— by Matthew Gilbert, Orcas Issues reporter —
The recent public disclosure of Coffelt Farm’s deteriorating infrastructure and its demand of the San Juan County Land Bank – which owns the land on which the farm operates – to finance critical improvements brought to the surface the desperate circumstances that have been plaguing its operations for some time. Coffelt Farm’s fate, after 10 years of what many would characterize as a well-intended but risky experiment in “publicly owned” agriculture, epitomizes the challenges of sustainable farming no matter the model, not just in this county but throughout the U.S.
Coffelt Farm began in 1950 as a privately-owned 200-acre enterprise owned by Vern Coffelt who was joined by his wife Sidney in the 1970s. Their primary focus was on growing healthy food for themselves and friends based on the principles of sustainable agriculture, grass-fed meat, and farmland preservation. As they began to realize that agricultural land on Orcas Island was under threat, they sought solutions to protect it, and in 1993 negotiated a conservation easement with the San Juan Preservation Trust to ensure that the farm would remain a farm after they were gone. In 2008 the land was sold to the Land Bank, a public institution approved by 60 percent of county voters in 1990 and funded by a one percent real estate excise tax. The mandate of the Land Bank is to “preserve in perpetuity areas in the county that have environmental, agricultural, aesthetic, cultural, scientific, historic, scenic or low-intensity recreational value and to protect existing and future sources of potable water.”
Although Vern and Sidney remained in charge until 2011, Coffelt Farm Stewards (a 501(c)(3) nonprofit) was established in 2009 with the goal of caring for the farm and continuing its commitment to sustainable and ethical farming practices and providing learning opportunities for both the public and aspiring farmers. Ruthie Dougherty, the Land Bank steward for Orcas island, was CFS’s first executive director; Joe Symons was its first board chair.
When the new arrangement began, it was assumed that the existing “business model” would be self-sustaining. As Land Bank director Lincoln Bormann tells it, “The vision was for a non-profit to continue a family-farming tradition and hopefully raise outside funds for operations and additional programs. Our hope was that with an established farm already in place with a two-bedroom house, sheep and hay barns, dairy, shop, farm stand, composting facility, equipment, animals, and no lease payments, it would be financially sustainable, especially with a nonprofit at the helm which has also the ability to fundraise and apply for grants.”
It took a few years to realize that running a farm of that complexity is expensive despite best efforts to fund it. “Pro bono” management, the support of a few passionate donors, modest grant monies, and project-specific support from the Land Bank kept the tractor wheels turning but masked underlying capital and maintenance needs that were necessary for long-term sustainability and that would allow farm staff to do what it does best: farm efficiently with reliable staffing and up-do-date facilities.
As one source noted, “one of the main challenges every year has been trying to rise above the ‘barely squeaking by’ profit margin. Farm income plus donations barely cover operating expenses. This leaves little money for infrastructure or equipment upgrades. It also leaves little money for adequate pay for hard work. This is nothing new to any farmer.” Add to that the need to pay for an executive director (not always accomplished) and the challenge of three separate but conjoined entities trying to make good decisions under duress. Forgive the pun, but all of these chickens have now come home to roost.
Records show that since 2009, the LB has invested about $240K in the farm, half in payroll and the other half in various services and maintenance. The case for more substantial infrastructure investment has been made for a number of years, according to sources, and was formally emphasized in a letter to the Land Bank dated May 26, 2016, from Charly Robinson, then executive director of CFS, and Symons. In it they write that “under present conditions, CFS is unable to guarantee that we can continue to operate the farm on a break-even basis. There are many reasons for this inability, some historical, some contemporary. The latter involve the fact that our dairy has yet to become legally certified (or certifiable), the lack of worker housing to enable us to employ sufficient farmhands to get the work done, the lack of facilities to carry out revenue-generating activities such as agricultural training, and the prevailing view among our customers that as a publicly-owned property, we are deemed a poor prospect for charitable giving. This means that in order for us to sign off on the LoA (Letter of Agreement), some very fundamental changes will need to be made . . .”
The Land Bank will extend the length of its regularly scheduled monthly meeting this coming Friday the 15th to accommodate public comment on the future of this Orcas Island institution. It takes place at the Mullis Community Senior Center in Friday Harbor (589 Nash St.) starting at 8:30 a.m.
