About Akio Suyematsu

Akio Suyematsu
Akio Suyematsu was the last of the original berry farmers on Bainbridge Island, who put Bainbridge on the map as Island the strawberry capital of the Pacific Northwest.  He was also one of the first Japanese Americans to be forcibly removed and incarcerated during WWII.  Out of his experience of exclusion, Akio Suyematsu’s Farm has become the largest and oldest farm in the region, and one of the most inclusive places on Bainbridge Island. His life’s work is a living memorial to a Japanese American farmer “who against all odds cultivated a legacy that will live forever.”

Read about Akio Suyematsu in a 2022 Seattle Times Feature Article:
“Meet Bainbridge Island’s last Japanese American farmer”

Akio Suyematsu (1921-2012) was the first-born son of Yasuji & Mitsuo Suyematsu, who arrived on Bainbridge Island in 1911 & 1919.  All seven Suyematsu children were born, raised, and educated on Bainbridge Island.  Akio was an Island resident his entire life, except for the years of Japanese American exclusion, and his service in the United States Army (1942-47).

Akio Suyematsu was born on the north end of Bainbridge Island, and spent his formative years living on the current site of Wilkes Elementary, which his family leased and farmed from approximately 1922-1930.  Akio told stories of being a boy of ten years old and having to plow those ten acres of strawberry fields after school, by himself, with two large draft horses.

From 1928-2012, Akio lived and farmed on the forty-acre property his family purchased neighboring the current site of Wilkes Elementary.  His parents placed their property under the legal ownership of eight year old Akio, a United States citizen, to circumvent alien land laws that prevented Asian immigrants from owning land or becoming citizens.

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Akio as a young man with family dog Jackie.

From the late 1920’s-1942, Akio attended Olympic Grade School, Lincoln School, and Bainbridge High School.  At BHS, Akio was a star baseball player for all four years, and a letterman for three years.  He excelled in building trades courses under the tutelage of Mr. Morley, which had a direct influence on his professional life as a farmer and becoming a jack of all trades. Akio was in the Class of 1942, and one of 13 Japanese American BHS Students to graduate while exiled and incarcerated at Manzanar concentration camp in California.

The Suyematsu Farm was one of over forty Japanese family farms on Bainbridge who organized to make Bainbridge Island the strawberry production powerhouse of the Northwest from 1920s-1942.   What the Suyematsus were able to achieve in American over their first three decades was completely uprooted and lost to their forced exile and incarceration during WWII.

During WWII, Akio and the Suyematsu Family were incarcerated in the Manzanar and Minidoka concentration camps.  Akio was drafted by the U.S. Army, and served in Europe at the end of the war.  In 1927, he returned to Bainbridge Island and helped his family reclaim their farm and livelihoods.  The Suyematsus were one of the few Japanese American families to carry on with farming on Bainbridge Island after returning from exile.

Akio Suyematsu on tractor

 

First Peoples from Vancouver, BC came to the work the farm each harvest season, many of whom eventually became part of our Island’s Indipino community.  Over the decades, thousands of Puget Sound residents picked berries on Suyematsu Farm.  The founders of Sawan, Sawatis, and Emmy’s Veggie House worked on Suyematsu Farm before opening their Island restaurants.

In the 1970’s, Akio Suyematsu began inviting younger farmers to lease and purchase farm land on his 40 acres.  By the time of his passing, five generations of diverse farmers were working that land.  In 2000, Akio Suyematsu sold his last fifteen acres of the family farm to the City of Bainbridge Island, to always remain working farmland and feed the community. In 2016, the Historic Preservation Commission of COBI, redesignated five acres encompassing the original homestead, as the first ever, public Historic Preservation District on Bainbridge Island.

Akio farmed until he died in 2012, at age 90.  He was the last of the Japanese American farmers on Bainbridge Island, with nine decades of service to our Island’s foodshed. Akio received numerous award and accolades over his career.  After his passing, COBI proclaimed August 19 as Akio Suyematsu Day on Bainbridge Island.

Over the past two decades, thousands of teachers, and citizens have visited Suyematsu farm for edible and heritage education programs.  In 2013, Mary Woodward wrote: “The Suyematsu farm is the longest operating farm in Kitsap County, growing strawberries at first, and, in recent years, wine grapes and pumpkins, something any school-aged kid on Bainbridge will tell you.”  The origin of that statement began at Wilkes Elementary School in 2006 in Bill Covert’s fourth grade class, and would grow to include every grade and class at Wilkes Elementary, and, eventually, most of Bainbridge Island Schools.

From 2006-2019, Suyematsu Farm served as an outdoor classroom for neighboring x̌alilc (Halilts) Elementary (formerly Wilkes) School, had vibrant farm-school partnership with Suyematsu Farm integrated into the K-4 curriculum, with every class coming to the farm up to four times a year.  A dedicated path was built for Wilkes students to walk to and from the farm.  Wilkes teachers spoke at Akio’s Celebration of Life.

In 2011, Akio Suyematsu became the first local farmer, and alumnus, to have a contract with BISD food program, purchasing 300 pounds of Suyematsu Farm raspberries each year for a yogurt & granola parfait, served to Wilkes students and others throughout the school year- making Suyematsu Farm and Wilkes Elementary one of the closest farm to school relationships in the region.

Today, the forty acres of Suyematsu Family Farm is one of the oldest, continuously farmed working landscapes in the region, and the largest production farm in Kitsap County.  It is the hub of our Island’s farming community and a treasured and iconic cultural asset.  Since the period of Japanese American Exclusion, Suyematsu Family Farm has become one of the most inclusive places on Bainbridge Island.  The farm has become an established historic and cultural site for teaching and learning about the Japanese American experience, and a living bookend to the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Memorial.

[Read “Carrying a Message”, and the 70th Anniversary of Japanese American Exclusion on Suyematsu Farm, Bainbridge Island Review, March 22, 2012
What would you carry with you – if you only had six days to pack a bag for yourself and your family, headed to a remote location, for an unknown period of time? What would you bring? ]

Akio practiced what he called “clean living”. “If you take care of the land,” he said, “it will take care of you”.  As a farmer, he was always ahead of his time.   Akio was principled and had a strong moral compass.  He was a quiet leader and mentor.  At every major stage of Akio’s life, he experienced some form of adversity which set him back, or, tried to set him back.  At every one of these stages and episodes, Akio always found courage and conviction to persevere and triumph.

Akio Suyematsu’s life and life’s work reflects and represents the story of Bainbridge Island.  His legacy as a life-long resident and master farmer is one of integrity, dignity, stewardship, sustainability and citizenship.

Following his passing in 2012, the City of Bainbridge Island proclaimed August 19 “Akio Suyematsu Day” in honor of this iconic farmer. Akio Suyematsu was the last of the original Japanese American Bainbridge Island berry farmers, who created an agricultural and community legacy on a working landscape second to none in the Puget Sound region. His life’s work has kept alive a taste of Bainbridge for over nine decades and inspired generations of local farmers.

City of Bainbridge Island 2012 Proclamation for Akio Suyematsu Day

Islanders gather this weekend to pay respect to iconic farmer”, from Bainbridge Island Review, August 2012