Santa Cruz County History - Cultural Diversity

Nihon Bunka/Japanese Culture: One Hundred Years in the Pajaro Valley
by Jane W. Borg and
by Kathy McKenzie Nichols

Chapter 2:
100 Years of Agriculture:The Land Blossoms

Agriculture brought pioneer Japanese immigrants to the Pajaro Valley one hundred years ago. A century later, agriculture is still the valley's principal economic activity, and Japanese Americans have played an important role in the success of local agriculture.

The earliest commercial cultivation of strawberries in the Pajaro Valley took place in the late 1860s in the Vega district, on the Monterey County side of the Pajaro River. After the coming of the railroad in the 1870s and the development of extensive irrigation systems for strawberries in the 1890s, Pajaro Valley strawberry production increased dramatically. The special relationship of Japanese families to strawberry cultivation is a major chapter in the history of the Pajaro Valley.

"The Japanese and Dalmations (Slavs) have assisted in producing the changes introduced in the kinds of crops grown. The former, being unusually skillful berry growers, have had something to do with the expansion of the production of berries until much of the land is thus employed, whereas before their influx, little of it was so used. The latter have done much to encourage the growing of apples." (U.S. Immigration Commission, Reports, 1911.)

The unusual skill that Japanese workers demonstrated in working with strawberries was accompanied by their desire to gain more independence as growers and to be able to retain more of the profits of production. Another early strawberry cooperative was J. and S. Kosansha, operated by Otokichi Kajioka and four others.

For the 75th anniversary of the Westview Presbyterian Church, Kenji Shikuma described his family's early involvement with strawberry growing:

"As I can recall to my memory as related to me by my parents on various occasions, father (Unosuke Shikuma) came to Watsonville in the year 1902, and his first job was working in the onion field for which his wage was one dollar a day; dollar and fifteen cents during the peak days. On the following year, he started growing berries on share together with some of his friends.

"In 1907 when Mother came here from Japan to join him as a young bride, they started out their life together as the berry growing family unit by joining other relative and friend family groups to form an association to lease the ground together. To start with, the families lived in crudely constructed camp houses roughly furnished with simple home-made tables, benches, shelves, and wooden bed-frames.

"In most cases, two families occupied the same house separated only by a thin-walled partition. As time went by and with the coming of children, they managed to work out for separate housings. Here in this so-called "Strawberry Camp," we of the old Niseis made our initial start in this world.

"About the time I was a few years old, father leased the ground on his own and fulfilled his immediate ambition - that of becoming an independent strawberry grower. To operate a strawberry ranch on somewhat bigger scale and on his own was quite different from what it was farming on share-crop basis, as it required greater financing in the first place, the need for working capital.

"He borrowed the money from his trusted Commission House in San Francisco Produce Market to finance his berry growing, and that he in turn agreed to deliver certain portion of his crops toward repayment on the loan. The well known department and hardware store in town, the Ford's, at that time extended him a credit liberally which helped him greatly in making his start.

"When he became an independent grower, he took on sharecropper families, provided each a house, and had each family grow two to three acres apiece. Often times our home was a social center, as father would always welcome all those on the farm for any special occasions ..."

Photo of Japanese family picking strawberries
A family picking strawberries on the White
Ranch near Freedom Blvd. in the 1920s

About 1920, the largest and most productive strawberry ranch in the world was established under a partnership between Unosuke Shikuma, Heitsuchi Yamamoto, O.O. Eaton and Henry A. Hyde east of Salinas on the Oak Grove ranch at Natividad. Strawberries, that were previously shipped in large chests to San Francisco on the railroad, were now transported by motorized truck with a cooling device, in small wooden trays holding twelve-pint baskets.

In order to overcome many marketing difficulties - overproduction, price fluctuations, lack of standardization, and absorption of profits by the commission houses, the California Berry Growers Association was formed in 1917. The association's constitution stated that the board of directors was to be made up of equal numbers of Caucasian and Japanese directors.

The Japanese American Yearbook (1918) states that such an organization was suggested by Issei who were members of Kashu Chuo Nokai (California Central Farmers Association), a Japanese farmers' organization. Members of the California Berry Growers Association's first board of directors were: Mark Grimes, Sumito Fujii, James Hopkins, O.O. Eaton, J.E. Reiter, R.F. Driscoll, T. Sasao, T. Kato, K. Shikuma, F.J. Moriyasu, and Philip S. Erlich.

"Naturipe" became the official trademark for the Association in 1922, and in 1958, the name of the Association was changed to "Naturipe Berry Growers," which is now one of the largest berry cooperatives in the world.

Photo of Mr. Sakata
Kyusaburo Sakata with prize
heads of lettuce

One of the earliest Pajaro Valley lettuce growers of any nationality was Kyuzaburo "Harry" (H.K.) Sakata, who immigrated, alone, to Canada from Wakayama province at the age of fifteen. After working and living with his uncle in Canada for two years, he joined other relatives, and members of his village in Japan, who were farming near Lompoc, California.

Together they pooled their resources, saved money and eventually bought land and a thresher. Having received a satisfactory return for their efforts in raising beans due to good market conditions during World War I, part of the group returned to Japan, but H.K. Sakata decided to stay.

