by Meredith M. Griffith
Coffelt Farm has proved profitable in its day-to-day operations over the past three years, says board member Bill Wulff.
Nevertheless, the Coffelt Farm Stewards say the farm is in very real danger of falling dormant due to crumbling infrastructure.
According to Wulff, the fencing is old and no longer keeps the animals properly contained; the water system is failing and unreliable; the farm lacks hard surfaces needed to effectively collect and compost manure; and, perhaps most daunting, a lack of adequate farmworker housing has resulted in what Wulff calls “astounding” worker turnover.
“There’s no winter housing that’s anywhere near acceptable. … By the time we get them trained to milk a cow, run a tractor – they get fed up and leave,” he shared. He said the current board is no longer willing to continue farm operations under these conditions.
“We need the land bank to commit to a plan that solves these problems!” Wulff said. “If they’re not going to, then we are going to disband the Coffelt Farm Stewards, and the farm will go dormant. It’s serious. It cannot go on like this. The can’s been kicked down the road for the last time.”
Coffelt Farm is operated by the nonprofit Coffelt Farm Stewards, but the farmland is owned by the San Juan County Land Bank.
“We at Coffelt Farm Stewards have the wherewithal to handle the day-to-day problems like fixing the tractor, etc., but battling lack of fencing, the water supply, no hardened surfaces to collect manure and housing …” said Wulff.
The stewards want the land bank, as the property owner, to pay for the needed improvements, which will be part of the land and increase its value.
On Feb. 28, the Coffelt Farm Stewards submitted a document titled “Coffelt Farm Stewards Decisions, Requirements, Timelines” at the San Juan County Land Bank Meeting, in which they stated, “The Coffelt Farm Stewards cannot continue based on the model of going it alone without the help of the San Juan County Land Bank and the San Juan Preservation Trust. The Land Bank purchased the farm at a significant discount pledging to the sellers to maintain the farm as a diverse, sustainable production farm. The Coffelt Farm Stewards must have help to fulfill the promises of the Land Bank.”
The stewards asked the land bank to fund the following items: $100,000 for upgrading the water systems; $950,000 for a multipurpose building that will provide farmworker housing, a place for education, a service area for egg processing, an executive director office, a cold storage room for finished goods and a commercial kitchen for product production; $75,000 for fencing; and $100,000 for creating hard surface “heavy use” areas. The stewards also offered to repay the land bank for these investments at a rate of 1 percent per year over the next 100 years.
“We’ve been working with Coffelt Farm Stewards for about eight years, with them managing Coffelt Farm for the land bank,” said San Juan County Land Bank Director Lincoln Bormann. ”We’ve arrived at a point that it’s become clear that lots of upgrades are necessary for infrastructure on the farm.” He said that while some upgrades, like surfaces for manure collection, are “an easy call,” others will require more deliberation.
“The big-ticket item where we’re going to have to have more conversation involves housing for farm workers,” said Bormann. “All farmers in the county face this issue, as the cost of housing in the county is very high.”
Coffelt Farm is an Orcas Island treasure – not just a historical gem, but, according to Wulff, the most diverse farm on Orcas. Its spreading fields support a combination of sheep for meat and wool products; beef steers; dairy cows; chickens that provide eggs and meat; and pigs as well as a wide range of organic produce.
Coffelt Farm is also the mobile slaughter site for all of San Juan County. Vern Coffelt and San Juan Conservation District Natural Resources Planner Bruce Gregory devised plans for the first USDA-certified mobile slaughter unit in the United States, and farmers across San Juan County can bring their animals to the slaughter unit at Coffelt Farm.
“It’s such a benefit to all the farmers in the county,” said Wulff. “We need a facility to accommodate one of our core missions, which is education.” The current stewards have a vision to share the latest research developments for enhancing farm productivity with other San Juan County farms.
If Coffelt Farm were to cease operating, “It’d be devastating,” said Wulff, “but there’s a point where you have to say enough is enough.”
As the Land Bank Commission continues to deliberate over these financial decisions, Bormann says, “The commission is looking at this as a learning experience. We hope we can get some of these things done and see [Coffelt Farm] continuing to operate into the future.”