Fields seeded with promise

The wild, waist-high, grass on the Morales farm is not still, and is seeded with potential for more than just the food that might someday grow there. Having seen the 4.74-acre farm lie fallow for more than five years, Marshall Bamber wants to bring the land back to productivity. “It’s a shame, makes me really sad,” Bamber said. “I would work those farms for free to see them kept up.”

  • Monday, August 30, 2004 10:00am
  • News

The wild, waist-high, grass on the Morales farm is not still, and is seeded with potential for more than just the food that might someday grow there.

Having seen the 4.74-acre farm lie fallow for more than five years, Marshall Bamber wants to bring the land back to productivity.

“It’s a shame, makes me really sad,” Bamber said. “I would work those farms for free to see them kept up.”

Bamber is one of several area farmers who hope to work the Morales land at the northwest corner of Highway 305 and Lovgreen Road, purchased last year by the city with $210,000 in open-space bond money.

For the city, the farm is another piece comprising an “agricultural district” in the Day Road East area, a possible site for a cooperative roadside stand for locally grown produce, and someday, the first city-owned farmland to be tilled.

“(The Morales farm) is somewhat of an experiment,” Councilwoman Christine Rolfes said. “Can publicly owned land be farmed? We will see if it’s a replicable model for other land purchases for open space.”

A stewardship plan for Morales by the nonprofit Trust for Working Landscapes was approved by the City Council last fall, with the final contract to be signed next week.

Long-term stewardship plans are still to be finalized, with several other newly acquired city farms, including the 14-acre Johnson spread at Fletcher Bay, to follow. The real goal is to select farmers to cultivate the land; a “cover crop” may be planted in the meantime, to prepare the soil for planting next spring.

“We all hope someone would be picked by the fall (or) early winter, so that they could start making plans, but it means several things happening simultaneously,” said Betsey Wittick, TWL board member.

TWL has already received four letters of interest from those hoping to farm the Morales property, and continues to accept applications.

“We’re hoping properties like this will help ensure the ‘urban fringe agriculture’ which would be the natural on Bainbridge Island,” said Dwight Sutton, open space commissioner, who recommended purchase of the farm formerly worked for berries and vegetables by a Filipino-American family.

The Morales property is virtually contiguous with the 2.3-acre Crawford farm – another city open-space purchase – and the 13-acre M&E tree farm that was donated to the city last year. It also abuts the Bentryn vineyard and winery property, and the city-owned Suyematsu farm.

A concentration of farmers could support each other and share equipment, advocates say.

“(The Morales farm) doesn’t call out ‘open space,’ because it’s not so picturesque as is, but it is a piece of a larger agricultural district and makes it work with important connectors,” Rolfes said. “(The farm works towards) the desire to continue to have island-grown produce.”

All hope to be viable and self-sufficient on the land; applicants so far suggest the range of backgrounds that tomorrow’s Bainbridge farmers might bring.

Organic meats>

Just 22 years old, Bamber says he has the energy and knowledge to farm – from working on his father’s farm and studying agriculture at Santa Rosa Junior College, with its 365-acre spread for students.

Start-up capital is a sticking point. Bamber is now working out the economics of farming, such as saving money by growing all of his own food and animal feed. He hopes to avoid “sacrificing” himself to non-farming work to support his agriculture.

“I don’t want to be a caretaker of the land,” Bamber said. “I want to be self-sufficient and independent and have the same feelings of pride like each person who has their own home.”

For much of his young life, Bamber thought he was on his way to a political career. But a four-month political internship in Washington D.C. followed by four and half months in a Chilean vineyard changed his mind.

“I realized I’d rather pursue a life of agriculture instead of politics,” he said. “I didn’t want to work in a cubicle, I wanted to work outside.”

If chosen to farm on the Morales farm, Bamber says he would like to raise animals for meat: chickens, turkey, goats and pigs. And, contrary to the perception of livestock grazing wearing out land, Bamber says grazing animals can improve the soil with proper management.

“An important aspect of organic farming is meat,” Bamber said. “People have the sense that meat is bad, because of the conditions animals live in and what they’re being fed. It is unhealthy the way it is now, but people don’t realize there is another way to farm meat which is grass-fed, instead of confinement…

“The only reason we have grain-fed cows is because it’s economical.”

Bamber also points to the demand for goat meat in the U.S. currently satisfied by imports.

“The demand is there, but you need to create the supply. No one on Bainbridge Island produces meat for sale in stores,” he said. “I think there would be 100 people who want to sign up to buy it.”

Food forester

A lush, multi-storied “food forest” is Karen Burke’s vision.

As a child on Bainbridge Island, she had her own plot of land to garden, which she remembers as fun to do even though at the time she was “not that interested in eating the vegetables.”

Burke has come full circle since she set off to become an architect in college, but then switched to urban planning to keep “big boxes” from covering the landscape. Her internship with the nonprofit Denver Urban Gardens in Colorado, setting up inner city gardens, moved her closer to farming.

Living again on Bainbridge, Burke would like to do organic farming modeled on an ecosystem with “multiple stories” of plants – vegetables in the soil and fruit trees above, rather than the traditional row plantings.

Although she has not farmed commercially, she hopes to start small and build up, while getting the advice of longtime farmers.

“In this day and age, we’ve become so global we can get almost any flower any time of year,” said Burke, who works for a local florist. “I can get roses Fed-Exed from Ecuador. People like that, but also like the option of getting flowers locally. People get excited when somebody local grew them.”

At the core, “nurturing, growing your own food, you feel like you’re part of the life cycle,” Burke said. “It’s outside and hands-on; it’s something that’s always been around and will be around – a natural connection to land.”

Winemaker

Mike Lempriere and his wife Beth Schoenberg share a love of wine, and that draws them to grape growing and winemaking.

“Every time I go to a winery, I walk out to the vineyard and am overwhelmed with a sense of calm,” Lempriere said.

The pair realized they shared a dream to live on a vineyard growing grapes within a community of growers. They have been making wine as a hobby since 1997; they hope to someday make affordable wines from their own grapes.

Their Bainbridge home is well placed, sitting between the Morales and Crawford properties. This past spring, they planted 100 vines on their property, but they admit that’s the exent of their farming experience.

“I will accept that I know nothing and will ask anything,” Lempriere said.

Schoenberg runs an American sign language interpretation company in Seattle; they hope Lempriere could give up his computer job in Seattle and be farming and winemaking full time.

“I don’t think we’ve wavered about doing it, because it’s something we really want to do,” Schoenberg said.

Market garden

Another software engineer by trade, John Chang is steadily devoted to “market gardening” – small-scale farming to bring produce to retail customers.

Chang did market gardening on the side in Palo Alto, Calif. Looking for a lasting arrangement and a larger plot, he heard about TWL recruiting farmers for the Morales farm and moved his family to Bainbridge.

Besides the land, the population was appealing as Chang wanted to sell to home consumers. His ideal would be to farm full time, but he says, “I want to do this because it’s a good thing to do regardless of if I could quit my job.”

He hopes to grow Asian vegetables not readily available in the market as well as fruits, specialty varieties of vegetables like beets, chard and kale.

In Palo Alto, he grew custom salad mixes for restaurants and sold at farmers’ markets or upscale bed and breakfasts. As was the case with bottled water, he said, any good business will try to generate a market.

“I think there’s a creative, artistic side to people and an economic, practical side to people,” he said.

“The more food a community produces for itself, the more psychologically well-rounded and balanced it is, because it connects the people in the community together in a healthy way.

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