Working harder than ever: the last remaining Japanese American farmers | US news

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California families endured wartime incarceration and market changes to stay in business, but gen Z eyes life beyond the farm

Sat 16 Sep 2023 07.00 EDT

Alan Hayashi’s 120-hectare (300-acre) farm is an unassuming pillar of Arroyo Grande, a city on California’s central coast that’s covered by rolling vineyards and ancient oaks. Two vast fields, partitioned by an inland stretch of Highway 1, produce white strawberries, squash, beets, celery and two dozen other crops.

Hayashi, who’s up at dawn seven days a week, has devoted the better half of his life to the farm’s upkeep: he plants, irrigates and harvests his crops, the roar of rushing traffic an untiring companion. He also packages and sells the goods at his roadside stand and different farmers’ markets in San Luis Obispo county. On a good day, he’ll wrap up by 6pm and return home for dinner.

“It’s not cut out for everybody,” said Hayashi, 62. “I’m probably working harder now than I did 30 years ago.”

Four generations of Hayashi sons have grown up and worked on the farmland that Alan’s grandfather, Yeiju, leased in 1942. In the 1960s and 70s, the Hayashis farmed on nearly 400 hectares (1,000 acres) of land extending to Morro Bay. Along with several other Japanese families, they were the country’s most prolific growers of napa cabbage and bok choy.

The Hayashis are among the last remaining Japanese American farming families in a region once replete with them. Before the second world war, two-thirds of Japanese Americans on the West coast were working in agriculture, cultivating fruits and vegetables on coastal bluffs, arid ranches and defunct gold mines. In California, first- and second-generation farmers, the issei and nisei, produced more than 70% of greenhouse flowers and 40% of commercial vegetables, including nearly all strawberries, tomatoes, celery and peppers.

Hayashi packages and sells goods at his roadside stand in San Luis Obispo county. Photograph: Emanuel Hahn/The Guardian

The incarceration of Japanese Americans during the war led to enormous property losses that not only denied them the chance to build generational wealth – but also buried the vital role these family farmers played in transforming California into an agricultural juggernaut. Now, only a fraction of Japanese farms with prewar roots remain in business. Preserving the legacy of their forebears are a dwindling group of sansei, the aging third-generation farmers who, like Hayashi, are forgoing retirement and adapting to myriad economic and social forces that have upended their industry.

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At the turn of the 20th century, Japanese immigrants from rural farming and fishing villages arrived in California to fill a labor shortage created by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigration to the US. They steadily climbed the agricultural ladder, from day laborers to sharecroppers and leaseholders. But lawmakers soon passed racist ordinances targeting issei (first-generation) farmers: the California Alien Land Law of 1913 barred Asian immigrants from owning agricultural land or signing leases longer than three years.

“Japanese immigrants and their American-born children faced such rampant racism and legal restrictions that the unintended consequence was they really stuck together,” said Donna Graves, a public historian and co-author of Sento at Sixth and Main: Preserving Landmarks of Japanese American Heritage.

Four generations of Hayashi sons have grown up on the farmland first leased in 1942. Photograph: Emanuel Hahn/The Guardian

Japanese immigrant farmers, she said, became extraordinarily skilled at growing high-yield crops, such as strawberries and tomatoes, on leased plots of land. (A small percentage of farmers were able to buy property under the names of their US-born children and relatives.) They also created co-ops to sell large quantities of produce to restaurants and wholesalers, she said. Though Japanese operations constituted only 2% of farms on the West coast in 1940, their average value per acre (about half a hectare) was $280, compared to just $38 for other farms.

“These ‘quick crops’ went for good prices and could yield faster profits than, for example, fruit trees that require more secure ownership of land,” Graves said.

Drawn to its temperate climate and glut of fertile soil, an outsize share of issei farmers settled in the Arroyo Grande valley. In the 1920s, seven local Japanese farming families, including the Hayashis and the Ikedas, formed the Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange (Pove), a co-op that allowed them to consolidate supplies and sell to large wholesalers. In its heyday, Hayashi said, the co-op drew more than 70 members; today, only three remain active.

