NEVER Finished Farming - Smith Barn
A local tragedy occurred on March 6th with the iconic Smith Barn burning down. This beautiful, historic beast dominated the landscape of Ebey's Prairie and was also host to many a local fundraiser. As much as this barn means to the island it is the family that actively works the land around it that means even more. What would Coupeville or Ebey's Prairie be without the Smith family growing their amazing garlic and a huge variety of mixed vegetables that end up people's plates from here to Seattle.
Farmer Georgie is the 4th generation to work this land and it would be the REAL tragedy to see that end prematurely. She will need all the support she can get to make it through this season and rebuild a barn that was the literal heart of the operation. At the time the barn burned down her critical seed growing was just underway, not to mention valuable equipment and the space needed to process, dry and store produce through the year. Farmers are in a difficult position this time of year financially and it's the work from here to harvest that gets them by. This couldn't have happened at a worse time.
Your support for Georgie, the Willowood Farm and rebuilding the barn will mean so much more. It will mean supporting the culture and community that makes Coupeville and frankly all of Whidbey the magical place that it is. EVERY dollar counts but please be generous!
Thank you in advance!
Willowood Farm Website
First a bit of housekeeping…We are SO thankful to everyone has donated, volunteered or contributed in some way to our “Growing Forward” campaign so far. We have some beautiful Thank You cards but we need addresses! If you donated via the GoFundMe campaign, we do not receive mailing addresses via GoFundMe for donors. We sent messages to everyone on the GoFundMe campaign to email us your address if you would like a card. Make sure to send you mailing address to this email: email@example.com which we created to help organize all the responses we’ve had to the barn burning tragedy.
So, now, what HAS been going on??? Well gosh, what HASN’T been going on is perhaps a better question!
After the initial first week of “what ARE we gonna do,” we decided to jump back into the farming fray for the season. And so, since the season is quickly approaching, that has become the priority. We have been retooling our planting plans, knowing that since we are literally having to “recreate/re-acquire” all the tools and systems we need for growing, trying to do what we had PLANNED to grow this season is simply too ambitious. We cut out about 7 acres of planting, and are gonna really slim down and concentrate on the things we know we can do best and most efficiently, planting about 7 acres this year instead of 14 (some of this we had no choice on, for instance, we would have planted about 3.5 acres of dry beans, but we lost all that seed inventory in the fire and much too expensive to repurchase, or, in the case of Rockwell beans, simply not available). Then we have started re-ordering everything. And we need almost EVERYTHING! Hoes, seed starting soil, seed flats, tools, seeding equipment, hoses, irrigation lines, row cover, fertilizer, pest and disease control products (organic of course), tractors, harvest knives, harvest lugs, boxes, and oh yeah seed! Every time I think I’ve gotten in a bunch of orders for the stuff we need, I realize I still have to order a bunch MORE stuff. And then of course, creating some sort of temporary shelter than we can do at least our washing and packing veggies process in. Yesterday we got the plastic up on a temporary shelter that we will utilize as a covered packing shed (we will also add shade cloth for when it gets too warm). And we’ve been working to get temporary power and of course, water, to the shed as well. And we will soon be receiving an insulated 40′ container we can use for a walk-in. Plus of course all the things we need in there – tables, shelving, dunk tanks, sinks, salad spinners….! And then of course, we’ve been accomplishing actual harvest and growing tasks themselves. We sent a full load of veggies to our chef/market clienteles two weeks ago and plan to run another harvest this upcoming week. Oh and since the fire, we planted out over 7000 Walla Walla onion starts, about 2000 baby pac choi, and reseeded several 1000 seeds worth of leeks, tomatoes, peppers, celeriac and a few other things that were due (or past due). So there is ALL this. Just the “keep farming” work.
Add on top of that, of course, all the phone calls, paperwork and decisions involved in trying to get the info we need to our insurance company, credit checks to buy new tractors, PLUS all just the regular day to day tasks of running a business and managing a family like picking up the mail and taking out the garbage. Phew. It’s a lot.
