Bainbridge Island curls like a fist of rock around Eagle Harbor on the western edge of Puget Sound, thirty-five minutes from downtown Seattle by ferry. Over half the working population commutes to Seattle every day on a Jumbo Mark II, either the Tacoma or the Wenatchee. The ferries resemble floating airports, they are so large and stable, each capable of carrying 2,500 passengers and 200 vehicles at a time.
I have joked that, if we were completely cut off from the mainland, Bainbridge Island, with its population of about 25,000, could live off of locally made white wine and goat cheese for quite awhile. Every April the farmer’s market reopens, and we have our choice of – goat cheese, honey, and a few vegetables. The truth is, our growing season is short, and there are just some things that won’t grow here in quantity. The soil is bad, and the local gardening guru, Ann Lovejoy, recommends buying good soil and dumping it directly on top, rather than attempting to work it into the rocky hardpan that dominates the terrain.
As a result, most of our produce is still purchased through the locally owned Town & Country Market, and a Safeway store. Once, Bainbridge was famous for its strawberries, but a blight, along with the forced internment of Japanese American farmers during World War II, ended their production. By the fall, a greater variety is available, but as Americans, we are used to having seasonal products year-round: lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, avocadoes, citrus fruits, things that grow in limited quantities or not at all in our cool, wet climate. “There are no seasons in the American supermarket,” according to the movie, Food, Inc. (2008).
Bob and Nancy Fortner, who I first knew as booksellers, now sell honey, soap, skin care products and preserves, all produced at Sweetlife Farm, at the farmer’s market. This is from their website:
Sweetlife Farm is a "cottage" business (just the two of us); we value quality over quantity, and urge you to purchase as things appeal to you, understanding that everything is a "limited edition," and may not be available again.
“We try to grow enough to feed ourselves and make value-added products.” Says Nancy, all made in their certified kitchen.
This is not the first transformation the Fortners have made. They met as medical professionals at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas. They married and moved to the Bay area, where they lived in a house high in La Honda, and Bob practiced nephrology at El Camino Hospital. Bob and Nancy moved to Washington State in 1992, where he was born, and Bob continued to practice medicine part time, until he eventually became disillusioned with the profession.
“The evolution of none of this was planned,” Bob said, “there are early decisions, early influences under which you fall.” One was the writings of Helen and Scott Nearing. In 1954 they published Living the Good Life. Bob and Nancy discovered it in the 1970s. The book advocated a “back to the land” lifestyle, and described how the Nearings grew most of their food on a farm in Vermont. After Scott Nearing was kicked out of academia for being a Communist during the Depression, the book recounts how the two of them were able to sustain themselves with almost nothing purchased from the outside, while leaving half of the year free to travel and promulgate their ideas. “Such a handbook,” says the preface, “is needed for the many individuals and families, tied to city jobs and dwellings, who yearn to make their dreams of the good life a reality.”
The Fortners did much of the work themselves in building their present house, with its view across a small pond to a natural stream, backed by hundred-year-old Douglas firs. Every time I go over there, it seems, a new structure has been added. At the last Christmas in the Country, a wood-fired oven had been added, in a cute little shingled building covered in tiny Christmas lights. A florist was exhibiting in there, and I worried for the first time that Sweetlife Farm was beginning to resemble those commercial gardens that rely as much on tourists as on regular customers. Was this a proprietary feeling? If I feel that way, it is because the Fortners have cultivated that feeling in a great many people. I think of the Fortner’s house as the island’s living room. Although this is a small town, it is a big island, the size of Manhattan, and we do not cross paths that often. By providing a place for intentional gathering, either for work or play, the Fortners have strengthened the fabric of our community.
I decided that if there is ever a major emergency, such as the bridge washing away and the ferry service shut down indefinitely, I will make my way to the Fortner’s. I’m not sure how they feel about that. But I know that if I showed up under those circumstances, they would put me right to work.
I continued to think about those ideas, the what-if’s implied by people trying to become independent of the grocery store for their food. I have another friend, Marilyn Holt and her husband Cliff Wind, who run a farm in South Kitsap County. I decide to introduce these people to each other and start asking some of my questions.