Like many sansei farmers, Hayashi and his four brothers learned everything about the trade from their father, Haruo, who died last year. (Three took over the farm while two became doctors.) In the second grade, Hayashi recalled watching Bonanza on TV with his youngest brother. When Haruo came home, he put them in the back of his truck and drove to a celery field 3 miles away. The elder Hayashi instructed his sons to pull weeds, and left. They were exhausted when he returned some time later.

“He told us, ‘I never want to see you watching TV and sitting around again,’” Hayashi said. “He instilled that work ethic in all of us.”

Hayashi is up at dawn seven days a week, planting, irrigating and harvesting his crops. Photograph: Emanuel Hahn/The Guardian

Hayashi said his mother, Rose, was the “backbone of the family”. Like the matriarchs of other Japanese American households in Arroyo Grande, Rose cared for the children while working full-time as the farm’s bookkeeper.

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese farmers were rounded up into concentration camps and forced to sell their possessions at fire-sale prices. Crops worth millions of dollars were abandoned. Hayashi said his family was lucky, as friends and neighbors took care of their land, trucks and other equipment while they were incarcerated in Arizona. Hayashi’s father, who later fought against Japan in the army, returned home to rebuild and lead the farm into its most prosperous years.

Hayashi said he was especially sensitive about incarceration when he was a child. In middle school he would get into fights with classmates who insulted his parents and other Japanese Americans.

“Growing up, I was a little bit angry,” he said. “One day, my mom said: ‘You shouldn’t be, because I’m not. If your dad was full of anger, do you think he’d achieve what he has?’ I never got into another fight for words after that.”

The decision to incarcerate 120,000 people of Japanese descent was at least partially influenced by anti-Japanese hysteria from white growers, research indicates. The US government seized more than 6,000 Japanese-operated farms totaling nearly 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres), valued at between $2bn and $5bn in 2017 dollars, according to the Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Much of this confiscated farmland was sold or leased to “non-Japanese” farmers, mostly naturalized European immigrants and southern migrants from the Dust Bowl region. By the end of the war, Japanese farms comprised just 30% of their pre-war total. (In 1988, the government passed the Civil Liberties Act, providing an apology and a $20,000 cash payment to each living survivor of incarceration.)

“What [these farmers] were able to revive after the war was a tiny fraction of what they were growing before the war,” Graves said. “The idea of rebuilding was overwhelming.”

While the majority of farmers were men, many Japanese American women also took charge of family businesses.

The San Gabriel Nursery and Florist in southern California, helmed by the Yoshimura family, celebrated its centennial in June. “Our survival is a testament to our tenacity,” said Mary Ishihara Swanton, 56, the sansei co-owner.

Swanton’s grandparents, Fred and Mitoko Yoshimura, had to rebuild twice in 20 years – first after returning from incarceration and then in the late 1960s, when an arsonist burned the nursery down. During the 1990s, Swanton said, the family had to fight back a decade-long crusade by the San Gabriel city council to buy the nursery and clear it for real estate development.

The San Gabriel Nursery and Florist’s first location on San Gabriel Boulevard, seen here in 1938. Photograph: The San Gabriel Nursery and Florist

The nursery remains a family-run operation, helmed by Swanton’s father, who is 88, and four other relatives. But it has downsized significantly in recent years, Swanton said.

In the 1980s, the nursery catered to the region’s burgeoning Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants by importing citrus trees and kumquats for lunar new year gifts. Now, Trader Joe’s and other big-box retailers carry such plants, as well as the azaleas, camellias and bonsai that the Swanton’s grandparents specialized in growing.

Despite the nursery’s uncertain future, Swanton said she’ll continue to honor the memory of her grandparents and her aunt, Margie, who was the face of the business until her death in January.

“It was her dream to make it to 100,” Swanton said.

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Over the past few decades, Graves said, large industrial farms have dominated the agricultural economy, making it increasingly difficult for small-scale family operations to compete. Postwar development in the southern California suburbs converted farmland into subdivisions and aerospace plants. Children of the sansei, who are generation Z and millennials, also have more career opportunities than their elders did, and few are choosing to go into the harsh and financially fraught field of farming.

