By Valerie Reinke
From where Jonathan Garfunkel stands, feet planted on the Suyematsu/Bentryn Farm at the heart of Bainbridge Island, there is an unobstructed view over farmland and forest all the way to the Olympics. “This is the same view the Suyematsu family had 90 years ago,” he says with reverence.
The reverence is called for. It is a sacred space—perhaps for the spirit of the Suyematsus who first farmed there. The 1928 farmhouse where the Japanese-American couple raised their boys still stands, as do the migrant laborers’ cottages nearby. The old tractor rests in the barn, seemingly ready to roll, and there is a shed stocked with farm implements looking as if they were set down yesterday if not for the dust.
Time seems to have collapsed on itself as the cycle of planting and harvesting defines the annual rhythm. But now instead of a single family-owned farm, the 40 acres support a dynamic public/private partnership between the City of Bainbridge Island, whose acreage is managed by Friends of the Farms, and entrepreneurial farmers including Butler Green Farms, Bainbridge Vineyards and Laughing Crow Farms, whose owner Betsey Wittick still tills the land with a plow pulled by draft horses.
It is also home to EduCulture, the organization Garfunkel founded, which seeks to combine all aspects of the farm—the science, the history, the culture, the people, the food—into a living, hands-on curriculum that reaches deep into the schools and the community at large. “It’s where edible education meets heritage education,” he’s fond of saying. The nexus of the two: the land itself.
The voluble Garfunkel has spent three decades in education, mostly in K-12 and now at the college level. Early in his career he realized that he could better engage his students by identifying local issues and putting them into a global context. “For years we were teaching World War II as if it had happened elsewhere even though Bainbridge Island was ground-zero for Japanese exclusion—the first community that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the executive order focused on.”
On March 30, 1942, soldiers drove their trucks down the now abandoned driveway to the farmhouse and forcibly removed the Suyematsus to an internment camp. After the war the family did return—one of only a handful of internees who came back to Bainbridge—and painstakingly restored the farm back to its glory days.
The Suyematsu’s oldest son, Akio, ultimately took the reins and guided the land through several transformations, selling portions of the farm to the Bentryn family in 1982 and to the city in 2000 so it would be kept forever as agricultural landscape. Akio worked the land until his passing in 2012 and was an honored mentor to a next generation of island farmers. Today, interns live in that same Suyematsu farmhouse as they learn the organic farming practices that Akio mastered over the decades.
But it was Garfunkel, through EduCulture, who realized the educational potential of the farm and reached out to nearby Wilkes Elementary in 2006. “It started with Bill Covert’s 4th grade class,” he recalled. It was the beginning of a partnership that’s still going strong. Covert, now an EduCulture teacher partner, said, “Farm projects have always been a favorite for my students.” Over the years his classes have been working “to plant, nurture and harvest Marshall strawberries, part of this island’s heritage,” he said, and in doing so, “we relive the experiences of Akio.”
From that first farm field trip, the collaboration took hold and “by the third year we had almost all of Wilkes coming here,” said Garfunkel. The other elementary schools followed suit, and he determinedly matched each with a farm within walking distance—Blakely with Heyday Farm and Ordway with Middlefield Farm. “We figured out ways they could be outdoor classrooms.”
Today, EduCulture maintains those partnerships and has expanded to collaborate with Sakai Intermediate, Woodward Middle School and BHS thanks to funding from the respective PTOs and the Bainbridge Schools Foundation. It has helped establish school gardens and has used its connections with local farmers to help supply organic produce for school cafeterias. For Taste Washington Day, island students ate 600 ears of fresh corn raised by farmer Karen Selvor, a protégé of Akio’s, as well as the very potatoes the kids had cultivated on the farm with guidance from EduCulture farmer partner Wittick.
Garfunkel recalled, “In one year when Akio was still alive we had three generations of Bainbridge Island students and graduates, spanning nine decades of life, both professional farmers and what we’ll call junior farmers, growing food for our school district. It started a pattern that now is continuing on and growing in terms of school district lunches.”
The organization’s out-of-the-box creativity and gift for leveraging community partners is also evidenced by the wide range of farm-related activities in which the children actively participate.
- With the Follow the Egg program, kindergartners visit Heyday Farm Kitchen to compare and contrast their farm egg with a store-bought egg and then prepare and taste a farm-egg soufflé. “This is field to fork,” Garfunkel said.
- Schools can request a Chicken in Residence, a broody hen that lives on-campus in a special portable henhouse so kids can closely watch the hatching of eggs and the development of the chicks as they hang out with their new feathered friend. “They really bond with the chicken,” he noted with amusement.
- Since the Suyematsu farm is known for its picturesque pumpkin patch, EduCulture has kids dissecting pumpkins to study the gourds’ anatomy and setting up a pumpkin museum to display the 20 different varieties grown there.
- Children literally play tug-of-war with Wittick’s draft horse, straining to hang onto their end of a long rope hitched to the animal, all to demonstrate the original meaning of horsepower. “We realized we could be teaching STEM lessons by a simple exercise.”
For all it does with children, EduCulture focuses on adults too. Garfunkel goes deep into the “heritage education” side of the organization in partnership with Katy Curtis at the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum. Their joint project, Only What We Can Carry, sponsors annual trips to Manzanar, the internment camp where many islanders were held. Their annual delegation combines local educators who teach about the Japanese-American experience of exclusion with Bainbridge Island survivors who lived through the period, many of them as children. Covert, who was on the first trip in 2009, recounted, “We traveled with several island elders on their first journey back to Manzanar since they lived there during their internment. That opportunity to relive history with them has brought an authenticity to my teaching of this experience to this day.”
Larry Holland agrees. The BHS 11th grade American Studies instructor and EduCulture teacher partner made the trip in 2016. “This was one of the most profound learning experiences of my life,” he said. “I returned to my classroom with a new determination to share with students one of the most profound transgressions against basic liberties in American history.”
That’s the power of place to educate and transform. Back on the farm, Akio’s legacy remains an inspiration for Garfunkel, but he insists that, like Manzanar, the Suyematsu/Bentryn property is “more than a museum; it’s a living, breathing place.”