Collaboration keeps farmers going
By STEVE BROWN
BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. -- A farm with a history of exclusion has become a model of collaboration among farmers, nonprofit groups and a city.
The Suyematsu family, which founded the 40-acre farm in 1928, was one of 35 families who helped Bainbridge Island earn the title of Berry Capital of the Northwest, producing 3.5 million pounds of strawberries on 1,700 acres. But when the Japanese immigrants were interned during World War II, much of the land fell idle.
Betsey Wittick, owner of Laughing Crow Farm, recounted some of the farm's history during a June 17 farm walk sponsored by Tilth Producers of Washington and Washington State University's Small Farms Team.
After the war, when the Suyematsus were released from the internment center in Manzanar, Calif., they returned to their land and restored it.
The eldest son, Akio Suyematsu, guided the farm through its transformation into a showplace. He died in 2012 at age 90, having farmed the property for 80 years, she said.
In an agreement sealed with a handshake, he rented, then sold some of the property to Gerard and Jo Ann Bentryn, who created Bainbridge Island Vineyards and Winery in 1981.
Suyematsu and the Bentryns mentored the next generation of farmers, and to keep the land in agricultural use, they sold it to the City of Bainbridge Island. The publicly owned property is now managed by the nonprofit Friends of the Farms and leased to individual farmers.
The farmers, in turn, formed a guild to represent their interests, but each one retains his or her independence while still collaborating.
The farmers keep in touch with cellphones, "and we've all learned how to text, because there's no time for email," Wittick said.
They combine their resources for many farm needs, whether it's buying equipment and supplies or training interns.
"When I need a tractor, there's one there," Wittick said. "When I need something fixed, there's someone who can fix it."
There's also some coordination of what they grow, she said, so not everyone is taking the same product to market, whether it's at the farmstand, farmers' market, CSA -- Community Supported Agriculture arrangement -- or local restaurant.
Brian MacWhorter, who owns Butler Green Farms on his leased portion of the property and is president of the guild, said the arrangement is still developing as the farmers delineate responsibilities.
"We have to share the electric bill and the water. Everything is metered," he said. "But we're stronger together, and when there are disagreements, you live with it. You deal with it."
Bart Berg, board member and project director for Friends of the Farms, said the nonprofit adapts legal and contractual structures to local circumstances and provides the farmers security through their leases.
"Before that, they were technically squatting on this land," he said. "You've got to have confidence you can hang onto the land."
On-farm projects have included an underground system of PVC pipes for irrigation, which each farmer can tap into at several places around the property. This was funded by a grant through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Friends of the Farms' priorities are preserving the farming legacy, creating a resilient local economy, protecting the natural landscape and providing healthy food for the community.