark, the Bainbridge Island Winery, may depend on the ordinance.

Having sold his commercially zoned winery property in Winslow last year, owner Gerard Bentryn has been trying to build a new winery at his vineyard on Day Road, an area zoned residential.

Construction was delayed by permit issues, but Bentryn expects the building to be ready for final city inspection in early June. At the same time, he is waiting on a federal license to sell wine there, an activity regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

The final step will be getting permission from the city for retail wine sales.

Saying he can’t wait for the council to consider and pass a revised farming ordinance, Bentryn is arguing that his operation falls under a different section of the municipal code.

Last Friday, he filed for mediation with the city on the issue; he is also lobbying for a council resolution that affirms the winery is not subject to the “during harvest time” restriction on sales.

The last option is waiting for a revised farming ordinance, which could take months. Bentryn says even 60 days may be too long a wait, and the winery may simply go out of business.

The operation, he said, is losing $5,000 every week that the winery cannot open at Day Road.

He estimates thousands of dollars will be lost in not being open for the winery’s spring barrel tasting, an event usually held on Memorial Day weekend.

“This time of year, we’re supposed to be on a tractor,” Bentryn said. “We can’t farm and fight at the same time.”

* * * * *

Farm aid

The proposed farming ordinance would allow year-round retail sales by farms in residential zones, of products grown, livestock raised and value-added products, as well as “agricultural-tourism” activities.

Retail sales would be of primarily (75 percent) island grown crops and value-added products where the defining ingredient was island-grown (such as strawberries in jam).

Farms would be subject to permit review and fees. Other requirements: limits on noise and lighting; on-site parking provided; a maximum of one non-farming employee (and up to three during seasonal sales); retail activity must be subordinate to agricultural activity.

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