Exploring the Oldest, Continuously Farmed Land on Bainbridge Island and Kitsap County – Suyematsu Farm
Most people on Bainbridge Island are probably familiar with Suyematsu-Bentryn Farmland, known for their annual pumpkin patch, seasonal berries, dahlias, and of course, located towards the back of the farmland, Bainbridge Vineyards. However, the farm has a vast and storied history dating back almost 100 years.
In 1928 Yasuji and Mitsuo Suyematsu purchased 40 acres of land on what is now known as Day Road. At the time, Japanese-born immigrants were not permitted to own property in the United States, as such the land was purchased in the name of their 7-year-old son Akio.
The Suyematsus spent the next 15 years clearing the land, which was mostly forest, and planting one of the first strawberry farms on the island. In addition, they built a barn, farmhouse, and other outbuildings and employed Filipino and First Nations people as farm workers, which was common practice at the time for Japanese-American farming families.
In addition to the Suyematsus, there were many Japanese-American berry farmers on Bainbridge, which put the island on the map as the strawberry capital of the Pacific Northwest during the period between 1930-1940. In 1942, the family was forced to leave under Executive Order 9066, and interned at Manzanar and then Minidoka—the year would also happen to be the largest bumper crop they’d ever seen, but as the Suyematsus were unable to afford a farm manager, the land was abandoned.
When the war ended, only about a quarter of the Japanese-American strawberry farm families returned to Bainbridge to reclaim their land, this included the Suyematsu family. They set about rebuilding the farm, and over the next few decades they added more farm structures and facilities and began diversifying the crops to accommodate the changing economy.
Akio, who was the eldest of the seven Suyematsu children (although the youngest son passed away at an early age), had been farming since he was a child and mainly took over the management of the farm. Akio was the first farmer on the island to create a retention pond for irrigation, and in 1958, he was named Kitsap Farmer of the Year, and through his guidance, he was able to bring the farm into the 21st century. In the 1970s, Akio sold half of the farm to the Bentryn family, who converted the land into vineyards and a winery, known today as Bainbridge Vineyards. During the 1980’s, Akio began transitioning farm waste into compost, becoming the first farm on Bainbridge to turn organic. Throughout the following decades Akio and the Bentryns farmed alongside each other and mentored the next generation of farmers, who assisted them in farming both properties, as well as learning to become independent farm owners themselves.
In 2001 Akio sold 15 acres to the City of Bainbridge Island under the proviso that the land only be used for agricultural or open space in perpetuity. He also sold another 11 acres to the Bentryn family. The Bentryns have advocated—through their lifelong dedication—to preserve public farmland and support local farming communities on Bainbridge Island and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Akio continued to actively farm the land until his death in 2012 at the age of 90. Today, the City owned portion of the property is managed as a publicly owned farm by Friends of the Farms (FotF).
On a gorgeous sunny October afternoon, I met with Executive Director of FotF, Heather Burger to learn more about the Suyematsu-Bentryn Farm. It was the second week of Bainbridge Island Farms’ annual Pumkin Patch (which runs through the month of October) and the property was humming with people wandering through the patches with wagons in tow, picking that perfect pumpkin or pumpkins. Others perused the racks filled with already picked unique and unusual pumpkins and gourds and visited the tents full of beautiful fresh fall wreaths, ornamental corn, corn stalks, autumn bouquets, and fresh local produce. In addition, the field beyond the patch was alive with dahlias, available for cutting by the customers. And of course, the ever-popular Kiddy Corn Maze and tractor rides around the pumpkin patch were doing a brisk business.
As Heather and I walked around, I noticed several “Did You Know…” signs dotted around the displays, which shared fun and quirky facts about pumpkins. We eventually met up with Karen Selvar, who has a sublease at the farm through Friends of the Farms. Karen began working for Akio when she was 9 years old, spending every summer thereafter, even throughout her college years, picking the summer harvest. That was almost 40 years ago, and she’s been there ever since. As Heather noted, “Karen is a third-generation island treasure.”
Karen explained that she currently raises strawberries, raspberries, pumpkins, squash, and dahlias at the Day Road farm. She pointed out several varieties of pumpkins with comical names, such as Alien Stars, Tiger Stripes, Baby Goblins, Ghosts, and a particularly aptly named pumpkin called One Too Many, as the striations resemble blood-shot eyes after a rather raucous night out. Karen also owns and manages farmland on Manzanita Road, where her main dahlia farm is located and later in the year, you can find U-cut Christmas trees, as well as fresh wreaths and garland. The Manzanita farm is the only u-cut Christmas tree farm on the island. Collectively, the farms are known as Bainbridge Island/Suyematsu Farms.
