Cottage Industry // At Sweetlife Farm, Life Is—Well, Pretty Sweet

By Vicki Wilson

For many islanders, working from home involves a reliable Internet provider, a smart phone and an extensive pajama collection. But for Bob and Nancy Fortner, proud proprietors of Sweetlife Farm, a wheelbarrow wins over Wi-Fi and compost comes before contracts. The bounty of their working farm—and their loving attention to it—produces beautifully scented handmade soaps, soothing lotions, and incredibly delicious jams, cocoas and other kitchen essentials that are perennial Bainbridge favorites.

Farming wasn’t always the way for the Fortners. Far from it. Bob was a doctor and Nancy a nurse when they first met. They moved to Bainbridge from the San Francisco Bay area in 1989, with the initial goal of dialing back their high pressured medical careers. First stop: a bookshop. Opened in 1992, Fortner Books was a beloved Winslow Way fixture, located in what is currently Blackbird Bakery. After several years with a brick and mortar storefront, the couple transitioned the business—and their extensive rare and out of print book collection—to their home on Summerhill Lane, completed in 1998.

“We thought we could be in the book business part time,” Bob explained. But the demands of the job proved otherwise, especially when you are as meticulous as these two. “We can’t do anything part time,” Nancy said, with a smile. Shifting from face to face to Internet and appointment only book sales finally opened up some time for their hobbies. And by hobbies, they don’t mean tennis and golf, though they are avid cyclists. Hobbies for the Fortners included soapmaking and experimenting with edible botanicals. By 2008, they sold off the last of their book collection and committed themselves completely to Sweetlife Farm.

“We had read about Helen and Scott Nearing in their book ‘Living the Good Life’ and we truly admired them,” Nancy recalled. The Nearings were well known “back-to-landers” committed to growing their own food and living a sustainable life. Land was something the Fortners had plenty of. In fact, they actually own 10 acres adjacent to the Grand Forest, but only live on and farm one acre of it. The remainder will never be developed due to a conservation easement the Fortners gave to the Bainbridge Island Land Trust.

While their property is a working farm with prolific floral and produce gardens as well as a “chicken condo,” its idyllic setting, pastoral landscape and lovingly designed Northwest lodge style main house and outbuildings are simply picture postcard perfect. It would be hard for it to be otherwise. First and foremost, it’s clear the Fortners love what they do, and that’s why they don’t stress about creating a work life balance; for them it’s more of a blend. For example, a tremendous amount of effort goes into their annual participation in Christmas in the Country, Bainbridge Island’s multi stop holiday bazaar.

Still, the Fortners love opening their home to the community and sharing the fruits of their labor with their neighbors. “Every day is a work day, but we carve out time for social activities or a bike ride,” Bob said. Nancy admitted that while her “to do list is always longer than my capacity to complete it,” she has made peace with the fact that “gardening is never done.” And she has recently taken up mahjongg and loves to socialize by sharing meals with friends—especially if it’s pizza, made in their own pizza oven and topped with their own homemade sausage.

As the gardens at Sweetlife Farm have grown and matured, so has the Fortners’ interest in living and eating in a more mindful way. “Ever since our first home, we’ve had some semblance of a garden. We love berries, so I planted a whole patch. Then we had to figure out what to do with the excess. Sustainable living appeals to us, but we are still learning,” Bob said. Nancy understands that to be successful in this endeavor, you have to be more aware of your choices.

The stated mission of Sweetlife Farm, which focuses on sustainability and the use of natural ingredients, reflects the Fortners’ personal philosophy that what matters is the quality of the individual components making up the whole, whether a bar of soap or a jar of jam. The inherent pureness of those components makes it easy to answer questions such as, what’s in it and where did it come from? Although so much of what they do with the farm is social, from their participation in the Farmers’ Market to swapping milk for produce with another farmer, Bob and Nancy speak a lot about how life on the farm has allowed them to maximize their independence in a variety of ways.

“It’s a commitment,” Bob said. “We’re of the notion that, if you’re not fully engaged and active at our age, you’ll lose ground fast. The demands of this place contribute to our longevity and well being.” To stay young, you’ve got to use it or lose it. “We love the challenge of doing it ourselves,” Nancy said, a sentiment echoed by her husband. “The choice to step back from our careers more than 20 years ago was made without knowing where it would lead,” Bob said. “We just knew we wanted a different pace, a different focus, more control over the quality of our experiences. With commitment and ongoing hard work also came contentment, fulfillment, good health and happiness.” Sounds like a sweet life, indeed!

A Day in the Life of Sweetlife Farm

4:30 a.m. Turn on coffeemaker

5:05 a.m. Arise, make first coffee, feed sourdough starter

5:15 a.m. Read news online

6:15 a.m. Listen to NPR

6:30 a.m. Shower and dress

7:00 a.m. Breakfast

7:30 a.m. Prepare brine for ham, skin ham, refrigerate and cleanup

8:30 a.m. Business discussion about sharing ingredient sources

8:35 a.m. Make more coffee, prep used grounds for mushroom project

8:40 a.m. Studio kitchen cleanup, thaw strawberries and rhubarb

9:00 a.m. Measure kitchen for additional shelving

9:05 a.m. Mist mushrooms

9:30 a.m. Tax preparation

10:30 a.m. Business forms development

11:30 a.m. Lunch, test sample of juniper rub prep

12:00 p.m. Garbage run

2:00 p.m. Supply pricing, develop matrix for cost comparison

3:00 p.m. Bottle 24 bottles of newly finished Pinot Noir

4:30 p.m. Start fermentation of Sauvignon Blanc

5:30 p.m. Wine and cheese, news catch-up

6:30 p.m. Dinner

8:30 p.m. Bed, reading