Tucked away on Twin Ponds Road, just off of Fletcher Bay Road, you’ll find Johnson Farm, one of Bainbridge’s oldest and most historic working farms. The original 80-acre claim was established in 1888 by Andrew Johnson on the sandy and sloping acreage then known as Island Center Hill. Andrew’s son, James served as a Bainbridge Island deputy sheriff and also helped to establish the island fire department, serving as fire commissioner.
James went on to have two sons, Clarence and Harvey, who were born on the homestead. Logging and land clearing were part of the family’s livelihood and as needs arose, portions of the original farmstead were sold off. Later in life, Clarence vowed to plant a tree for every one he had cut down. His father, James, was also contracted to grow seedlings used to replant the island after it was first clear-cut.
Harvey lived on the farmstead his entire life, leaving only to serve in World War II. Upon his return, he began planting the fruit and nut trees you see today. In Harvey Johnson’s later years, he invited the community onto the farm, allowing families to fish in the ponds (dug by brother Clarence) and allowing 4-H groups to use the fields for agriculture projects. According to an article published by the Trust for Public Land in 2001, Harvey had made his wishes clear prior to his death, he wanted the land conserved for public and agricultural use.
When Harvey died in 2000, the farmland was proposed for subdivision, however through a joint effort by the City of Bainbridge Island, the Trust for Public Land, and the Trust for Working Landscapes (now Friends of the Farms), 14.7 acres of the remaining 20 acres were preserved. The property has been managed as a publicly owned farm by Friends of the Farms (FotF) since 2012.
As part of my ongoing series on the Friends of the Farms, I met with Heather Burger, Executive Director of FotF in the lower parking area (just behind the pump house with the Johnson Farm sign) where the entrance to Vireo Farm (owned by Tracy Lang and Mark Taylor), a sublet of Johnson Farm, is located. The 1-acre grassy area was once a sandpit for the larger farm, over the past few years it was filled in and amended with other soils to make it more suitable for growing.
As we approached, we were greeted with shouts from a frantic Tracy, who was waving her arms about and screaming, “Do you see it? It’s a hawk trying to get my chickens!” Tracy had just let the chickens out of their covered pen into the fenced (but uncovered) yard and the hawk had been lying in wait, ready to snatch up its prey. Although watching a predatory bird snatch up a chicken is not funny, my first impression of Tracy certainly brought a smile to my face. She has an exuberant personality, and I quickly learned she’s full of interesting tidbits and facts about all sorts of subjects. She’s also an accomplished tattoo, wood cut and watercolor artist, whose work has won multiple awards and been exhibited at more than 60 galleries and venues throughout the Pacific Northwest since 1994. In addition, she owns Ryderville Ink on Madison Avenue and of course, she’s a farmer—but not just any farmer, Tracy, husband Mark, and their daughter Quinn are hydroponic farmers.
Tracy started off by introducing me to Bandit, her four-year-old Blue Healer/Border Collie mix (known colloquially as a Border-Healer). Bandit is a working dog, mainly tasked with chasing off predators and catching and dispatching rodents on the farm. She also likes to gently harass the chickens, as we soon learned upon entering the fenced in area that houses the coop.
This area is quite large and contains not just the chicken coop, but also a small hooped greenhouse, a coop for raising quail, and an open field for growing. Tracy began by pointing out her Bantam rooster (a smaller, yet friendlier variety of the chicken family) and her furry-footed chicken (who I chased around for five minutes to get a picture…). We then moved on to her quail. She breeds Japanese quail, also known as the Coturnix quail. This variety has been bred for its meat and eggs for thousands of years and as such, the females are not broody (they have no inclination to incubate their eggs). Tracy and Mark wanted to breed that inclination back into their birds, so they created a more natural environment for them and with their first eggs, they removed them and incubated them for a short time, then returned them to the mothers. Much to their delight, two of the females took to the process and they now have seven hatchlings.
She went on to explain the current crops in the yard, which include hops, raspberries, strawberries, garlic, peas and tomatoes. Tracy also pointed out a native plant called Camassia (aka camas, qém’es, quamash, and pa-siko), a spring herb with white to blue-purple flowers whose bulbs were used extensively by Indigenous people for food.
