It’s been a long time coming but now the farmers toiling in the city’s soil can take a sigh of relief.
The roots they’ve put down are perennial.
Officials with Friends of the Farms recently announced they’ve inked long-term leases with local farmers to cultivate city-owned lands.
“Farmers worked the land and have been selling their produce at farmers markets and more for years,” said Wendy Tyner, executive director of Friends of the Farms. “The lease agreement was in limbo for years, making folks anxious all around. Now the farmers are subleased and all official.”
It was a contentious subject among islanders. Farmers worked city-owned land without paying rent since Bainbridge Island began purchasing it in 2001.
Part of the land, off Day Road, was purchased from island farming legend Akio Suyematsu.
“It was a community desire to do this,” said Ryan Vancil, attorney for Friends of the Farms.
“What the city did is bought the best farmland on the island and Kitsap County,” he said. “Akio’s farmland is the longest running farmland in the county.”
There was no infrastructure or management plan to lease the farmland when the city purchased it. Some islanders criticized the city for allowing the farmers to work without leases, so Friends of the Farms started to help the city develop the necessary legal documents in 2005.
When the city council finally did approve a 30-year lease with Friends of the Farms for the city-owned farm land in 2011, it was the culmination of six years’ worth of effort. The council chambers erupted in applause upon its approval.
Friends of the Farms was contracted to manage the various city-owned farm lands.
But the job wasn’t finished. Friends of the Farms still had to develop subleases for the farmers, and for those yet to come.
As of February, the final step has been taken and all five farmers on city farmland have signed leases.
Bainbridge Island Farms, Butler Green Farms, Laughing Crow Farms and Perennial Vintners have all signed 25-year leases.
Islander John Chang also signed a lease for 12 years. He plans to donate all the food he produces to Helpline House to feed islanders in need.
Land near Day Road is being leased for $334 per acre, while the Morales farmland to the south is leased for $290 per acre.
With the leases in place, the farms are now likely to see improvements.
“Because of the guarantee for the farmers, they are able to invest in improving the soil, irrigation and build greenhouses,” Tyner said. “They’ve had limitations because it wasn’t their land. Now it is legally theirs to farm.”
The city acquired the farmland through a series of donations, as well as by purchases using open space money. Former mayor Dwight Sutton negotiated many of the sales.
In another recent and bittersweet development, even more farmland has been added to city acreage. Suyematsu previously sold 15 acres of his land to the city with the stipulation that he would continue to farm it until his passing. He passed away in 2012.
Friends of the Farms will soon accept applications for the newly acquired farmland. Leases for the new land are expected to be signed in May and June.
The leases aren’t just about making the farmers official, Tyner said. It’s also about guaranteeing that the land will be cared for and farmed.
“The land really can be protected through these long-term leases and increase the availability of locally grown food,” Tyner said.
“And continue Akio’s legacy,” she added. “To value the inherent wealth of the land.”
With all the work behind them, Friends of the Farms is still looking ahead to more work yet to be done for island agriculture.
“It’s not going to solve farming in Bainbridge Island,” Vancil said. “There is not enough land so far to feed the island.”
“But it can serve as a flagship example of how farming can be on our island,” he said. “We’re seeing farming work on Bainbridge.”