California Institute for Rural Studies

Episode 4: Founding Farmers — Japanese Growers in California

Picture your produce aisle: Strawberries. Tomatoes. Lettuce. Celery. Onions. These crops fill shopping carts across the country and a full third of them come from California. There was a time, though, when California fields grew mostly wheat. Huge tracts of the land we now know as the salad bowl of the world were then pumping out massive quantities of grain, not fruits or vegetables. In the early twentieth century California farming underwent a major transformation that created the abundance you can see in your produce-aisle today.

And one particular group of California farmers really laid the foundation for that transformation.  We don’t often hear their names and many of their stories have been long-buried.

According to Isao Fujimoto, “The early success of the Japanese farmers led the Japanese to be productive farmers, but instead of being praised, they got attacked. And the attack came in the form of Alien Land Laws.”   

In a lot of ways, you could say Japanese immigrants started California’s produce industry. But racist immigration laws and policies tried to push them out of the rural landscape. A few influential farming families dug in, shaping the industry in powerful ways. Many others left farming as a way of preserving their families and moving forward with their lives.

As we’ll hear, the Japanese American story in California farming is about tremendous ingenuity that’s met with a pretty sinister backlash. And it’s about ugliness that’s met with some pretty powerful resistance.

And the story couldn’t be more relevant right now. As Nikiko Masumoto puts it, “If we as a CA we, as a diverse, beautiful CA we, want to heal some of the wounds of the past, we have to look at what happened before and why has there been an exodus out of farming by some communities of color.”

You might never look at your produce section in the same way again.

You can listen to Founding Farmers: Japanese Growers in California by clicking the red play button above, or by subscribing to the Cal Ag Roots on iTunes. If you review our podcast on iTunes, more people will be able to fund us!

Special thanks to Marissa Ortega-Welch for editing and production help and to Jen Sedell who worked closely with us on this story. Big thanks go out to everyone who’s voices you heard here: Nikiko and Mas Masumoto, AG Kawamura, Tom Izu, Libby Christensen, Jeannie Shinozuka, Isao Fujimoto and Cecilia Tsu. Thanks also to folks who gave me important background information for this story including Naomi Hirahara, Warren Hiyashi, Patricia Wakida, Nina Ichikawa and Valerie Matsumoto. Music for the story was by Komiku and the Cal Ag Roots theme music is by Nangdo– find them both on the Free Music Archive. The beautiful woodcut featured here, Peach Picker/California, was used with permission from Patricia Wakida, of Wasabi Press.

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