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Voyager students dig in to save an island treasure

In the 1930’s and ‘40’s, a variety of strawberry known as the “Marshall” covered more than 200 acres of Bainbridge Island farmland. Marshall Strawberries had sweet, tender red hearts and grew to enormous size. These Island-grown berries were served by special request to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Then they almost disappeared. Not just from Bainbridge Island, but altogether. Marshall Strawberries have been listed as one of the 10 most endangered food plants in the U.S. But thanks in part to the efforts of some hardworking kids at Bainbridge Island’s Voyager Montessori Elementary School the Bainbridge Island Marshall strawberry will grace the dessert plates of at least one more generation.

Three years ago a fortuitous chain of events brought some of the few remaining Marshall strawberry plants back to one of the island farms where they once flourished. Now they are tended by the Voyager students on the very same patch of land where the Oyama family grew berries beginning in 1933 until they were sent to an internment camp during WWII.

“You can see where the Oyama’s berry plants were,” said Voyager teacher Anne Willhoit, pointing to long raised mounds of what is now lawn on the school playground. At the end of those old rows are some carefully tended raised beds, filled with Marshall strawberry plants.

The plants originally came from a tiny repository that had been nurtured by the Bainbridge Island Historical Society (BIHS). In 2006, BIHS was moving, and didn’t have enough room for all of its precious stock of Marshall berry plants. That was about the same time that Renee Kok, Head of School at Voyager Montessori, was looking for a way to fulfill the school’s commitment to the UN’s Earth Charter, which seeks to “inspire a sense of global interdependence and shared responsibility for the well-being of the human family, the greater community of life, and future generations.”

All these threads began to weave together into a project that has now borne fruit for both the students and for the future of the Marshall strawberry. “The BI Historical Society really needed a place to reliably propagate the few remaining Marshall plants,” Kok explained. Voyager students shoveled truckloads of soil into raised beds to make room for the Marshall strawberries that needed a new home. Later they learned how to compost their lunch waste using a bokashi composting system to help feed their new crop. “We eat our garbage,” Willhoit laughs. Then they harvested the first sweet berries for the “Thank You Berry Much” parent-volunteer event in June. This event, which was a school tradition before they grew their own strawberries, quickly took on a new meaning.

And finally they paid it forward. When BIHS wanted to make a permanent plot of Marshall Strawberries at the Johnson Farm on Bainbridge Island’s south end, they needed plants. So the Voyager team went to work. They divided their now large, flourishing plants to provide the next generation of Marshall starts. The children then helped to plant the new strawberry beds at the Johnson Farm.

”The kids are rightfully proud of what they’ve done,” Willhoit explained. “When people remark that the students may have helped save the Marshall berries from extinction the children realize ‘that’s right, we did that.’”

Marshall Strawberry fields forever? Maybe, thanks to some very dedicated teachers and kids.

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