Hayashi said smaller farms are producing less and less over time due to increasing costs and regulations. He’s had to pull back on his growing operations to cut losses. Most of his 120-hectare land is now leased to other farming operations.

“There are many variables you’re not in control of,” he said. “In my dad’s days, the roller coaster was flatter.”

Some family farms adopted new business strategies to answer to these changes. In Fresno, David “Mas” Masumoto found success organically growing peaches, nectarines and grapes on the farm his parents bought in 1948. Tanaka Farms, which opened in 1940 and is the last family-operated farm in Irvine, made the switch in the 1990s from wholesale to agritourism.

“My generation, the sansei, really gathered the fruits of our issei and nisei forefathers,” said Glenn Tanaka, 65, a third-generation owner.

The Tanaka family in 1950. Tanaka Farms, the last family-operated farm in Irvine, switched from wholesale to agritourism in the 1990s. Photograph: Courtesy of Tanaka Farms

Tanaka said small-scale farming became more challenging in the 1980s, when he took the reins from his father. Inflation increased labor costs and interest rates, pushing the farm to the verge of bankruptcy and forcing Tanaka to scale back. Once a 40-hectare (100-acre) strawberry farm, the ranch today occupies just 12 hectares (30 acres) of land, only half of which is reserved for agriculture.

Tanaka still grows some 60 crops, including strawberries, Japanese turnips and Anaheim chilis, and sells them direct to visitors. But what keeps the business alive, Tanaka said, is the farm tours and educational programming, which attract about 200,000 annual visitors and generate 75% of the farm’s revenue. During the school year, dozens of delighted children visit the farm every week to pick strawberries and pumpkins.

“If we relied on growing and retail to make money,” he said, “we’d be out of business long ago.”

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Graves, the historian, said there’s no exact data or existing studies on how many Japanese farms with prewar roots are still in business today. But a growing number of community-led projects are aiming to document this history.

In 2017, the History Center of San Luis Obispo County commemorated the 75th anniversary of incarceration by curating an exhibit on Japanese American farming families on the central coast. Hatano Farm, the last Japanese American ranch on the Palos Verdes peninsula, was designated a state historical site last year. Writer Amanda Mei Kim’s Kansha History project is a volunteer-led effort to document and digitize all the Japanese American farms seized in California during the second world war.

Hayashi’s two adult sons, who are pursuing careers in dentistry and mechanical engineering, will not be following in their father’s footsteps. But Hayashi said he isn’t worried that his family’s 80-year-old enterprise might end with him.

“The Hayashi name will sooner or later fade to the back,” Hayashi said. “Our cousins and nieces and nephews will be the caretakers of the next generation.”

A growing number of community-led projects aim to document Japanese-owned farms with prewar roots that are still in business today. Photograph: Emanuel Hahn/The Guardian

Vard Ikeda, 65, is Hayashi’s second cousin and president of the Ikeda Brothers farm, just 2 miles north of the Hayashi farm. He’s mentoring fourth-generation, or yonsei, farmers in the family business.(Ikeda’s cousin, Tom, is the president of Pove.)

“We’re sort of in the opposite mode of expanding and growing,” Ikeda said, noting that his family is currently leasing many acres from the Hayashi farm.

Both Ikeda and Hayashi remain deeply grateful to friends and neighbors who protected their farms during the war – a kindness that few other Japanese farming families experienced. Ikeda, in fact, was named after Joseph Vard Loomis, a prominent Arroyo Grande business owner who not only cared for the farm when his family was incarcerated but also extended credit to help them start over.

Part of what motivates them to wake up at dawn and clock 12-hour shifts well into their golden years, they said, is the desire to ensure the business is in good shape for the next generation, as their forebears did for them.

“I do this because my dad and uncles worked so hard,” Ikeda said. “I think in some ways I’m still trying to make them proud.”

For Hayashi, who compared his leathery hands to those of a 90-year-old’s, there’s a sense of catharsis, and thrill, to the intense physical demands of farming.

“It’s not for the mighty dollar, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “But you feel pretty satisfied at the end of the day when you swap over to your chair.”

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