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COLUMN ONE

The Palos Verdes Peninsula's last farmer

James Hatano has been growing crops in Palos Verdes for more than 50 years, the last link to an area dotted with farms worked by Japanese immigrants. When he retires, a century-old tradition will end.

August 21, 2009|Jeff Gottlieb

James Hatano turns off one of the Palos Verdes Peninsula's oceanfront drives and onto a hidden dirt road, just as he has for more than 50 years. He guides his Buick LaCrosse up a gentle hill to the fields where he raises cacti and flowers.

While he works, Hatano can look out at the Pacific and see whales and dolphins.

As he chops off a beavertail cactus paddle, he gazes across Palos Verdes Drive West to where construction crews are putting the finishing touches on the 582-room Terranea resort with its nine-hole golf course, 25,000-square-foot spa and three pools.

Marineland of the Pacific once stood on the site. Before that, Hatano recalls, a man named Tomio Nakano raised tomatoes there. What is now Trump National Golf Club, he says, was once barley and vegetable fields.

"This area's all full of homes, but it used to be full of garbanzo fields," Hatano says. "I didn't even know what garbanzos were until I came up here."

Hatano, 82, is the last farmer on the Palos Verdes Peninsula -- and the last link to a Palos Verdes few remember, one dotted with farms worked by Japanese immigrants and their families. Their garbanzo beans and tomatoes, nourished by rain and ocean mists, were known worldwide.

The area near Donald Trump's golf course was once farmed by the Ishibashis, Hamadas and Yakotas. At Portuguese Bend were the Kubotas and Ohnos. At Lunada Bay were the Hatshitos, Sadadas and Takenagas.

For $631 a year, Hatano leases two sites totaling 14 acres from the city of Rancho Palos Verdes. He still drives to his fields several times a week to make sure things are running smoothly.

"What am I going to do? It's all I know, and that's not much, either," Hatano says -- following up, as he always seems to, with a laugh.

When he retires, the land will revert to the city and a century-old tradition will end. "It represents our last connection to a previous way of life," says Judi Gerber, author of "Farming in Torrance and the South Bay." "I know that way of life is gone, but it's living history."

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A plaque at Founders Park, behind the clubhouse at Trump National, marks the site of the first Japanese American farmhouse on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, built in 1906 by Kumekichi Ishibashi.

In the early 1900s, the manager of the Bixby Ranch began renting land for $10 an acre to Japanese immigrants who grew vegetables, and eventually more than 200 Japanese families farmed in the area. Laws restricted property ownership by Japanese immigrants.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese farmers were forced into internment camps, sometimes with crops in the field waiting to be picked. Few returned to Palos Verdes after the war, although Ishibashi's descendants operated a roadside produce shop, Annie's Stand, in Abalone Cove until 2002.

Hatano was something of a latecomer. He was raised around Porterville, where his parents grew watermelons, peas and beans. During World War II, his family was sent to an internment camp in Poston, Ariz., where he met the families of many of the Palos Verdes farmers.

After leaving the Army in the late 1940s, Hatano wasn't doing much of anything, other than collecting $20 a month in separation pay.

"That was good money then," he says.

His brother-in-law thought it was time he settled down. "He said, 'Instead of wandering around and doing nothing, why don't you grow flowers?' " Hatano recalls.

Soon he was farming 10 acres in Redondo Beach. When the owner decided to sell, Hatano looked for suitable land elsewhere. He found himself on the peninsula. He settled on what is now the site across from the Terranea resort. Back then, it was owned by the Army. He signed a lease, cleared the land and put in sprinklers made of steel pipe.

"Oh, God, that stuff was heavy," he says.

Once, while working the land, he turned over a rock and a rattlesnake bit him on the hand. He was taken by helicopter to a hospital.

The plot, near Rancho Palos Verdes City Hall, has rows of artichokes and flowers, but mainly it's a sea of prickly pear cactus. Hatano started raising cacti years ago at the suggestion of his workers. The crop is his biggest seller. The buyers are mainly Mexican restaurants, which make nopalitos from the cactus pads.

When the city of Rancho Palos Verdes needed a parking lot in the 1980s, Hatano traded a portion of the site for a lease on 8 1/2 acres near Point Vicente Lighthouse, a little more than a mile south.

He has been tending the two plots ever since, even as development has closed in around him.

Hatano and his wife raised their five children in a rented house in Rancho Palos Verdes. In a typical Palos Verdes story, the house was knocked down and replaced by a Spanish-style mansion. For the last 20 years, the couple have lived in San Pedro.

His wife, Rumi, has tried to talk Hatano into retiring, with no luck.

"He still enjoys doing this," she says. "That's his life."

Despite his age, he stands straight -- although he's not the 5 feet 4 he once was -- and walks with a sturdy gait.

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