Whidbey’s farms feeding us now and into the future

— Created April 1, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

In the new normal of this COVID-19 world, not even a virus can stop Mother Nature and the burgeoning crops all over Whidbey Island.

Farm stands, if not up and running yet, will be soon.

The Coupeville Farmers Market has pushed its opening day back to April 18, while Bayview Farmers Market is still set to open its season April 25 and South Whidbey Tilth Farmers Market is still on schedule to open May 3.

Farmers markets are deemed essential businesses under Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” directive, although they may look and operate a bit differently.

“We know that we are a symbol of spring, continuity and hope,” said longtime Coupeville Farmers Market Manager Peg Tennant. “We hold the health of our customers and communities close to our heart. Whatever we can do to make that visible in the market, we will do, and we trust our loyal local customers to understand and follow the rules.”

According to Tennant, there will be three designated entrance/exit points only. There will be hand sanitizing stations at every entrance and all booths will be stocked with sanitizer. Booths will be separated by six to eight feet and customers or vendors will not be permitted in those open spaces. Customers will not be able to touch any products; vendors may have samples to show, but stock must be kept out of reach of shoppers. There will be no hot food for sale. Customers must strictly obey social distancing guidelines.

Fresh produce is a mainstay at the island’s farmers markets – provided they are able to remain open. With no crystal ball available to predict when the Coronavirus crisis will end, Whidbey’s farmers are already looking ahead to help meet what could be a growing need in the future.

“As community-scale farmers, we know that to have food later, we have to plant it now,” said Judy Feldman, director of the nonprofit Organic Farm School on South Whidbey. “We are beginning to harvest spring greens, radishes, salad turnips – things we planted four to six weeks ago. We are propagating trays of seedlings that will soon be transplanted out into the field – chard, cabbage, cucumbers, onions, squash, lettuce, spinach, kale, and so much more. We are fortunate to have smart, forward-thinking farmers on Whidbey and we’re all planting out the crop plans we made over the winter. There is a LOT of food currently being grown on this island.”

Feldman said the situation we currently face with COVID-19 illustrates the importance of smaller scale, community farms like those found on Whidbey.

“Everyone needs food; it becomes more visible in times like these that having localized/regionalized food production is important for community resilience,” she said. “Locally grown food can fill in the gaps during times when a more globalized system struggles. Here on Whidbey, we are also deeply fortunate to have farmers skilled in seed production, which addresses an even deeper level of capacity.”

The Organic Farm School trains a small class of future farmers each year, This year’s class of 12 is the largest ever. Students from all over the country were set to begin their course of study April 13. COVID-19 will, at the very least, delay their arrival.

“We will have to wait until at least April 27, but probably farther out than that,” said Feldman. “We’re working to frontload the season with what would have been classroom instruction and offering those students online, virtual learning. But we’re actually going to need their bodies out here at some point to help with the crops.”

For now, Feldman said they can manage the 2.5 to 3 acres with a skeleton crew. But they’re planting a lot of food.

“We’re ramping up as quickly as we can, getting creative with our available field space, in some cases looking to plant more storage crops and fall varieties than we might have planned two months ago,” she said. “We are so fortunate to have farmers already growing food on Whidbey. This includes those raising livestock, caring for laying hens, growing seed and grains, and tending a wide diversity of fruits and vegetables. By joining efforts with home gardeners, these local farmers can supplement our dry good pantries.” 

“People can access our fresh produce and meat as well as other producers’ products at our farm stand,” said Kyle Flack, owner and operations manager at Bell’s Farm on West Beach Road. “People have responded to the built in social distancing a farm stand can provide, the security of knowing both where the food comes from as well as the security that comes with either a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share or a whole or half lamb reservation. People feel good about having a consistent source of food.”

“In response to the current situation, we are also offering a weekly grocery bag with our fresh produce and meat, produce from other Whidbey farms, bread made on Whidbey and local dairy products,” Flack continued. “Unlike a CSA


, this is only a weekly commitment and doesn’t require as much upfront cost.” 

 Feldman believes the coronavirus pandemic will have a significant impact on the nation’s food production, which is why they have planted, or will plant, larger crops and why communities will need people who can grow food efficiently. She hopes through sales of its Flex CSAs the nonprofit won’t suffer any long term financial damage. She has also worked with Good Cheer Food Bank in Langley to set up a program she hopes will help provide fresh produce to the food bank – but community support is needed.

“We are asking 20 people to each purchase a one pound, “Community Share” of greens every week throughout the season (lettuce, arugula, kale, spinach, lettuce mix, spicy mix, etc.) for 26 weeks (starting the first week of May) and then allowing us to aggregate all 20 shares and take them to Good Cheer,” explained Feldman. “Cost per share is $170. By purchasing one of these shares, you support the Organic Farm School in this challenging time AND contribute to a collective effort to provide 20 pounds of fresh, nutrient dense greens to Good Cheer all throughout the season.”

An investment in local farms now could make a big difference later – something with which everyone can help.

“Buy fresh produce from the farms closest to you,” Feldman suggested. “To keep vegetables growing, we have to buy seed, soil amendments, harvesting/packaging supplies. When you buy from the Organic Farm School or any other local farm, you are investing in the future capacity of our local food system. Not to belabor the point, but if you are not buying from us, or other local farms during this time, you are eroding this community’s capacity to feed itself for both the short and long term.”

“In situations like this with the potential of distribution being cut off, potential of contaminated products and also potentially restricted freedom of movement, having healthy local farms is important to maintaining a healthy and resilient community,” said Flack. “When you stop at the honesty (farm) stand, feel free to pet Gandalf and Gus, our mini donkey and mini mule – they have no need to maintain social distance.” 

Goosefoot is currently compiling an online list of local farms stands on which farmers can update hours, what items are available and where to find them at goosefoot.org. Check organicfarmschool.org for details on the “Community Share” for Good Cheer and for details on its Flex CSA program and learn more about what Bell’s Farm can offer at bells-farm.com. Whidbey Island Grown is another excellent source to check for information on local farms – whidbeyislandgrown.com. And with the rapidly changing COVID-19 situation, it may be wise to check information on local farmers markets before deciding to head out to shop.

“What we may be learning from this crisis is if we want local farmers to provide for us in these circumstances, we need to buy from local farmers when we’re not in crisis,” said Feldman.  “We are all in this together and I can’t imagine a better, stronger community to go through this with.”