Although I didn’t have the opportunity to meet Mark in person, he was kind enough to share some of their current and future plans (via email). “We’ve done a lot more work with locally native food plants—we have Serviceberry, Elderberry, and Buffaloberry planted and doing well. We’ve had success with Common Camas, and have struggled with Fritillaria camschatcensis, locally called Rice Root, and commonly Kamchatka Lily (its famous for being tough to grow),” he said. Mark also noted that they’re just getting started on these plantings. “This fall we’ll be planting about 500 bulbs: Harvest brodiaea, Suksdorf’s Great Camas, Lilium columbianum, Fritillaria affinis, Allium acuminatum, Triteleia (Brodiaea) hyacinthina, we have cattail roots in the pond and we’re looking for a safe place for salmonberry (it spreads) and the huckleberries. We hope for the garden to be a nursery and botanical resource.”
From there we stopped at the yurt, which was a gift to Tracy and Mark by a close friend. Currently they’re using the yurt as a makeshift artist studio for Tracy, as well as a drying room for herbs and garlic and a general facility for the farm. In the future, they hope to make it available to college students to use in conjunction with activities on the farm.
We moved on to the main attraction, the 1,800-square-foot hydroponic growing facility. The building took over three years to complete (mostly due to setbacks during Covid) and now houses several long rows of growing racks. Currently only a few of the racks are producing food, such as basil, Deer’s Tongue lettuce and tomato starts— however those few racks are producing approximately 2,000 plants each and the growth time is only six to eight weeks from seed to harvest.
The hydroponic system was designed and built by Mark, and uses 600amps of electricity (when it’s at full capacity) and required its own utility pole. Barrels located beneath the main structure hold the recirculated water for each rack and are gravity fed. A second story loft area is also in the works to house tomato plants, what little waste the facility produces is composted. Going forward, Tracy and Mark will be able to quickly grow several varieties of edible plants year-round, which will be available at farm stands and farmers’ markets throughout the area.
Although I could have spent all day with Tracy learning more about the hydroponic process and enjoying her insights, it was time to move onto the larger portion of Johnson Farm.
Heather and I headed up Twin Ponds Road, past quaint houses which occupy less than a quarter of the old farmstead and arrived at the parking pad, just past a green farm building that is currently used by Persephone Farm of Indianola as their local CSA pick-up location.
In Harvey Johnson’s later years, he invited the community onto the farm, allowing families to fish in the ponds (dug by brother Clarence) and allowing 4-H groups to use the fields for agriculture projects. According to an article published by the Trust for Public Land in 2001, Harvey had made his wishes clear prior to his death, he wanted the land conserved for public and agricultural use.
As we toured the area, Heather noted that Johnson Farm is one of the most diverse farms on the island, encompassing two commercial farms, as well as a 14-member p-patch, a free forage historic orchard, open space, and an extensive trail network. Brian MacWhorter of Butler Green Farms (Brian also farms at Morales Farm, as well as many other locations on the island) is currently growing fall corn (which Heather declared as the best corn you’ll ever taste) as well as strawberries and varieties of Brassica oleracea, such as broccoli and cauliflower. The historic orchard on the property produces a variety of apples, pears, plums and nuts, and are maintained by the Bainbridge Island Fruit Club. There are also grape vines and blackberries. The orchard, grapes and blackberries are considered “free forage”, meaning anyone is welcome to come and pick the fruit (as much as they can bag and carry) for free*.
Between the orchard and the grapevines, you’ll find the Community Gardens p-patch, a fenced off area full of flowers and an assortment of vegetables (this is not part of the free forage). Each patch is leased for one year, and although there is a waiting list, patches do become available, for more information, contact Heather Burger, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to publicly available walking trails and free forage, the property can be used for small family picnics or reserved for larger events, such as weddings and large family or community gatherings (contact Heather for more information).
“It’s a great example of a mix of commercial agriculture, p-patch gardens, open space for picnics and gathering, trails, free-forage trees and shrubs, and home to the Springbrook Creek watershed,” Heather said. “Johnson Farm exemplifies the many ways our publicly owned farmland enhances the quality of life on Bainbridge Island for all.”
FotF is always looking for volunteers to assist in the maintenance of their publicly owned properties, if you are interested in learning more about our local farms and participating in volunteer opportunities, click here.
*Please note, “free forage” DOES NOT include the fenced-in areas.
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