Akio Suyematsu became a landowner at 8 years old.
The Alien Land Law of 1921 made it illegal for Suyematsu’s parents Yasuji and Mitsuo — both born in Japan — to own land, which is why in 1928 at the age of 8 he and his older sister Kimiko, both U.S. citizens, were listed as the owners of the 40 acres his family originally bought on Day Road East on Bainbridge Island.
Fourteen years later, in 1942, when Akio Suyematsu was a senior in high school, he was incarcerated with the rest of his family at Manzanar, an incarceration camp in California.
He was then drafted and served two years in the U.S. military, returning to a home that had been looted of everything except a few photos, the land overgrown and uncared for. The oldest son in a family of seven, Suyematsu overcame incredible obstacles, ultimately farming his land — with the exception of those years at Manzanar and in the military — for 84 years. In those years, he became known as “the last Japanese American farmer on Bainbridge Island.” Suyematsu died at the age of 90 on July 31, 2012.
Even now, nearly a decade after his passing, Suyematsu’s name is spoken daily on the island. Despite being a lifelong bachelor with no direct descendants, the quiet farmer with unparalleled love for the land has a team of people dedicated to preserving his legacy. He was one of the last links to Bainbridge Island’s past as the center of Washington’s berry industry, a role that was forever changed when Japanese Americans on Bainbridge became the first to be forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated in 1942.
Dynamite and horses
When the Suyematsu family bought the land that Akio Suyematsu would farm for 84 years, the purchase price was $1,600 with a 7% interest rate. Adjusted for inflation, the cost would be a little over $26,500 today.
It took the family three years to clear the land of trees — employing loggers who Suyematsu said in a 2006 oral-history interview never paid his father for the timber — using dynamite to move stumps and horses to plow the fields.
The Suyematsus weren’t the first Japanese American family on the island, and their farm wasn’t the largest. Like many of the island’s 30 Japanese American farmers, the Suyematsus specialized in strawberries. Not just any strawberry, but the Marshall, a small, bumpy variety prized for its intensely sweet flavor and incredibly short shelf life.
Like many farmers on the island, they were surviving. A bumper crop in 1941 that saw 3.5 million pounds of strawberries harvested on 720 acres across the island had helped every Japanese American farmer at least break even — some turned a small profit. The way it was looking, 1942 was going to be the same.
A farm in disarray
When Executive Order 9066 was issued on Feb. 19, 1942, every Japanese American home on Bainbridge was searched. At the Suyematsus’ home old dynamite caps from clearing the land and a new radio were found, evidence enough to detain Yasuji Suyematsu for a few days in Seattle. Still, upon his return the family knew they would soon have to leave.
The March 30 forced removal date enforced by the executive order was just 60 days before the strawberry harvest. It could have been another banner year that would have further established Japanese American farms on Bainbridge. The Washington Berry Growers Association’s petition to the federal government in favor of allowing the Bainbridge Island farmers to stay until after the June-bearing berries were harvested was ignored.
“Most of those farmers lost the biggest economic advantage they had. They got cut off at the knees,” Jon Garfunkel, managing director of EduCulture and the Only What We Can Carry Project, says during a recent phone call.
Some farmers could hire someone to harvest their crops and work the land until they hoped to come back. Other farmers weren’t landowners, and had to cut their losses and give up their leases. The Suyematsus didn’t have the money to pay anyone but asked a neighbor to look after their property.
The family was initially incarcerated at Manzanar in Independence, California, and eventually transferred to Minidoka, in Idaho, until the end of the war.
When Akio Suyematsu returned to Bainbridge Island in 1947, the disarray in which he found the family farm forced him to line up a job in Seattle as a mechanic in order to make ends meet. He went to see Harry Burns, the owner of North Coast Electric and the titleholder of the Suyematsu property, assuming since they had been unable to make the payments during the war, and now the interest had tripled, Burns would take back the property.
“Mr. Burns — he was a nice man, he was a rich man but he was a nice man. And he says, ‘You know what? Long as you pay all the interest on that money, I’ll let you have it back.’ So I scraped and scrinched for how many years and paid that interest back,” Suyematsu recounted in his oral history interview.
It took four years for Suyematsu to pay off the interest and own the land outright. It wasn’t easy. He was denied membership to the local Grange (a farmers association), which could’ve provided him with insurance. The payments on the land left little money for improvements to the farm and house. He still worked the land by hand or with horses, unable to buy a tractor until he had repaid the debt. Many others would have thrown in the towel, and many did.
Farmer of the year
Still, Suyematsu persevered. In 1952, he was the first farmer on the island to build a retention pond as a way to catch water for irrigation, a progressive step for that time. He held on after a freeze in 1955 destroyed all the crops. In 1958, he was named Kitsap County Farmer of the Year (and later offered an honorary membership to the Grange, which he declined out of principle).
The beloved Marshall strawberry had been monocropped to the point it was no longer producing well. Strawberries in general were fetching lower prices, so Suyematsu began to diversify. In 1970, he was able to purchase more acreage, adding a second property and planting raspberries and Christmas trees and adding a massive pumpkin patch to the original property. Suyematsu relied on his parents and a rotating cast of seasonal farmworkers to help with planting and harvest throughout the years. It was many years before he found what could be considered a successor.
In 1973, Karen Selvar spent her first summer picking strawberries and raspberries on the farm. She was 9 years old and lived just up the road from the Manzanita property. She remembers Suyematsu’s parents still working at the time — his father Yasuji punching tickets for her daily tally, Mitsuo selling her a Coca-Cola at the farmhouse at the end of a long day.
