Reflection on Bainbridge Island Teach-Out

by Erica Bacon

As city dwellers, it is not often enough that we take the time to consider the rich agricultural history that surrounds us.  I feel incredibly fortunate to live in a place where the natural land and sea-scape is so powerful that it can coax awe-inspired tears to surface on a regular basis.  Equally as inspiring, but sometimes less widely revered, are the surrounding landscapes that feed us and the farmers who work to create and maintain them.  Often tucked away like gems along a mountainside, visible only to those of us who search for them or those who are lucky enough to stumble upon them, these farms and gardens include not only the new sprouts appearing within and around our city resulting from an ever-growing interest in fresh, chemical-free produce, but also the many that have existed here for nearly a century.  Managing to hang on to their roots through decades of suburban sprawl and industrial agriculture’s hypnosis of the collective American mind, remarkably, some farms are still being cultivated today by the same families who began them.

On Sunday August 22, 14 CAGJ members met on the ferry to travel together to Bainbridge Island, a place that was largely agricultural only a small handful of decades ago. Upon arrival, we met with 4 more teach-out participants and split into carpooling and biking groups to make our way to Laughing Crow Farm and Bainbridge Island Vineyard and Winery, both part of the Day Road farms on the island.  Once everyone arrived and settled by the fire pit at Laughing Crow, we gathered together for a morning discussion with Betsey Wittick and Christy Carr.  Betsey owns Laughing Crow and works as the Assistant Winemaker and Horticulturalist for the winery and Christy is the Vice President of Friends of the Farms, a non-profit dedicated to supporting and maintaining farms on the island; they talked with us about history of place and farming on Bainbridge.

The Day Road farms span over 65 acres of contiguous farmland, managed currently by about7 different farmers.  The Suyematsu family first cleared the land using horses and dynamite in 1928, Betsey told us.  It has been farmed since then with the exception of the years when people of Japanese descent were sent to internment camps during World War II.  Fortunately for the Suyematsu’s, they were allowed to forgo mortgage payments during the war, while many other farmers in similar situations lost their land.  The Suyematsu’s eldest son, Akio, still manages 15 acres of his family’s original farmland and farms on about 7 of them himself, at the spry age of 89.  Akio had no children, but wanted the land to remain in farming so sold some of his land to Gerard and JoAnn Bentryn of Bainbridge Island Vineyards about 30 years ago.  Betsey began working for the Bentryn’s pruning grapes 20 years ago; they gave her some land to grow her own vegetables on, which eventually expanded to become Laughing Crow Farm.  With the help of a few apprentices and a Belgian mare, Betsey grows a diverse variety of produce on about 2 and a half acres and sells at the Bainbridge Farmers market, as well as to some local restaurants.

The view from Laughing Crow, farmland and vineyard as far as the eye can see, makes it hard to believe that so much of the island has given way to development.  Christy Carr, of Friends of the Farms, took over where Betsey left off, explaining to us how FOTF supports the local farm community.  Bainbridge residents, recognizing the risk of losing the island’s pastoral integrity, voted to preserve open space and prioritized the protection of rural character and farmland among the community’s primary concerns.  In response, the city purchased 60 acres of agricultural land, to ensure that it will remain as such indefinitely.  Some of Betsey’s and Akio’s farmland is actually public farmland now owned by the city. Christy explained that Friends of the Farms works as a liaison between the city and the farmers, helping to ensure that farmers have access to city owned land; they also work to unite private landowners who want their property to be used for agriculture with farmers in need of land.  Friends of the farms is currently working on negotiating a 99 year contract between the city and the farmers that will ensure a long term affordable lease agreement for farmers working on public farmlands.  In addition, Friends of the Farms works to educate the community and helps to cultivate a deeper connection between people, farms and farmers through farm tours, work parties and an annual Harvest Festival.  Friends of the Farms is important, Betsey and Christy told us, because most farmers don’t have the time to do things like negotiate contracts with the city and rally for public support. Their hands are already full tending the land, harvesting produce and selling at markets; in addition to full time farm work, many farmers have to take additional jobs to make ends meet (Betsey, for example, does landscaping on the side while maintaining her own farm and working at the vineyard).