And I have to say, the things you realize going through something like this, that I had never considered, are sort of mind boggling. First of all….if it wasn’t for the sake of the GoFundMe campaign (now over $52,000!) plus an additional $17,000 donated to the local Peoples Bank Account here in Coupeville, I don’t see how we could be even CONSIDERING farming this year. The thing about insurance, and thank goodness we did have at least SOME, is that while eventually we will hopefully get a check not only for the structure itself, but also for the value of the stuff IN the barn (both of which I hope to put into an account for rebuilding)….is that the insurance company doesn’t simply hand you that check the day after the fire! I’m not sure WHEN we’ll get that money, but I know that without the money we have had donated to us right from the moment of the fire, I wouldn’t be able to have access to the cash we need RIGHT NOW to keep moving forward. Even a “normal” farming spring is always incredibly cash poor. As I have often said, I feel like I “vomit money” in the spring. Well this year, as one of my crew said, it’s more like “coming out both ends!” to be “farmer crude.” Hope you don’t mind! Haha. So, THANK YOU to all that have donated or run a fund-raising campaign or event! This is the REALITY of what the money has meant to us. It means we CAN push forward and farm. Right now! This year! And that is HUGE.
And then…there is the plan for what to do with the huge MESS where the barn was. And of course, what WILL we eventually build? Well this is ever-evolving but here is where we are at for the moment….
First the clean-up and salvage. I’m hoping by the end of this next week, with the emergency of the temporary pack shed taken care of, we can start moving into the clean-up and salvage process. The first thing we are gonna do it donate as much as we can into the local artist community. We have reached out to the Whidbey Island Arts Council and starting to organize how this will work. I want as much as possible that would just be “junk/trash” that could be made into some beautiful and memorable in the hands of talented artist, be put back into the community. Because, well, why NOT? Yes, it will slow down the clean-up process a bit, but, I feel like we have to honor the barn as much as possible and this means taking what we can of her and re-using it. So there’s that.
Once we get through that process, we have identified an organization that will come out with big equipment and cut up and haul off all the metal. And then once that gets done, I’m hoping we can have a memorial ceremony for the barn, and invite ALL of you. Not sure the timing on that, but I would imagine maybe sometime first of May. Stay tuned for more info.
And then of course…what WILL we build? Honestly, I’m not sure yet. A lot will depend on how much we get from insurance when we eventually get those checks, and how much can we realistically raise be it through insurance money, community donations, grants and the many other avenues I’m already starting to think about. But my dream? My dream is to build something that in 100 years MY grandkids and great grand kids (and yours!) can be proud of. And can be just as much a beloved icon in our community as the grand old barn was herself. We have a long ways go to get from dream stage, to reality…but…that’s the plan! So, like we have always done one step at a time moving (hopefully) mostly forward.
And here’s to a beautiful and bounteous farming season.
I just wanted to post an incredibly grateful, humble thank you to EVERY ONE who has donated to this campaign so far. It's been just 9 days since the fire and I can't believe the emotions we have gone through since. What in simply astonishing and uplifting, is the incredible support the Smith Family and Willowood have received from the Whidbey and Seattle community, and even beyond. We are eternally thankful. And while we are still figuring out what Willowood Farm and the Smith Barn looks like going forward, I can tell you we are determined to do something GREAT to honor all this support and to pay it forward to our amazing, giving community. Thanks again. We love you all.
Please follow our journey by liking our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/willowoodfarmofebeysprairie/
Well I need to confirm with the fire marshall tomorrow (this whole process has been somewhat confusing) but according to the insurance investigator, their investigating is done and we can move forward with the monumental clean up task ahead.
And the verdict of what started the fire? They don’t know and won’t know. Sigh. I don’t know if I feel better about that, or worse. Every one of us who worked in that barn that day have surmised and wondered was it something I did? (or didn’t do). They did narrow the fire down to our office/break room area, on the back west side of the barn. In there were a number of potential causes. A space heater (though new, one of the safety ones with protected grill) was possibly on. I had another one that was in there that the investigator was suspicious of, but it had died and had been unplugged for about a week, I just hadn’t gotten around to throwing it out! A microwave, coffee maker and fridge were in there. There were washing machines plugged in on the other side of the office wall (we used them to wash greens in). And there was a electrical box that ran all the power in our packing shed in my office. A box that had wires coming out of it that were covered with a wood panel that was open at the top. A space that my loyal canine companion Peanut, the indomitable Rat Terrier, had, just about 6 weeks prior, alerted me that there was a rat in. And sure enough, he was right. I came into my office and found him sitting on top of my printer, staring at the wood panel behind which was the wire paneling. Perhaps it was a rat down in that cozy spot, chewing on a wire. (Peanut is pretty sure it was a rat, he really really REALLY hates rats and believes there are the cause of everything bad and evil in the world).
