AKIO SUYEMATSU | Island gathers this weekend to pay respects to iconic farmer

Akio Suyematsu (right) as a young man on Bainbridge Island. - Courtesy of Friends of the Farm
Akio Suyematsu (right) as a young man on Bainbridge Island.
— image credit: Courtesy of Friends of the Farm

Akio Suyematsu lived a life that touched America’s history and the heart of Bainbridge Island.

The island’s iconic farmer passed away on July 31. On Sunday, Aug. 19, a celebration of Akio’s life will be held from noon to 2 p.m. at the farm he crafted for decades at 9229 NE Day Road.

The same day has been proclaimed by the city as “Akio Suyematsu Day.”

Suyematsu represented much of what Bainbridge likes to boast about itself — honoring its rural roots, and valuing its local farms.

From the day he came into this world, he was tied to the island’s farming culture. Born on Bainbridge Island Oct. 30, 1921, he took his first breath on a Port Madison farm.

When he was just 7, as the oldest son of the family, his parents purchased farmland off of Day Road in his name. The Japanese Exclusion Act of the time made it illegal for his foreign-born parents to own land, but the American-born Akio could.

He grew up on the Suyematsu family farm, prime farmland that produced strawberries, until he graduated from Bainbridge High School, though, he missed his graduation ceremony.

Suyematsu, like all other islanders of Japanese decent, were removed from the island. The country had entered World War II and citizens of Japanese ancestry were being rounded up throughout the country and sent to internment camps.

Suyematsu’s family spent the first part of the war at a camp near Death Valley, Calif., and then later moved to a camp in Idaho.

He left the camps by joining the Army’s 442 Regimental Combat Team — an all-Japanese American regiment — and was sent overseas as a military police officer in Germany.

The interment split apart much of the Suyematsu family; only a few returned to the area while others went to farms in eastern Washington and Oregon. Suyematsu was one of a handful of Japanese citizens that returned to Bainbridge Island where he found his farm in disarray and his home looted.

“Akio was one of the few that returned after the war,” said his nephew Curtis Suyematsu. “There were only five families that returned to the island. After the war there was nothing to come back to, because most of them had lost everything.”

But Akio Suyematsu still had his family’s land on Day Road. The challenge upon his return, however, was to keep it.

“They still had the land, but they had no revenue,” Curtis Suyematsu said. “The owner of the land, he basically offered the option that instead of foreclosing the land, (Akio) would pay back the interest.”

Akio Suyematsu stepped back onto the farm’s soil in 1947, and he spent years working the land and picked up other jobs to pay back the interest.

“He had to work multiple jobs,” Curtis Suyematsu said. “It was really hard to do that.”

Akio Suyematsu farmed the land for the rest of his life, growing raspberries, Christmas trees, pumpkins and more.

Just as it was before the war, farming once again became Akio’s way of life.

“He was a very dedicated, hard worker and no matter whether he made money on a crop or the seasons were bad he still managed to continue and keep going,” said Grace Suyematsu, his sister-in-law and Curtis’ mother.

The Suyematsu farm was the center of Akio’s life. Grace noted that often he put off traveling to tend to the farm instead.

The farm came first, Grace Suyematsu said, before anything else. For example, he once owned a summer home off island, but sold it since he kept finding reasons to stay on Day Road.

At times Akio, who never married or had children, expressed reservations about not starting a family if his own. But he did, however, have one serious relationship in his life.

“He was married to the farm,” Grace Suyematsu said.

From time to time he did find a way to sneak off for another passion, though.

“He loved to go fishing,” Grace Suyematsu said. “Salmon fishing; I don’t know if he really got away to do much of it though.”

In fact much of Grace’s memories of Akio Suyematsu rarely leave the Day Road farm.

“It seemed like he was always on the tractor when I was over there,” she said.

When they were young, Grace’s children, including Curtis, would travel from Seattle to spend their summer weeks working on the farm with their uncle, usually selling berries at a berry stand.

“He was always good to my children,” Grace said. “From the time they were quite young they went to help their uncle Akio on the farm.”

“They would come home on Sundays with all their dirty laundry and then they would go back on Sunday evening,” she added.

Grace Suyematsu’s family was sometimes involved in other aspects of the farm as well. Akio had a deal worked out with his brother Toshio, Grace’s husband. When Akio had a load of berries ready for sale, he would drive his berry truck onto the ferry and leave it. His brother Toshio would pick it up on the other side and drive it to a wholesale market in Seattle.

In one way or another, all farm roads lead to Akio. Over the decades toiling in the soil, his influence on the island’s modern farmers was immeasurable, from helping George Gregg start his Christmas tree farm to his relationship with island wine innovator Gerard Bentryn. A wealth of interns and other helping hands passed through his farm over the years, many to begin their own and some who still work there today.

When it came time for Akio to sell his own land in the later years of his life, he managed to do so in a way that preserved the Bainbridge Island he knew and loved.

The city of Bainbridge Island purchased the land he tilled and toiled on in 2001.

But the purchase came with conditions. The city paid $550,000 for the farmland, but deferred a final payment of $1,000 until 2012. The deal gave Suyematsu the chance to remain living on the property and farming — even into his 90s.

The farmland will also remain dedicated to agriculture beyond his passing.

Suyematsu’s name was further memorialized in 2012 when the island nonprofit Friends of the Farms created an annual award — the Akio Suyematsu Award, given to farmers who exhibit a deep commitment to island farming.

As the island prepares to honor the legend of Akio Suyematsu this weekend, his family asked that donations in his memory be made to the EduCulture Project at Global Source Education, a program that brings farms and classrooms closer together.

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