An Interview with Jessica Babcock, Farm Manager at Greenbank Farm

Greenbank Farm’s collection of red buildings springs up from the slim green stretch that is Whidbey Island. North and a leap over the Puget Sound from Seattle, Washington, the farm brings together wild nature and agriculture, hikers and farmers, herons and hens. It hosts artists and eaters and learners of all kinds. Jessica Babcock, farm manager and instructor at the Agriculture Training Center, took some time out of the busyness of spring to share some thoughts and snapshots from this multi-faceted, dynamic place.

 ER: Tell us a little about Greenbank Farm and your role there.

JB: Greenbank Farm is a fantastic example of different groups coming together to save a cherished community resource. The Greenbank Farm property, once the largest loganberry farm in the U.S., was slated to be sold to developers in 1995. The community worked for the next two years to find a solution. In 1997 a consortium of the Port of Coupeville, Island County, and The Nature Conservancy bought the property.

The Ag Training Center was established in 2008 in order to teach sustainable agriculture methods at different scales.  The Ag Training Center encompasses several different programs, all of which are included under our organic certification: the Organic Farm School, Organic Seed Project, Market Gardens (plots leased to commercial growers), P-Patch (community garden spaces), and livestock pasture.

ER: Can you share more about the Organic Farm School in particular?

JB: The Organic Farm School is a key component of the Ag Training Center. It is a 7.5-month residential program in which students learn to be organic farmers by being organic farmers. We like to say we have a triple bottom line–growing farmers, food, and community. The students cooperatively manage the 8-acre farm with an emphasis is on small-scale, diversified vegetable production.  We also delve into broilers, bees, goats/sheep, and organic seed production.

The students manage a 75-member CSA, run a booth at the Coupeville Farmers Market, and sell to two local grocery stores.

ER: What are key skills and subjects taught at the farm school? What’s the curriculum, timeline, etc.? 

JB: Students arrive in early March and stay through the end of October.  We spend about 30 hours each week out in the field learning by doing.  There are two classroom lectures each week, one on an organic farming skill (soil fertility, crop rotations, etc.) and the other on direct marketing and small farm viability (CSA administration, business planning, etc.).  We also go on field trips to other area farms to learn about the amazing array of farming methods being implemented on farms in our area.

ER: Why should someone attend the school?

JB: The statistics are scary. Daunting. Terrifying even. So many small farms fail. During the first week of class I teach about the history of agriculture in the U.S. (consolidation, concentration, industrialization) and the challenges facing small farmers today (limited access to land, capital, know-how). I watch their eyes widen in alarm. I imagine them thinking, “Wait a minute, do I really want to be a farmer?! But THAT is why they come to the program. To learn if they really want to be a farmer. And if the answer is yes–and it usually is–to learn how to farm wisely. To develop the skills and knowledge and decision-making tools necessary for their farm to not just survive but thrive.

The confidence to make sound decisions regarding a farm business is quite possibly the most important tool the Organic Farm School can impart to students. There are many ways to learn hands-on farming skills. There are classes that teach about direct marketing. There are business planning courses. But to have all of these things in one program while simultaneously cultivating the thought processes that are the foundation of every smart farming decision–this is the single most important gift the students leave the program with. They finish the program with the confidence to say, “I know farming is difficult, but I have the tools to meet each challenge as it comes my way.”

The Organic Farm School also invests in its students past their first growing season. We encourage students to stay on the farm for another year to participate in our incubator program. They lease plots at the farm under our organic certification; they have access to our tools, equipment, and knowledge; and they start their own farm business without so much of the risk of going off on their own.

ER: What do you hope students will gain / what are things that seem especially needed skills/knowledge in our changing agricultural environment?

JB: In addition to the confidence and decision-making tools that I hope to impart to the students, I also want to help them learn how to think outside the box. There are so many diverse marketing opportunities, crops, and value-added options for farms of this scale. I want to get students thinking about what their farm/life goals actually are and then help them work toward those goals.

In this same vein, organic seed production is especially close to my heart. There is a crippling shortage of organic seed; demand far outreaches supply. This has the potential to be an important component of small-scale organic farm income. As part of the Ag Training Center’s Organic Seed Project, students learn the ins and outs of organic seed production, including navigating contracts with organic seed companies.

ER: I noticed that in addition to practicing agriculture, Greenbank Farm puts emphasis on local commerce, recreation, and natural resource stewardship. Could you talk about how these things work together?

JB: Greenbank Farm is a mecca of community involvement. Every day you can see many people out using the hiking trails, shopping at the art galleries, eating at the Pie Cafe, and birding in the wetland. The farm itself is a diverse place (wetland, forest, open space, agriculture), and we seek to enrich the diversity of the human activities that go on there. We believe that all of these things–local commerce, recreation, natural resource stewardship, and agriculture can work together to create a stronger whole.  For example, we farm in such a way that enhances the local ecosystem, which draws in recreationists and tourists, which in turn helps the local businesses at the farm.  Our goal is for all of the pieces to work in concert to create a stronger whole.

ER: What advice would you have for someone considering attending farm school and/or going into farming in general?

JB: My advice for someone considering farming as a profession (or for anyone considering any profession) is to do your homework. What are your goals (life, business, family)? What knowledge/experience do you already have? Where are the gaps in your knowledge? How can you go about filling those gaps?

If you think a farm school might be the ticket, visit the farm and talk to the farmers! Every farm school program has differences–program emphasis, size, climate, etc.–get a feel for what works for you. The Organic Farm School at Greenbank Farm is small and focuses on one-on-one personal attention as well as very hands-on farm management. We invest in our students beyond the first farm season. We have a long, cool growing season that presents unique opportunities and challenges. And last, but definitely not least, we’re located in one of the most beautiful spots in the world!

 To learn more about Greenbank Farm and the Organic Farm School, visit their website. <www.greenbankfarm.biz.>

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