But really, who knows and we’ll never know. I keep kicking myself wondering if it was this, or that. And how STUPID was I not checking on this thing or that. So many times over the years I remember getting up in the middle of the night to run out to the barn because I remember, oh shit, I think I left this on…it might start a fire! And then not being able to sleep til I tromped out there and turned whatever it was off. And then to have this happen, so quickly, so suddenly. We had JUST been in the barn. I was JUST in my office at late as 6 p.m. before running off to a meeting. My Field Production manager Paul walked right through the barn at 7 p.m., from the back side to the front, and nothing. Sigh. OTOH, this whole dang thing went up so quickly, I think that it was a miracle it wasn’t going when Paul walked through. After all, if Paul had noticed something, and tried to put it out, and then it took off like it did, he would have likely died. So, for that, I’m eternally thankful. It was a beautiful old barn, but it wasn’t a person.
It’s funny though, I was always worried about a fire in the summer when everything was so dry. And I was always worried about the many gas and diesel 5 gallon cans we used to have in the barn until last year, when we installed a diesel and gas tank OUTSIDE the barn. That was such a worry lifted, to know that wasn’t sitting in there, a potential fire hazard. Sigh.
But…It’s done. And we can do nothing now but look forward. So we do. And first step…Cleanup! Like I said, it’s gonna be a monumental job. If you are wondering, just how monumental…well look at the pictures our amazing neighbor David Stern took on Thursday….
A closer look at the heartbreaking aftermath of the fire in this photo essay. https://spark.adobe.com/page/sloTkeR5hD3rm/
The scene is surreal. Depressing. Overwhelming.
My neighbor Karen Bishop, who also happens to be the Whidbey Island Conservation District Manger, came down the day after the fire to tell me she was already working with the conservation district to organize the clean-up. Reaching out to folks who worked in the Methow valley after the devastating fires of 2015, in the clean-up process. Apparently, as I can well understand now, this is quite a process. We’ll need lots of big equipment, countless loads of dumpsters (I can’t even imagine the dump fee for all this?) and a big crew of volunteers to sort, sort, sort. And Karen also told me that the “healing process really couldn’t start til the mess was cleaned up.” Coming up on 1 week out now from this huge change in our life, and I get that. It’s sort of like you had a loved one that passed on and now you’re sitting there looking at what’s left of their physical shell…As grand as she was, we need a burial service for our wonderful old barn.
Anyways, so we’ll move forward. Tomorrow I’ll start making the calls on that while we also start working on what is farming gonna look like on the farm this year. I look at is as I always have when we have some insurmountable project ahead, some crazy harvest, a huge field to weed, whatever it was that seemed like too big, too much, too overwhelming. One day at a time, one step (forward) at a time. And so…we’ll get it done.
Thanks again for all your support. All your help. Just, everything.
Farmer Georgie, The Smith Family, The Smith Barn and Willowood Farm
Georgie, I have thought about you almost constantly all day today. I truly consider you one of "my Kids". I have cried for you, prayed for you and hurt for you. I keep wondering what I would do if it were one of my kids having to deal with this. All I can think of is to just hold them while they cried. I hope you have been able to express your pain and agony with those you love the most. Farming is so hard and I understand your thoughts and feelings, but you are sooo good at what you do. All you can do is follow your heart. I am grateful Charles wasn't hurt any more than he was and I pray the girls are okay. Also thankful the wind was blowing in the direction it was so your parent's house was spared. Hang in there! Know there are hundreds of us here to support you in whatever you decide.
A "Smith Family Benefit Account" has been set up at People's Bank in Coupeville if you would like to donate by check. If you can't drop off a check you can mail it to... People's Bank 107 S. Main St., #101 Coupeville, WA 98239 Just make sure it's made out to "Smith Family Benefit Account". This will go directly to rebuilding Willowood and Farmer Georgie Lea Smith.
Georgie and her family have sent their gratitude to everyone for their love and support! For those of you who haven't donated or want to donate again, there will be a benefit account set up at People's Bank in Coupeville tomorrow and you can deposit money straight into the account for Willowood. If you are planning a fundraiser you can use this account to send the funds to. I will post more details on it here tomorrow. Thank you for being such an amazing community and showing your support!
