Growing Our Own

Tucked down a Bainbridge Island lane, there’s a small farm with big ideas about the future of food. Our founders named the place MiddleField because their name, Nakata, actually means “Middle Field” in Japanese. It’s been the family farm since the 1920’s, but its fields were fallow for decades before organic farmer Brian MacWhorter came to work with us. For more than two decades, Brian’s raised some of the tastiest produce available in the area—and passed along a career’s worth of specialized experience to interns who are hungry to create a healthier food system.

An organically grown career

“I grew up on a little farm in Pennsylvania,” Brian says, reflecting on the pull of organic farming, and its inevitable effect on his life. ”I tried to get out of it—I did pre-med, I worked in a genetics lab, I worked in pathology, I worked in secondary education, but ultimately I just wanted to get outside. It’s a passion.”

After living on the east coast, farming on the islands of Hawaii, and serving in the military, Brian enrolled at the University of Oregon. He found housing on an organic farm, and soon started supplementing his income (and his landlord’s) by selling produce to local health food stores. This little student venture formed the beginnings of a market for organics in Eugene.

Gradually, Brian connected with other like-minded people, became a founder of the successful Eugene collaborative Organically Grown, and helped define the standards for organics in Oregon.

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Putting down roots in our area

When a camping trip brought Brian to Bainbridge Island, he was struck by its surreal beauty and its unique climate for farming, protected from the heat by the rainforest canopy to the West, and protected by the Cascades from cold fronts that come down from the north. He loved it, and decided to stay. In 1984, Brian began selling his own produce to Town & Country.

Eleven years later, Looking to expand his farming operation, Brian happened to be working as a chef at the Streamliner Diner in Winslow, where Vern Nakata stopped every morning for eggs and conversation. Over his daily breakfasts, Vern learned about Brian’s deep experience. He also knew his family was about to return their land to productive organic farming. So he facilitated what would become a long and fertile partnership. Brian’s been running MiddleField farm ever since, coaxing beautiful organic fruits, vegetables, fruits and flowers from its fields over an extended growing season.

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Above: Retired president Larry Nakata walks the fields with Brian.

Viewing food from the freshest perspectives

Brian still takes pride in the daily results of his work. He gets up at 5:30am, calls as many T&C stores as he can supply that day, tells his crew what they need to harvest, and it reaches the market shelf in the afternoon. So tonight, people can eat vegetables that were picked fresh this morning, right in their neighborhood.

“It’s an ethical thing they’re doing for their consumers,” says Brian about T&C. “They’re selling the best quality, and the healthiest food people can take home, and they guarantee it. That’s why I joined this company—because they have that integrity. And that’s what it’s all about.”

Now, Brian’s looking for ways to transfer his knowledge to future farmers. Through his internship program, many have gone on to run farms, food banks and gardens all over the country. Interns typically arrive when things get busy in March, seeding and then learning to protect the seedlings.

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“It’s not a long growing season here—it stays quite cold and it gets cold early,” says intern Hannah Barlow. “You’re really babying things early on. We’re starting with low tunnels and high tunnels, sometimes low tunnels inside high tunnels, and anything that’s out in the field is covered. There’s a reason why Brian has the vegetables he has before anyone else. A lot of loving care goes into them.”

Brian learned many of these techniques from the legendary sustainable agriculture advocate Eliot Coleman, an organic farmer, author and advocate who wrote seminal books on efficient organic food production, and growing produce over extended seasons.

“It’s a very intellectually engaging situation, Barlow says. “Food is at the center of all the important complex systems—from the soil and the mycelium networks to food distribution—it feels like something I can do forever and still keep learning.”

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