Selvar spent every summer harvesting at Suyematsu Farm. She left for a year to go to Western Washington University in Bellingham, but came back that summer — and every summer after until “I eventually stayed on the farm,” Selvar says. It took years, but Selvar and Suyematsu soon had an incredible bond.
You learned by working alongside him through observation rather than outright instruction. He was disciplined, taking a week to eat a Snickers bar, cutting off one chunk at a time for lunch. It was difficult to earn his trust; he saw many farmhands come and go over the seasons. And even though he was offered cash from private investors many times for his land, he never entertained those offers.
Even before Selvar was spending more time at the farm, the landscape of Bainbridge Island had been changing. Farming was a hard life — only half of the farming families that called Bainbridge Island home before the war returned, and the ones that did were making changes to keep their farms alive.
The Sakuma family had a son who purchased land in Burlington in 1935 and after the war, the family moved there. You can still buy Sakuma Bros. berries in Washington today. The Hayashida family — once the biggest farm on the island — had a son who moved to Seattle, taking a job at Boeing after the war. Other family members remained farming until the ‘60s. The Nakao family found it too difficult to get started again after the war, and sold their land at cost to the Bainbridge Island School District. The Moritani family slowly phased out of farming after the war — their land is now the Moritani Preserve, a sanctuary located just off Winslow Way West.
In the late ‘70s, the Bentryn family leased and eventually purchased part of the Suyematsu property to start Bainbridge Island Vineyards and Winery. In the ‘80s, Suyematsu went organic on the remaining property, and even had a stall selling fresh berries at Pike Place Market for a while, his sister Eiko and her sons Dean and Karl Shibuyama working the stand.
In 2001, Suyematsu sold 15 acres to the city of Bainbridge Island for $900,000. There is a sign that commemorates the sale at the entrance to the farm on Day Road, reading “In 2001 Akio sold fifteen acres to the city of Bainbridge Island with the requirement that farming continue here as long as there are people who want to farm for a living on the land.”
In that time, through all of those changes, Selvar grew from a kid picking strawberries to Suyematsu’s right hand. In 1991, he sold her five acres outright and allowed her the use of an additional 15 in a 25-year lease upon his death.
Now the original 40-acre property is owned by three entities: the city of Bainbridge Island, Gerard and JoAnn Bentryn, and Betsey Wittick, co-owner of Bainbridge Vineyards and Laughing Crow Farm, and is home to several farms — Selvar’s Bainbridge Island Farms, Wittick’s Laughing Crow Farm, Butler Green Farms, and Paulson Farms — as well as an educational site for youth. Garfunkel has brought students to the farm since 1999 with edible education programs through EduCulture.
In 2010, Garfunkel created a short-term project where Suyematsu’s raspberries, Selvar’s corn, and vegetables grown by EduCulture students were served at local schools.
“There were three generations of Bainbridge Island students who were raising food for the school lunch program. That was a very proud moment. You could hit a golf ball from his farm to the school,” Garfunkel says.
It’s difficult to distill a man down to qualities. There have been many articles written about Suyematsu over the years. Each mention his industriousness and his bachelor status. He often expressed his distaste for how suburbia crept closer and closer to his farmland.
When asked, Selvar and Suyematsu’s nephews, the Shibuyama brothers — Brian, Dean and Karl — each tell stories of how quiet “Uncle Ak” was (until his snoring shook the house in the middle of the night). He didn’t talk much, unless you touched on a subject he found interesting — cars or fishing.
“He wanted a job. He was a farmer, if he would’ve sold it what would he do?” Selvar says.
Each expressed small amounts of regret that none of them could’ve purchased the entire property before he sold a parcel to the city. No one was in a position to make a purchase that large.
“Looking back on it, I never mentioned it [to] anybody else, but I think I should’ve brought it up with dad and Karl and Brian. Maybe it would’ve been a good thing as a family, but at the time [even] buying a house was kind of beyond my means,” Dean Shibuyama said.
There still are 15 acres owned by the family estate, a collection of relatives that include the Shibuyama brothers, their mother and other cousins from Suyematsu’s other siblings. Nearly a decade after his death, the estate still has to be settled.
Meanwhile, Selvar and her fellow farmers are working every day to make sure the Suyematsu name is never forgotten. Selvar follows many of the same techniques she learned from Suyematsu. Wittick brought draft horses back to the property.
Suyematsu’s spirit can be felt everywhere at the farm. Old photos of him and Selvar sitting on the bed of a pickup, a dog between them, hang in the green farmstand. A pair of ice skates that he brought to Manzanar and back again hang in a shed — a testament to the value they held for a 20-year-old who could only bring what he could carry. The original house, currently uninhabitable, is on track to be transformed into a museum in a partnership with the Bainbridge Historical Society.
Across the island, Japanese American names have been relegated to murals, parks or plaques. The Suyematsu farm is the last link to the island’s past as a booming agricultural hub and a community of Japanese American farmers.
This past October, on the date of Suyematsu’s 100th birthday, Selvar arranged pumpkins in the field, spelling out “Happy 100 Akio.” There was cake, and the leaves on the “October Glory” maple tree Selvar planted in his honor were aflame, a brilliant, deep strawberry red.
When asked if the Suyematsu name will ever be forgotten by the residents of Bainbridge, Selvar is quick to say no.
“We want to keep that name going forward,” she says firmly.