From Farmer Georgie (if you didn't catch this on Facebook...) Today, come the tears. Thank you to everybody for your kind words. I am SO thankful that nobody was harmed in the fire. And no pets either (other than we might have lost some irascible “barn chickens” that had insisted on roosting in there, at apparently, their risk!). And then my husband dislocated his shoulder running out the door when he saw it, and tripped over a flowerbed. He thought my parent’s house was on fire too, luckily not. And, once the ER docs got his shoulder back in its socket, he was sent home with a sling and instructions to be careful and should heal it fine. So that is good. And I’m thankful it didn’t affect my parent’s house, which certainly it could have if the wind had been blowing. And so thankful for the Whidbey Island Firefighters who have been out there all night, letting the final stuff burn down. Strange thing, this morning, seeing the field behind where the barn had been from my house. First time I’ve ever seen that. I haven’t heard any thoughts of what caused it. But to honest, I haven’t been brave enough to go down there and talk to the firefighters either. I heard that it did burn hot enough to show up on the weather radar, that’s wild. I wonder if they will ever know. It could have been a number of things but whatever it was, it went fast. My crew was in there to almost dusk, working on some projects. Meanwhile, my neighbor was jogging by the farm, must have been just a bit past that as he could see some smoke, figured we were burning some trash. By the time he got to our driveway, he heard several explosions; probably some flames had reached a tractor and a gas tank. He sprinted for the phone and 911 but it was too late. What happens now? I have to honest, I’d like to shout and shake my first and say “we will build again!” But at this moment, I rightly don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll farm again. I have to be honest about that right now for those of you so kindly supporting me. Farming is a BITCH. We suffered greatly in 2015 and I thought about throwing in the towel then, but persevered by the skin of my teeth, had a much better year in 2016 and was posed this year to make some great gains….finally. Then this. Ironically, I was just in the process of applying for a Farm Services collateral loan against my equipment – I finally had enough paid off to be of value – to get a low interest credit line for the season and put myself in much better shape financially going forward. That option is now…gone. Even my delivery van, which I had just paid off, burned up. I doubt we will get much from insurance. The barn was not insured for much, how to value it? And when we put in our insurance, we focused on the homes not the barn. Perhaps not the best call in hindsight. Lol. And much of my older equipment was not ensured either. 1950s tractors were of great use and value to us, but not much to the insurance agent. And all the myriad other things. Like the two walk-ins we had – both built over the years from, literally, scraps and giveaways and sweat and tears. If I purchased/built those new they’d probably run me $10,000 or more each. And then of course, I have debt. Which now I have no way to service with no forsee-able income coming in. How does one even pick the vegetables we have? I don’t have a single lug to put it in, a washing area, boxes or a vehicle to deliver it. Heck, even our harvest knives burned up. And that’s not counting the investment going forward into THIS year’s crops. Unless they somehow survived in their refrigerator storage areas in the barn, all my 2017 seed is gone. Including several 1000s of lbs of dry beans. Roughly figured, it would take around $200,000 to get me even, with debt and to replace all the equipment and things we had. And that ISN’T counting a barn space. On a positive note…the garlic was planted in the field so it is fine! Oy. The barn was the hub, the nexus, of all farming operations. Without it, hard to imagine. Where to store equipment and work on it (that we don’t have). Where to pack the food? Where to store all the stuff? Do I want to take all this risk again? Sitting here right now, that sounds like a pretty stupid thing to do. Farming…has not been an easy row to hoe financially, at all. I have no retirement or savings, it’s all gone into the farm over the years. Can I put my family at risk, on the financial teeter-totter of farming, for this, again? But then again, I don’t know what to do if I DON’T farm. I’ve thought about that in the past, if I ever decided to quit. Who hires a 45-year-old farmer who is used to setting her own schedule, is overly dirty, and doesn’t really deal well with bureaucracy? And then just the emotional loss. I feel so bad for my father. How much of his life work just burned up. Just gone. The barn he had fixed and repaired so many times. The equipment. Over the winter he had replaced the gas engine on one of our old tractors with a new di
Georgie, when you become so successful that your interns and employees can run the farm, will you please consider running for office? I cannot think of another person in Island County who could have evoked as much support as you have, which speaks to how well you are thought of by everyone. You possess exactly the leadership qualities, clear thinking and writing and values of integrity and empathy we need going forward. Karma never lies. We need you more than you need us.
Hi Kristen, on Tues a.m. after the fire i saw this post and was especially moved as only a few wks prior i nearly completed an 24 x 18 oil painting of the farm and immediately thought that i need to donate it or the sale of it to the cause. Will you be having an auction of donated items, would Georgie like to have it or should i post it on Drewslist for sale? I'd post a photo but nowhere to do that here...
That's a pretty place I need some donates plz
You can see picture of the current state of affairs here https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1785031661818207.1073741830.1715499122104795&type=1&l=4c46251211