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Farm to Fork Across America: Horse Power on Betsey's Farm, Bainbridge Island, WA

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Co-authored with Lee Glenn


Finally in Washington state, I'm on Bainbridge Island, which is Manhattan-sized and across Puget Sound from Seattle. I was there to visit Betsey Wittick's horse-powered farm. Lee, my co-pilot for this Western states trip, was on a two-week detour, sailing from Maui to Seattle, leaving me to explore his former island home.

At her farm, Betsey doesn't wear clean on her hands much... she wears delight and contentment in the alternative life she has chosen. At her barn in the fading light of day, she's sorting freshly cured garlic for tomorrow's farmers' market. She has been up since daybreak. As I watch, talking and taking notes, I offer: "Shall I turn on some lights?" She laughs, and cheerfully plugs in the colorful Christmas lights that adorn her outdoor workspace. At that moment, a salty breeze tangles with the scent of the freshly plowed soil, aromatherapy from a farm close to the water.

Laughing Crow Farm is five acres of 40, that are the oldest working landscape on the Kitsap Peninsula and the last direct connection to original agriculture on Bainbridge. The island was once famous for the best strawberries in the nation. A vibrant history is knitted into this specific property. Until his death two weeks previously, 90-year-old Akio Suyematsu was the common thread in this farmscape's fabric. As a child, his family was forcibly removed from their land and endured the Japanese internment camps during WWII. When they returned, Akio picked up the reins and continued the family farming tradition. During his lifetime, he periodically sold parcels to farmers who were sympathetic to working the property collectively, including the Bentryn family, who created Bainbridge Island Vineyards and Winery.

The Bentryn-Suyematsu Farm is now a collaboration of seven family-run farms, including Betsey's. She worked with the Bentryns and purchased her property in 1988. Subsequently, the island government bought the balance of the farm to ensure that its agricultural heritage and purpose would be preserved.

2012-10-22-ZB5K5752.jpgBetsey introduced me to her partners: Abby and Red, two young Suffolk Punch draft horses. Betsey, Abby and Red are a relatively new farming team since the death of Samantha, her first draft horse. A collar attaches to buckles, attaches to straps and to more buckles and belts under their groomed tails. Betsey dresses the horses in over 50 pounds of gear for their day's work. It has been four days since their last workout. Young, strong and willing, another day would not go by without training.

Betsey deliberately styles her life with closeness to her land. Horse power is her vehicle to make the connection real, something she doesn't believe is possible with diesel-powered farming. I ask about the expense of this approach. She answers: "It's not about the money... I've chosen to live close to the land and close that gap through communication with my horses. You don't get that with a tractor."

In addition to creating a "gossamer thread" of connectivity, Betsey believes horse power is financially viable and a productive resource at the right scale, with cost/benefits that outweigh mechanized means. "You can grow your own feed and recycle manure as compost, creating a nutrient-dense, renewable energy source that feeds the soil, instead of the high cost of diesel and its environmental impact to produce, ship and burn."

With the magic of this, we headed out to the fields to capture this farming team in motion. Their work-dance began, and a cloud of dust rose to follow the disc as she cultivated the soil for new planting. Through my lens... pine trees at the field's edge, an adjacent vineyard, nearby farms, the distant Olympic Mountains and Betsey's storybook home.

2012-10-22-ZB5K5938.jpgAt one point, a disc jammed. Climbing down from her perch, Betsey dug between the blades with both hands to free a wedged-in rock. The horses at a standstill, reins unmanned, I shuddered as her hands passed under the sharp blades. I yelled angrily, "Isn't that dangerous -- you can lose your fingers, your hands, your arms, if your horses move an inch."

She answered calmly: "It's all about trust," the ultimate component of the gossamer thread between Betsey and her horses.

Betsey is also ambitious... a drive to farm and provide guidance through a network of interns. They work beside her and learn different farming styles from this collective community of farmers. Smart, educated with degrees from Rutgers and Cornell, Betsey's enthusiasm is contagious, making for a naturally great teacher. The collaboration of farms has also become the island's educational hub for farm-school Educulture. They are conserving local ag, building food citizenship and inspiring students to grow their own food.

2012-10-22-ZB5K5917.jpgWhen Lee returned from the sea, we returned to Bainbridge so I could experience the island through his eyes. We hiked into the old growth Great Forest, we picnicked at his favorite beach, strewn with massive washed-up trees and walked along intimate Eagle Harbor... but it wasn't until re-visiting Betsey's farm that he realized how much of the island he hadn't known, particularly the connectivity practiced daily by Betsey, Abby and Red as they farmed their fields.

I remembered my earlier visit, Betsey atop her disc and the tilthy clouds of soil filling my nostrils with every pass. Dust-covered, sweltering in unusual Bainbridge heat, I understood this very personal definition of home.

Thank you Betsey!

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