Matsuda Farm growing food and community on Vashon Island

On a typical day, you can find Caitlin Ames harvesting vegetables, guiding interns and volunteers, and generally keeping tabs on the ever-evolving to-do list at Matsuda Farm, where they have been manager for five years.

Matsuda Farm was once a single-family operation, purchased by the Matsudas in the 1920s and farmed by them for decades. During this time, the family faced restrictions on immigrant land ownership and a forced stay at internment camps in California and Idaho during WWII. On the farm, they saw major success, especially with berry crops, but ultimately made the decision to transition the land into less time-intensive hay fields which is how it remained for many years.

Then, in 2016, the Matsuda family approached Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust about preserving the land for agriculture in perpetuity. This generous decision paved the way for the Trust’s innovative and community-minded approach to growing and distributing local food.

For an organization focused primarily on conservation, Caitlin says it was important for the Trust to see a strong community benefit from the land. For this reason, the team made the unique choice of operating the farm directly, rather than leasing it to someone else to cultivate or retaining only the development rights, which are more common Land Trust strategies.

“We know that agricultural conservation is really relevant to climate change mitigation and habitat restoration,” Caitlin says of the organization’s choice to operate the farm in-house. 

The history of the farm still guides decisions about how Caitlin manages it; they keep a list of the project’s overarching goals on their desk: conserving farmland, providing community benefit, allowing public access to the farm, and honoring the history of the Matsudas. Caitlin says the community is enthusiastic about the project and constantly bringing new ideas, so this list helps them to prioritize the ideas aligned with these criteria.

“One of the things that I’ve been lucky enough to experience is having the generation of Matsudas that grew up here last, the four sisters, come back with their spouses and children a couple times,” Caitlin says. “They usually come to the annual fundraiser, and they’ve been here to volunteer before, and they’ve said it’s so great to see all this food here. It’s so great to see that this place is being farmed. It’s so cool to remember picking strawberries here when I was a kid, and then now seeing all this, after all the years of grass. I think that the fact that it’s a farm does a lot for the family and is just what they hoped to see happen.”

The resilience of the family in the face of racism is another way Caitlin sees the farm honoring their legacy. “We’re trying to start addressing the systemic nature of inequity in our society here in that we’re trying to make locally grown food more accessible and support the agricultural community.”

Caitlin believes that every child who grows up on Vashon Island should have access to food produced on the island. The farm manages a strong farm-to-school program, and they donate and sell produce to the White Center Food Bank.

“It feels really important to be able to establish relationships like that, where we can focus on growing things that don’t just happen in abundance on accident, and so are able to be made available by accident, but instead to be intentional about it and to develop relationships with the organizations that are serving people who experience food insecurity, that we’re addressing their needs directly, not just filling calories.”

Last year during the pandemic, they also worked with the Vashon Island Growers Association’s Food Access Partnership. Through this collaboration, the farm provided boxes of produce to food insecure island residents who were unable to access a food bank due to health concerns. This partnership motivated Caitlin to expand the farm share program, and inspired by Soul Fire Farm’s model, they implemented a sliding pay scale. Of the 50 boxes the farm provides, half are free or provided at a reduced cost.

“I think one of the coolest things that this farm can facilitate when it comes to honoring the history of this farm and the family here is that this isn’t just an exercise in what it looks like to conserve agricultural land, but what it looks like to really be a hub of an agricultural community,” Caitlin says. “We can make sure that more food is being produced, more people are getting to know that they can buy food grown here. We’re creating a more sustainable food economy on the island and decreasing the carbon footprint in general of the food that’s consumed here, because if it’s not grown here it’s getting ferried here.”

Their operation is much bigger than visitors often expect. Caitlin says most people expect a garden, only to find a farm with 75 beds that are 250 feet long, four greenhouses, plus a greenhouse just for propagation. Part of the Trust’s strategic plan includes connecting the farm to a public trail for greater community access so that more people have the opportunity to experience the land.

At Matsuda Farm, a community-minded approach is also evident in the partners they host onsite. The farm shares a greenhouse with an island garden club, a volunteer-based group maintains a pollinator plot, and they have even worked with a renewable energy startup who transforms waste from a tofu factory into a fertilizer for the fields. Vashon Seed Project also led a workshop on the farm teaching seed stewardship techniques.

Caitlin says the one of the most rewarding parts of this collaborative work, though, comes from their mentorship of the farm’s interns. “The things that feel the most meaningful to me are when I see the people who are working here be able to put into practice the things that they’ve learned.”

The intern team is critical to employing the farm’s regenerative practices. In addition to taking a no-till approach, the King Conservation District – a farm sponsor – installed native plants, and Caitlin plans to put up owl boxes to assist with natural pest control. In thinking of the long-term goals for the land, Caitlin says making Matsuda a demonstration farm for these sustainability-minded practices is top of their list. Priorities also include incorporating farm visits and curriculum into the local public schools and creating a farm training program for adults who want to enter the agriculture sector.

“The number of farmers in the country is decreasing over time,” Caitlin says. “I really would like to see change and opportunities for providing stable and good employment and for training, so that we can add farmers into the future.”

For more information about how to volunteer on Matsuda Farm or where to find their produce, visit https://vashonlandtrust.org/portfolio-item/matsuda-farm/.

All photos provided by the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust.

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