The face of island farming

Island farmer Akio Suyematsu is profiled in a new book about America’s ethnic farmers. - Julie Busch photo
Island farmer Akio Suyematsu is profiled in a new book about America’s ethnic farmers.
— image credit: Julie Busch photo

Akio Suyematsu and Gerard Bentryn are featured in a new book on agriculture.

Drought, pests and the other scourges of agriculture have never proven as great a challenge to island farmers as the limited and often intolerant views of their neighbors.

“How hard they have had to fight to keep from losing the farm says a great deal about what America has so often sacrificed to fear of the stranger and too narrow an idea of what constitutes true wealth,” writes Yale scholar Patricia Klindienst of two island farmers in “The Earth Knows My Name,” a new book exploring the ethnic roots of American farmers.

Klindienst devotes a chapter to island winemaker Gerard Bentryn, who was born of Polish parents, and Japanese-American raspberry grower Akio Suyematsu.

Both have shared 40 acres of Day Road farmland purchased nearly 80 years ago by Suyematsu’s father, who immigrated to the United States in 1904.

Suyematsu’s and his family were locked behind barbed wire with 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent for most of World War II.

Despite the distrust based on his race, Suyematsu was drafted into the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which drew its ranks from internment camps and became the most decorated of its size in the history of the American armed forces.

The years away took a toll on the farm, but Suyematsu quickly put his hands back in the soil. Now well into his 80s, Suyematsu has vowed never to take them out.

“Dying on the land, dropping in his own field – that’s part of Akio’s independence,” Klindienst writes. “He knows Gerard will honor his request.”

It was the cooperation and family-like bonds between Suyematsu and Bentryn that left the biggest impression on Klindienst, who visited Bainbridge in 2000 during five years spent gathering the stories of Punjabi growers in California, Cambodians in Massachusetts, Italians in California and over 40 other farmers across the nation.

“Akio and Gerard’s collaboration and friendship was so beautiful to me,” said Klindienst from her Palo Alto, Calif., home on Monday. “They come from very different traditions but have such a deep abiding respect for each other and how hard you must work to protect the land.”

Bentryn purchased part of the Suyematsu family’s farm to establish his vineyard but has allowed Suyematsu and other farmers to grow crops while taking no rent or other compensation.

Bentryn learned the challenges of assimilation from his father, who immigrated to New Jersey from Poland, and the important connection between growing food and maintaining a culture.

“First you lose your costume,” Bentryn is quoted as saying in the book. “Then you loose your language. The last thing you lose is your food.”

While Suyematsu nearly lost his livelihood from neighbors who feared his Asian features in a time of war, Bentryn faces a new challenge from that generation’s children, who have arrived in droves, loaded with cash and hungry for homes.

The influx of people and wealth has transformed the former farming island into a suburb for Seattle’s elite, according to Bentryn. Land values have skyrocketed, forcing the closure of Bentryn’s Winslow vineyard and contributing to the demise of other farms.

Thirty years ago, a bottle of wine sold for $7 and an acre went for $62,000, Bentryn says. The price of wine hasn’t gone up much, but a two and a half acre lot now sells for almost $500,000.

“The island’s cultural heritage is at stake,” said Klindienst who gardens at her home in California between summer stints teaching writing at Yale University in Connecticut. “It’s the farms and the ethnic diversity that make Bainbridge such an attractive place. It’s also the practical things like fresh food and open space that’s disappearing. But many don’t understand they’re contributing to the destruction of it.”

But this is not a new debate. Captured on a sign at Day Road Farm during Klindienst’s visit in 2000 was the question: “So how can we, as members of a community, keep farms like this alive, providing us with food for both body and soul?”

Klindienst, asked to answer this question, is quick with her response: “Plant something, even if it’s a tomato in a pot. And the food you buy, buy it at the farmers market. Go visit your local farmer. Get to know them, volunteer there, spend time there.”

Bentryn, who will host Klindienst during her visit to the island this week, hopes “The Earth Knows My Name” will find a receptive readership.

“I hope Patricia’s book raises awareness here about what’s left,” he said. I’m afraid of what will happen to the island in 10 years, especially when there aren’t people like Akio who are sort of like boulders against the surging tide of suburbia.”

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