The concerns of worker housing in particular were never addressed as the entire board and ED were abruptly replaced by a new board led by Terry Williams and Wendy Thomas, who lasted six months. A patchwork of partial governance solutions followed until the spring of 2018 when long-time farm supporters Betty Corbett and Bill Wulff were asked to join the CFS board and help figure out how to keep the farm afloat. After a year of evaluation, which included securing a lease with the Land Bank and bringing the farm into compliance on several fronts, they put a number on those “fundamental changes”: $1.25M, the bulk of which ($950K) would be used for a multi-purpose facility that includes farmworker housing. The request was delivered along with an ultimatum: Without this additional investment – and soon – Coffelt Farm will cease to exist. The specter of this raises a number of critical questions:
- What is the Land Bank’s fiduciary responsibility to ensure the sustainability of this uniquely diversified agricultural property? (It does have other agricultural lands in its portfolio, but they are mostly single-use and privately-owned with long-term leases and much lower maintenance needs.)
- Is this a legitimately sanctioned use of taxpayer monies?
- What assurances can (or should) be made that the farm can be self-supporting? Does the current revenue model need revision?
- Is there a governance and management structure that makes sense under these exceptional circumstances?
- What will be lost should the farm go under?
- More deeply and philosophically, how important is the role of local agriculture in serving a community’s well-being?
The Agricultural Resource Committee (ARC), a 15-member citizen advisory group tasked with providing recommendations to the Economic Development Element of the County’s Comprehensive Plan, sent a letter to the Land Bank that did not take sides but instead emphasized that “We are committed to supporting the acquisition and stewardship of agricultural lands. The Coffelt Farm is an important project and we are rooting for the stability of the CFS and the future success of the project.” Among its many recommendations to the County that encourage such an outcome are
- Encourage agricultural enterprises and activities in order to enhance agricultural viability and create a thriving local food economy.
- Support the education, training, and counseling of county residents toward internships in agriculture to supplement and replace an aging talent pool.
- Foster a thriving local food economy by investing resources in the development of supporting infrastructure.
- Recognize the ecosystem services performed by healthy soil as fundamental and essential county assets and support regenerative stewardship activities.
A “petition of support” posted on the CFS website has been signed by nearly 30 farms. The list of community member signers is approaching 800.
Charly Robinson, who worked as a volunteer on the farm for five years years before stepping in as executive director, acknowledged the challenge of creating “a partnership between a public entity (the Land Bank) and a nonprofit organization that is trying to create a product, preserve land, and provide education. Almost no one else in the country is doing this. [And yet] preserving farming traditions and knowledge is vital for our community. In just two generations, much of the skills required to produce food in this country have been lost.”
Kaj Enderlein, owner of Kaj-Dawg Farm which is the host farm for Orcas Community Participatory Agriculture (of which I’m a member), describes Coffelt Farm as “an asset held in the Commons, like Turtleback Mountain. It provides the community with multiple dividends, many of which are not accounted for in the dire conversations describing the farm’s health and value through the limited lens of a single bottom line – the P&L. There are enormous social/community and ecological benefits. We are also failing to perceive ourselves as co-owners, although a thoughtful re-examination of the Coffelt Farm Vision Statement might be useful.”
In the end, the aspirational vision of “community supported” agriculture that fueled the original agreement between Coffelt Farm and the Land Bank has not been able to overcome the arduous challenges of any local, organic, family farm whether here or elsewhere in the world of Big Farma. Corbett and Wulff are stepping down after their one-year commitment, “grateful for the opportunity we’ve had to do our best to save this priceless county treasure.” And if a solution isn’t found, “We’ll be deeply disappointed, but we won’t be angry,” added Corbett. CFS’s new executive director, Kate Mikulak, believes that “if board member and staff time are diverted to the needs of our mission as a nonprofit farm and away from constant infrastructure problems on the ground, we have great potential to flourish as a cultural institution connecting and showcasing the island’s agricultural heritage.” There’s now a new farm manager, Stephanie Casey, a new board chair, Kathy Morris, and a much clearer understanding of what is needed to go forward. But will all that be enough?
It was the Land Bank that purchased the original conservation easement from Coffelt Farm in 1995 (for $230k). When the decision was made to purchase the property outright (for an additional $1.175m) so that it could remain viable as a farm, a new conservation easement was drafted and donated to the San Juan Preservation Trust.
Terry (not Teri) Williams had been on the Coffelt Farm Stewards board for three years before taking over as interim Chair for six months while the board reorganized.