Strawberry Stories Are Complicated
As I write, I’m eating a handful of sweet strawberries and thinking sadly about racism and my much loved island community. Years ago, Bainbridge Island was called “the fruit basket of Puget Sound”, famed for extensive strawberry fields where succulent Marshall strawberries flourished. Their history here is complex, sometimes sweet as a berry, sometimes sad, infuriating, even heartbreaking. Juicy and flavorful, the Marshall strawberry was selected in 1890 by amateur grower Marshall F. Ewell from a group of seedlings on his Massachusetts farm. Despite a relatively brief period of production (usually just a few weeks, like most midseason varieties), by the early 1900s, the Marshall became an important field crop in the maritime Northwest, appreciated for its rich, full flavor.
Commercially, they were a challenge to ship, as they’re so juicy that even cardboard punnets leak juice when the berries are piled more then 2-4 high, but they were by far the region’s favorite berry for the next 50 years. When field crops were ravaged by a virus after WWII, Marshalls fell from favor and were no longer a commercial crop by the mid- to late 1950s. Locally beloved, Marshalls have been grown in modest amounts in home gardens ever since. In recent years, they’ve been embraced by trendy chefs, gaining a reputation for being among the tastiest of all strawberries.
More And Better Berries Too
Not everyone agrees, of course, and most people who grow Marshalls also grow longer-season and more disease-resistant varieties. My garden holds a rewarding patch of Seascape, a reliable cropper of plump, juicy, and flavorful berries. A day length neutral variety with excellent disease resistance, Seascape fruits heavily in June and into July, slows down in the heat of high summer, then starts up again as August slides into September. Quinalt is another family favorite, an Everbearing variety that produces abundant crops of delicious berries from June into September with barely a break (as long as the plants are well fed, of course). I keep my Marshalls separate from the others, and pick them every day in season (as in right now!) because their perfection is so enticing and so fleeting. I do interplant them with onions and garlic, which are supposed to repel pests but are also slender enough to share ground with wide-spreading berry runners.
My prized Marshall plants were a gift from from Lilly Kodama, whose brother, Frank Kitamoto, was among the first to speak out about the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. At age 7, Lilly was taken, along with Frank, their sisters Jane and Frances, and their parents, to Manzanar War Relocation Center, and later to Minidoka, a concentration camp in California. Almost 12,000 other people of Japanese ancestry were taken from their homes in Washington State to the camps when President Roosevelt issued the now infamous Executive Order 9066. Lilly has become a frequent speaker in school classrooms and other groups, telling and retelling the story of how the islanders were given six days to pack away their belongings and were only allowed to take what they could carry to the camps. The strawberry fields were full of fast-ripening fruit but there were no longer any farmers to take them to market.
On March 30, 1942, 227 Bainbridge Islanders, many of them strawberry field owners and workers, were the first to be taken; given Puget Sound’s U.S. naval bases, they were seen as possible threats to national security. David Neiwert, author of Strawberry Days, said in a Seattle Times interview,“The relocation destroyed the livelihoods and careers of thousands of citizens, based on an unconstitutional mass presumption of guilt. It humiliated a whole population of largely loyal and patriotic citizens by identifying them with the national enemy. It uprooted families, destroyed their close-knit structures, and laid waste to whole communities.”
Before the families were taken away, overseen by soldiers with fixed bayonets on their guns, the island’s Japanese American community had some of the Puget Sound’s largest, most productive farms. Indeed, Japanese American farmers were the first to bring commercial strawberry farming to the region, though for many years, the Asian Exclusion Act did not allow non-naturalized citizens to own land, or to qualify for US citizenship. Thus, if first generation Japanese Americans bought land, they had to put it in the name of friends or relatives who were born in the US (sometimes making for very young property owners). Several generations of Japanese American families cleared land left bristling with stumps left after the forests were clearcut for the Port Blakely lumber mill. They did it by back-breaking labor, turning the clearcut island into fertile strawberry fields with horse power, dynamite, and shovels. It had to be heartbreaking to leave the hard-won fields, yet after the war, only about a fourth of the original farm families were able to reclaim their land, as many farms were lost when back taxes could not be paid by people newly released from incarceration.
New Beginnings, New Partnerships
On Bainbridge, the forced removal of the Japanese American farmers left strawberry fields ready for one of the largest harvests in years. In many cases, Filipino American hired hands moved into the empty farmhouses and kept the harvest from rotting. Soon Native American pickers were recruited from British Columbia and over time, marriages produced a blended community of self-proclaimed Filipindians, families that often paid land taxes for the absent owners. As American war involvement increased, many field hands went to work in the shipyards and most farms fell fallow. After the war, only a few island farms started up again; a notable exception was the Suyematsu’s, now worker-owned, the oldest continually farmed in the region, and among the region’s first to become certified organic.
During the incarceration, many West Coast communities were strongly racist and fiercely anti-Japanese (as some remain to this day). Although racism was and is definitely present here, Bainbridge Island was largely a welcoming community and had the highest rate of returning families after the war ended and the concentration camps were closed. In large part, this was due to local newspaper editors Walt and Millie Woodward, who ran columns and letters from the camps, recording everything from births, weddings and funerals to baseball game scores. Almost alone among West Coast periodicals, the Woodward’s Bainbridge Review published numerous editorials (many written by Walt Woodward) in support of the Japanese-American families during and after the internment.
A Change Is Coming
Racism continues to be a problem in our local schools, where students of color are taunted, teased, and bullied far more often than most locals are willing to acknowledge. This is a community of great privilege, and perhaps it’s not surprising that many of us are not especially interested in looking deeply at uncomfortable issues. On Saturday, however, a large, peaceful and mask-wearing crowd marched from the police station to City Hall, sometimes chanting “I can’t breathe”, sometimes marching in silence. The march was organized and run by high school students, who made up a very large proportion of the crowd, which numbered in the hundreds. I was heartened to see so many young people standing up for justice and calling for an end to racism. It’s definitely a good time to do some serious thinking about what kind of country we want to live in, and what we need to do to make it so.
The combination of a deadly pandemic and a huge uprising of protests urging social justice is both sobering and exciting. It’s clearly a time of great change, and I’m hopeful that the young people who turned out to protest the murder of George Floyd won’t tolerate racial slurs or bullying ever again, in any context. I’m hopeful that from now on, more and more young people will call out teachers and parents and grandparents who look the other way, or accept racist remarks and acts as normal. What about older folks? For starters, all of us need to work on getting comfortable with discomfort. We too are called to speak out when we see or hear racist behavior. Polite or not, easy or not, comfortable or not, calling out racism is our business, now and forever. Onward, right?