After searching for farm land, even as far away as Mexico, he decided to buy in the Pajaro Valley. By this time, California's Alien Land Law had come into effect, but with the help of an attorney, the L and W Land Company was established with the title held in the name of his minor children, who were United States citizens.

In 1918 Sakata shipped ten teams of horses and the thresher from Lompoc to Pajaro Junction by Southern Pacific railway, and thus began local farming operations which his descendants and others have continued to the present day.

Photo of Japanese laborers
Japanese laborers harvesting beans

Although beans were the main crop in the early days, a great variety of berry and vegetable crops were gradually added to supply the three local Espindola grocery stores. From 1921 lettuce was produced on the Sakata ranches, and Sakata was one of the first West Coast growers to ship lettuce, packed in ice, by rail to eastern markets.

The partnership of Travers and Sakata, growers and shippers, was formed in the 1920s. This enterprise eventually became Sakata and Son in 1939, producing sugar beets, lettuce, cauliflower, carrots, cabbage, potatoes and other crops.

Following the enormous disruptions caused by the declaration of war against Japan, all company debts were settled through the sale of land and equipment, and remaining land was placed with a property manager and leased to local growers for the duration of the war and the family's forced relocation in the Poston, Arizona, internment center. Eventually the family's operation of the Pajaro Valley ranches was resumed, and row crop production takes place today on several valley ranches.

In an interview with Luella Hudson McDowell in 1987, Hisaje "Frank" Sakata said:

"In concluding, we have had a continuous business history since December, 1917, although we have not lived here all that time. During the war years, we were guests of the government in the Salinas Rodeo grounds for three months and a year in the Poston area of Arizona. Subsequently we lived in eastern Oregon for thirteen years.

"In the Pajaro Valley we have lived and have had neighbors who are Americans of diverse national origin. It has been a privilege and an opportunity to have amiably done business with persons with diverse names such as Nielsen, Crosetti, Jericich , Travers, Gonzalez, Wong, Hudson, Matiasevich, Silliman, Shikuma, Oksen, Eaton and various others - really a cross-section of Americans from all over the world."

Although flowering plants have always thrived in the climate of the Monterey Bay, the flower growing industry was not established until after World War II. There were only three commercial flower growers in the late 1950s.

A particularly interesting chapter of the history of cut flower production was told by Harry Fukutome in the booklet prepared for the 75th Anniversary of Westview Presbyterian Church. Japanese Americans in northern California were acutely aware of the devastating postwar conditions in Japan, and many relief supplies were sent by organizations and individuals. The plight of thousands of refugees returning from Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria to Japan was one of these many severe problems.

In 1955 the International Agricultural Fellowship Association (Kokusai Noyukai) arranged for the emigration of 1,000 agricultural workers to the United States under a refugee act that was in effect at the time.

In 1973, Harry Fukutome related:

"He (Unosuke Shikuma) personally visited Japan in 1955 and 1956 and interviewed the young people in Kagoshima and Yamaguchi prefectures and invited eight of them to his farm and asked them to help him in raising strawberries. These ambitious and grateful young men were full of hope and not only worked day and night for him, but were greatly influenced by Mr. Shikuma's character and all were led to Christianity.

"Almost all of them became American citizens. When the Refugee Act Agreement was fulfilled, each of them chose his own vocation. (The agreement was that they must work in the sponsor's field for three years.) Some became gardeners, others strawberry growers, but Akira Nagamine took up flower growing as his goal. He recognized how Watsonville weather was suited for such industry.

"So, depending heavily upon the support of Shikuma brothers, he planned to become a flower grower. He became a worker in a flower-growing firm in Mountain View.

"Meanwhile he called his brother, Osamu Nagamine, his brother-in-law, Hachiro Fukutome, and they all learned the technique of the industry for about three years. Though they had acquired the technique and the knowledge, they had very little capital.

"So, instead of going on separately, they joined resources and in 1962, they were able to secure a land which they had long waited for - about five acres on Condit Lane, which was an apple orchard. They started growing carnations first. At that time, there were only three flower growers in this area, Ben Craust, Mas Tachibana, and Sakae Brothers.

"Since 1962, besides Nagamine Brothers, others came into this area: Nakashima Growers, PV Green House and others. When the new growers business and its success was reported, old timers from the Bay Area moved to Watsonville, and on top of that when the promotion for cut flowers throughout the country was accelerated, many refugees from Japan and new immigrants poured into this area primarily to raise carnations.

" ... come to think of it, we owe so much to the faithful and devout Mr. Shikuma who left a lasting impression upon us and we cannot forget the personal guidance he gave us at its beginning."

Continue with Chapter 3-- Uneasy Settlement: The War Years

This chapter is from a booklet titled, Nihon Bunka = Japanese Culture; one hundred years in the Pajaro Valley. It was published by the Pajaro Valley Arts Council in conjunction with the Council's 1992 exhibition of the same name. The text is published on the Library's Web site with the permission of the Council. Photographs are courtesy of Bill Tao.

Copyright 1992. Pajaro Valley Arts Council.

View similarly tagged articles:

agriculture, immigrants, internment camps, Japanese Americans, Pajaro Valley


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