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Down to Earth : Urban farming comes naturally to A.G. Kawamura. It lets him nurture ideas along with food for O.C.'s tables.

June 30, 1996|BRAD BONHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A.G. Kawamura--philosopher-farmer, builder of edible landscapes--steers his Chevy Blazer off the highway into a green-shimmering bean field. By all appearances, with a walkie-talkie in his lap, a pager on his hip and a cell phone on his ear, he is a high-powered grower stopping in for a 30-second inspection.

But he immediately puts down the phone, seeking eye contact with pickers, whom he greets in well-accented, fluent Spanish. As Kawamura runs his fingers through beans being sorted and crated, and as he hops out of the truck every few minutes to check drip lines, new plantings and corn harvesting, it is doubtful that he will be defined only by his modern accouterments.

For Kawamura, a 40-year-old, third-generation farmer, his job of growing vegetables on 800 leased acres in Irvine is one of enchantment and even of spirituality, and he will be the first to say so.

He says it to agriculture experts, whom he addressed a few weeks ago at a United Nations forum on world hunger. He says it to schoolchildren touring Centennial Farm at the Orange County Fairgrounds, which his firm largely built. And he says it to the social activists he invites twice a week onto his fields to collect--"glean"--food for the hungry.

"Farmers are like doctors; we deal with living things," says Kawamura in his even-tempered voice. "A good doctor is not out playing golf when you need him, or the patient may die. If we fail to remember that what we're caring for is alive, it can be attacked by so many things--weather, bugs, diseases."

This is not to say that Kawamura is not an astute businessman--although, yes, he does like to read poetry and New Age books, wears his hair in a ponytail and graduated from that counterculture nest, UC Berkeley, in the '70s.

With his brother and partner, Matt, managing sales and shipping from facilities in Fullerton, Kawamura oversees an operation with annual gross sales in the high seven figures. They are heirs to one of Orange County's biggest produce operations, Western Marketing Co. of California, which was moved here from Los Angeles in 1953 by their father and grandfather.

Keeping a step ahead of developers' bulldozers--he has had to move his trailer offices to new sites four times in 15 years--Kawamura continually fights to balance his production needs with the limitations of urban farming.

Like growers in the San Fernando Valley and San Diego County, he must do without the age-old practices taken for granted by his farmer friends in wide-open parts of the San Joaquin Valley.

With produce growing sometimes just 20 feet from Irvine homeowners' backyards, Kawamura's workers cannot set off noise machines to scare off corn-munching starlings, for example, or crank up tractors at 4:30 a.m.

When watering systems create mud on the highways, a tractor with scraper is sent out to clean it up. Workers keep an eye on wind patterns in an effort to keep field dust from settling into neighborhoods.

Homeowners do complain, although Kawamura says sometimes the objections are comical. A woman recently called because a food truck selling fast-food to workers was visible from her backyard. There was no litter problem, she said; the truck just looked "tacky."

"We don't expect to get pats on the back from people for doing our job, but we do wish they better understood the requirements" of farming, says Kawamura, who lives in Huntington Beach with his wife, Dianne. "After all, farmers feed 5.8 billion people in this world."

With much of Orange County's land covered by concrete, residents have little day-to-day appreciation of agriculture, Kawamura says.

"There is a need for rural experience. I sometimes ask people when was the last time they touched a plant--a living plant, not the fruit in the refrigerator. A lot of people don't know."

At Costa Mesa's Centennial Farm, a three-acre educational exhibit, children are astonished to see a carrot being pulled from the ground. Kawamura was similarly amazed when, on a recent tour, a couple of boys accused workers of having inserted the carrot in the ground beforehand.

"People really don't think there's any agriculture in the county. They drive by it every day, but it doesn't click," Kawamura says.

He says O.C. agriculture should be anything but an abstraction: About two-thirds of the food he grows annually--some 15,000 tons of celery, sweet white corn, green beans, radicchio, strawberries and various squash--ends up on local tables.

Kawamura's dream is for all the county's food needs to be supplied by county farms. Crops no longer feasible to grow here, such as asparagus, peaches, apricots, sugar beets and walnuts, would be profitable again. An "edible landscape," signifying a county that feeds itself, would sprout.

It is a message that Kawamura has been delivering for years as a local agricultural leader. He recently finished a term as president of the Orange County Farm Bureau, a trade group, and is a director of the Western Growers Assn. and the state Celery Advisory Board.

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