We walked together around Laughing Crow touring fields of potatoes, squash, beans, and greens, then through vineyards with what must have been hundreds of rows of grapevines. We talked with Betsey about her experiences farming in the northwest, an irrigation system that Friends of the Farms acquired with the help of a grant and installed with volunteers throughout much of the Day Road properties, the challenges of farming with a work horse, water issues in eastern Washington, and the difficulties of operating within a corporate driven system in which even smaller family-owned grocery store chains do not offer what equates to a living wage to local farmers for their produce. Betsey is a wealth of information and so full of passion for what she does, we could have talked all day but there was some work to be done!  We helped to weed the grapes in the vineyard, about 20 rows that Betsey did not get to when weeding earlier in the week.  It worked out well because there were nearly 20 of us ready to work and we completed a task in a little over an hour that might have taken one farmer close to twenty hours to finish (although I am quite sure that Betsey and most other farmers work at a much faster pace than we did).  After we finished, I assumed that we would move on to another task, but to our surprise Betsey told us that we should meet Gerard, who owns Bainbridge Island Vineyards with his wife, JoAnn, and taste some wines before we leave!

Gerard was sitting on a bench in the sunshine enjoying the idyllic vineyard view when we approached with our small herd, eager to taste the liquid fruits of our labor and to learn more about the winery.  Not wasting a minute, Betsey handed out wine glasses while Gerard began talking. Gerard has been in the wine business for more than 30 years and spent many of his formative young adult years traveling around the world for work and learning about wine on the side.  His love for wine extends beyond far beyond the prospect of profit or an appreciation for the final product to the grape vines, the land that they grow on, the ecosystems that affect and are affected by them and the earth which sustains us all.  Bainbridge Island Vineyard and Winery chooses not to use toxic chemical herbicides and pesticides because they care about the integrity of the land, our watersheds and waterways, wildlife and people.  They are one of the few wineries in the state that grow all of their own grapes to make their wine.  The requirements for a “Washington” wine to be labeled as such necessitate only that the wine be bottled in the state.  This means that grapes can be purchased anywhere, shipped to a winery to be processed and bottled in Washington and marketed as “local”.  The wines that we tasted were all white and rose, the grapes needed to produce red wine cannot actually be grown in western washington, due to the climate.  Many western Washington wineries purchase the majority of their grapes from eastern Washington, where water is subsidized and diverted from the Columbia River, severely threatening the ecosystem, especially salmon populations.  Many wineries also use additives such as tannins and colorings purchased from large industrial wine corporations to achieve desired qualities.  Because the additives are originally derived from grapes, there is no requirement for labeling them.

The wines that we tasted at Bainbridge Island Vineyard were unlike any wines that I have ever had.  I am certainly no wine connoisseur, but these wines were vibrant in both color and taste, fresh and crisp and full of love and knowledge. As people who generally try to make conscious decisions around food choices, it is interesting that the origins of what we drink can be so often overlooked.  The locavore movement in the Puget Sound region is strong, but it was brought to our attention that awareness around where our wine is coming from is still very weak.  Much like cheap food, I would imagine that if we were to examine closely enough the true cost of cheap wine (and even not-so-cheap wine) we might find that its cost to the environment and to the hundreds of farm workers who are probably mistreated and underpaid working for the wine industry, it might be more than we are willing to pay.  Right here at home though, we are discovering the value of looking to our local farmers as teachers, as gateways to the truth.  It is easy to be certain about where your food and wine is coming from if you spend time with the people who grow it, and more of us are beginning to do this.

We left the farm with a sac full of garlic from Betsey, a belly full of tasty local wines, and a mind full of new information, ideas and questions.  We continued to a potluck hosted by Daniel, a CAGJ member who lives on the island, to reflect and discuss ways to take action. In thinking about ways to best support true local growers who care about human health, the preservation of biodiversity, and the conservation of our most precious resources it seems most important as a fist step to get the word out.  This teach out inspired many of us to want learn more about water issues in Eastern Washington, toxic herbicides and insecticides used by large scale grape growers and the true origin of the additives going into our wines and to tell people about it.  We want to know where we can buy local wines made from local grapes and we want to do our best to support them by asking the markets that we visit and restaurants that we dine at if they carry these wines.  There is certainly more that we can do after educating ourselves and we will continue to brainstorm other ideas in the future.  Education and action in our personal lives is a relatively easy first step, and as an action educating those around us is most inclusive because it is something that we can all do. We hope that you will join us in asking the businesses that you frequent to carry Bainbridge Island wines and engaging in discussions about the true cost of what we drink as well as what we eat.

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