Karen and Heather introduced me to Bethany Shippen, who is the Farm Coordinator and Marketing Manager for Bainbridge Island/Suyematsu Farms. Bethany went on to explain that they provide educational farm tours for pre- and primary school children, as well as tours for adults and seniors. They also offer community farm activities with their u-pick raspberries and dahlias, sip “n” snip parties, and u-cut wedding parties. During the Christmas season, Santa arrives at the Manzanita farm in the bed of Karen’s vintage 1949 Dodge Truck to visit and take pictures with your 2- and 4-legged friends and family members.
The ladies explained that the farm is owned by three entities: the City of Bainbridge Island, Gerard and JoAnn Bentryn, and Betsey Wittick, co-owner of Bainbridge Vineyards and Laughing Crow Farm. It is also sub-let by Karen’s Bainbridge Island Farms, Betsy’s Laughing Crow Farm, Brian MacWhorter’s Butler Green Farms, and Paulson Farms. Bainbridge Island/Suyematsu Farms is the oldest, largest, continually operating farm in Kitsap County, and raises 100,000 pounds of produce each year.
Heather and I left Karen and Bethany to their adoring fans at the pumpkin patch to tour the exteriors of the old farmhouse and farm buildings (these are not open to the public). She explained that the Historic Preservation Commission recommended that 5-acres of the Suyematsu farmland, which houses the family home, barn, picker cabins, and berry sheds be designated by the City as a Historic District, and the designation was finalized in 2016.
As we walked around, Heather pointed out a rather unattractive 1970’s addition to the old farmhouse, she then recalled a recent conversation with Town & Country Market’s Vern Nakata. Vern told her that when his family decided to tear down their old house and build a new one in the 1970s, Akio showed up to help with the demolition, taking away as much salvageable lumber and siding as he could. Akio then used it to create the addition to the farmhouse. Heather noted that prior to learning this, FotF wasn’t aware of the addition’s place in history. “It’s those kinds of conversations that illustrate that it is essential as part of any planning for the future of the Suyematsu Farmstead that we listen to and learn from all who have a connection to the land so that its agricultural, cultural, and historic importance are honored.”
While viewing the barn, I noticed that the roof trusses were made of long logs, which still had their bark enact, and were probably salvaged from trees that were cleared to create the farmland. Heather also pointed out an old picker cabin, which is one of the last still standing. She noted that FotF has hired a historic architect and architectural historian to help the City and other partners understand the current condition of the structures and prioritize preservation work.
Christmas Trees: Located at their Manzanita Road Christmas Tree Farm. Pre-Cut and U-Cut Christmas trees are available for sale the day after Thanksgiving until sold out. Sizes range from 3- to 12-feet. All Christmas trees are charged by the foot. They also offer fresh wreaths, garland, holiday arrangements, holly, and more. Opening Day: Friday, November 25, 2022 from 9am-5pm *
Santa’s Visits at the Manzanita Farm:
Saturday, November 26th & Sunday, November 27th from 12pm-4 pm
Saturday, December 3rd & Sunday, December 4th from 12 pm-4pm
*Visiting the Manzanita Road Christmas Tree Farm is an experience in itself, where you’ll find not only trees and Santa, but food vendors and craft/gift vendors. If you’re interested in being a vendor this year, contact Bethany at (206) 842-1429 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Strawberries Season opens around mid-June and runs for 3 to 6 weeks, depending on a number of factors. For the most up-to-date information on berry availability, please check their Facebook and Instagram pages. Fresh pre-picked berries in ½ flats, 3 packs, and single baskets are available for purchase at the Day Road location.
Raspberry Season generally opens in late June with u-pick available around the 4th of July. Fresh, pre-picked raspberries in ½ flats, 3 packs, and single baskets are also available. Raspberry season runs until late July but, as with all crops, crop availability is weather dependent. For the most up to date information, please check their Facebook and Instagram pages.
Note: u-pick raspberries are sold by the pound and a tare weight is taken on the container prior to picking. Our farm does provide berry boxes for picking.
The Pumkin Patch is currently open through the month of October, hours:
Saturday & Sunday: 10am-5pm
Monday thru Friday 1pm-6pm
9229 Day Road, Bainbridge Island, WA
13610 Manzanita Road, Bainbridge Island, WA
For the latest news and events on the Farm, be sure to follow them on Facebook and Instagram! Have a question? Click here to contact the farm.
To read more about the u-cut tree experience, check out my co-blogger’s article: Ho, Ho, Ho, There’s Still Plenty of Time to Gather Your Own Tree For the Holiday Season! | THE ISLAND WANDERER
To learn more about our Friends of the Farms series, see below:
Friends of the Farms – Commitment to Farmland Protection and Creating a Locally Focused Food System | THE ISLAND WANDERER
The Bainbridge Island Native Food Forest – Open and Free to All – Join Friends of the Farms and their partners for the May Day 2022 work party! | THE ISLAND WANDERER
Morales Farm – A remarkable place full of remarkable people! | THE ISLAND WANDERER
Johnson Farm – More than 100 years of agricultural heritage and community dedication | THE ISLAND WANDERER
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