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Strawberry Farming Grows Less Fruitful for Japanese Americans

November 12, 2005|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

As dawn breaks, Bill Ito is often out the door to inspect his strawberries. That's what his father did. That's what his grandfather did too, after emigrating from Japan in 1918 to establish a family farming enterprise that would eventually become one of the biggest strawberry growers in Southern California.

But whether the Ito family will farm strawberry fields forever is anyone's guess. Although farmers of Japanese descent virtually developed the state's $1.3-billion strawberry industry, they themselves are becoming scarce.

In Orange County, for instance, where more than two dozen Japanese American farming families will be honored Sunday for their contributions, only six of them are still growing strawberries.

Some sold their land during booms in property values. Others found that their college-educated children preferred white-collar professional careers instead, said Diana Ono, who helped organize the Sunday event for Project Kokoro at Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim.

The trend is not something that's confined to the Japanese American community, said Tom Am Rhein, who is of German descent.

"Farming is an honorable profession, but you get out of it as quickly as you can," said Am Rhein, director of research and grower support for Naturipe Berry Growers, a Salinas-based growers' cooperative. "You get your education and move on."

In a timeless cycle of ethnic assimilation and advancement, Latinos have replaced Japanese Americans as the industry's dominant players. Just as Japanese immigrants climbed the ladder of agricultural success, moving up from pickers to sharecroppers to independent growers, Latinos who came as immigrant laborers are making a similar leap. They now make up more than 56% of the state's 518 strawberry growers, compared with 14% for Japanese Americans, according to the California Strawberry Commission.

Ito, 55, bucked that trend. As a youth growing up in Westminster, the soft-spoken farmer says, he never thought he would take over the business despite the weight of family tradition. His grandfather, Gonsaku, began farming celery and other vegetables in Venice before the family turned to strawberries after World War II.

Other Japanese farmers had already come to dominate strawberry farming since the early 1900s along the entire West Coast, according to Lane Hirabayashi, an Asian American studies professor at UC Riverside. They turned to strawberries because they were lucrative and required only a few acres, Hirabayashi said.

Unlike most American farmers at the time, he added, the Japanese immigrants were also willing to expend the backbreaking effort that strawberries required: hours of stoop labor to plant and handpick the delicate fruit.

"They were frugal, they were careful, and they put the whole family to work, including the kids," said Herb Baum, former president of Naturipe, who recently completed a book on the California strawberry industry.

Another element of the Japanese success was the ability to organize farmers scattered throughout the state into marketing and distribution networks, thanks to experience with agricultural cooperatives in Japan, according to Naomi Hirahara, author of "A Taste for Strawberries," which profiled Manabi Hirasaki, one of the state's biggest Japanese American strawberry growers.

The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II brought the California strawberry industry nearly to a halt, Baum said. But their return pushed it to new heights after the war as farmers began experimenting with new berry varieties and farming techniques, such as the more precise and efficient drip irrigation.

Like other farmers, the Itos saw strawberries as a lucrative investment. But the work was long and hard. Bill Ito recalled seeing his grandfather and father working in the fields from sunup to sundown, only to come home to a pile of paperwork at night. Often, he said, his exhausted father, Tomio, would fall asleep at his desk.

The whole family pitched in. Ito recalled working after school and during summers, driving the tractor from age 8 and, as he got older, helping in the office. But he never saw the job as a career.

Too hard, he thought. I can do better.

He went off to major in math at UCLA and for five years worked in a bank learning financial management skills. But, Ito said, he got antsy. He missed the sun on his face. He longed for the freedom to be his own boss. In 1979, he left the bank and returned to the farm.

"I decided that I couldn't keep working at a desk; it wasn't me," Ito said. "Right now, I can go out in my shorts every day. How much better can life get?"

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