Country Wisdom: Maya Shiroyama runs the Kitazawa Seed Company with lessons learned from rural living

Maya Shiroyama learned about growing food from an early age. When she was a very small child, her grandmother would bring her out on her parents’ new farm. To help the young couple get on their feet, Shiroyama’s grandmother played field hand and babysitter at the same time, tending the land with her grandchild strapped to her body.

Kitazawa Seed owners Maya Shiroyama and Jim Ryugo sell an assortment of seeds focusing on Japanese varietals. photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

“I just remember how hot it was, because I was on her back,” Shiroyama recalls.

Sweltering temperatures are a hallmark of California’s Central Valley, where the Shiroyamas raised peaches, plums, nectarines, and cotton from the 1950s to the 1970s. Growing up, Shiroyama frolicked through the orchards on the 300 acres her family owned along the Kings River in the rural town of Hanford. She and her older sister invented ways to entertain themselves among the trees, abiding a couple basic instructions from her parents: Don’t drown in the river, and be back in time for dinner.

The girls had few opportunities to play with other kids because their quiet backwater community of only 10,000 people was so spread out. Visiting a neighbor represented a serious trek, starting with the Shiroyama’s own driveway, which spanned a quarter mile. Families resided so far apart that Shiroyama’s bus ride to elementary school took 90 minutes. And outside of school, classmates were often too consumed with farm responsibilities to do much socializing.

“It was a way of life — I mean, I wouldn’t trade it for anything different,” she contends, adding, “I think it promotes a lot of independent thinking and creativity.”

The virtues Shiroyama absorbed as a kid in the countryside come in handy now that she runs the Kitazawa Seed Company. Not only does the job demand independent thinking and creativity, but many other farm-honed habits as well: working hard, embracing responsibility, solving problems, paying close attention, evaluating risk, planning for the future, and comprehending the way little details relate to a bigger picture. And of course, her upbringing offered her an intimate view of food production at its source — most notably with regard to cultivating vegetables.
While her paternal grandmother was the one who carried Shiroyama out on the farm, it was her maternal grandmother who introduced her to Kitazawa seeds.

Her grandmother’s garden fostered varieties from the company’s catalog such as daikon, turnips, cucumbers, Napa cabbage, Komatsuna mustard spinach, and Tokyo negi, a type of bunching onion. In her youth, Shiroyama spent time with her grandmother planting, nurturing, and preparing these staples of the Japanese diet. “My mom would just dump me off at my grandmother’s house, and I would have to help her,” she says.

Komatsuna and Mibuna. photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

These sessions required pushing through a language barrier, since Shiroyama’s grandmother had never picked up English. She had come to California as a 26-year-old picture bride from Hiroshima, sent for by Shiroyama’s grandfather, who had emigrated from the same prefecture as a teenager prior to 1920. The couple probably had little reason to acquire much English while they raised a family and grew grapes on the other side of the Kings River (in a diminutive community called Selma, which bills itself the “Raisin Capital of the World”). Yet despite the linguistic limitations, Shiroyama’s grandmother still managed to pass along her knowledge.

“She would just show me by example. And then you kind of figure out why you’re doing it, because the next process will tell you why you did what you did,” explains Shiroyama.

The food they harvested along the way represented “what she grew up on in the Hiroshima area,” Shiroyama assumes, “because every family I think brings their culinary traditions and styles; that’s part of who they are.” Shiroyama recollects her grandmother sowing seeds in autumn that would eventually yield ingredients for New Year osechi ryori meals, and has fond memories of her grandmother’s tsukemono.

Shiso. photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

“She was a fabulous pickler,” gushes Shiroyama.

Under her grandmother’s tutelage, Shiroyama confesses that some of the nuance and detail of the ancestral techniques were lost on her, due to typical juvenile restlessness and immaturity. But the fact remains she had the chance to assist her elder in the garden and the kitchen, partaking in the sort of intergenerational exchange that keeps cultural legacies alive.
These occasions should feel especially precious within Japanese America, given that they can heal the pervasive fracturing suffered by the community during World War II. The fearmongering of that period led many Nikkei to disavow their own heritage, hoping to distance themselves from the reviled empire of Japan and demonstrate their loyalty to the United States. And when the government forcibly removed more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent from their West Coast homes and incarcerated them in makeshift prison camps, acute generational rifts opened up among the detainees.

Shiroyama reports that her own mother experienced this separation. Having spent middle school confined in the Poston concentration camp in southwestern Arizona, “She thought it was kind of a breakdown of the family unit because it was no longer your family eating at dinner,” according to Shiroyama. Instead, “You went to community hall. She and her sisters all got to hang out with their girlfriends… so probably not what it would be like if she was growing up in the country.”

After the war, Shiroyama’s mother’s family returned to their property in Selma, where they were able to resume their old routines. Many other detainees were not so fortunate, coming back to find their residences looted and vandalized, while also encountering a lingering atmosphere of animosity. Shiroyama thinks that these tragic ordeals were more prevalent in urban areas, like around the San Francisco Bay. She believes that Central Valley farmers were largely spared this fate because they didn’t own much worth stealing, and because the overall difficulty of rural life meant neighbors acted more compassionately in general.

Shiroyama’s father’s family also managed a relatively smooth transition back to normalcy in the tiny hamlet of Laton after leaving the Rohwer concentration camp in Arkansas. Her father, who had enlisted in the armed forces while at Rohwer, reunited with the family following his term with the Military Intelligence Service and a stint working as a cook at a Chinese restaurant in Chicago. Eventually, a baishakunin, or matchmaker, paired him with Shiroyama’s mother; they saved money, received a mortgage loan from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and started their farm on the banks of the Kings River.

At Shiroyama’s parents’ house, the garden played a similarly vital role as at her grandmother’s, and supplied much of what the family ate. “When you live way out in the country, you basically go grocery shopping — back then — once a month,” she notes. Those periodic trips replenished certain staples, while daily needs were met by picking fresh produce right outside. Dinner would usually consist of a vegetable entrée, with meat acting as “seasoning,” as Shiroyama says.

In addition to offering a literal taste of nature’s bounty, evening meals also gave Shiroyama an insider’s glimpse at the commercial side of producing that bounty. “I look at our dinner table discussion — my parents are two people who never hid anything,” she attests, describing how her folks would deliberate over business questions regarding “what’s the next step, are we able to make payroll, how many people can we bring in on payroll, and do we have to go to get a loan?” Whenever the answer to that last question came up yes, Shiroyama would tag along with her mother to production credit, a loan office that cut gigantic checks to keep farmers afloat for a few months. “I do not have the temperament to do that,” Shiroyama admits about taking on such financial risk herself.

As one might expect, taking on the entire farm did not appeal to her either, a preference she confirmed by working there one summer during college. Before she wrapped up her degree in social ecology at the University of California, Irvine, her father checked with her and her sister about assuming ownership, and after they both declined, he made plans to sell. “It was really odd,” she muses, reflecting on the lack of sentimentality involved in the decision, especially compared to some of her Japanese American peers who agreed to stay with a family business out of guilt.

Following graduation, Shiroyama stuck around Southern California, conducting market research analysis in the housing industry. In a few years, she moved up to the Bay Area, doing the same work until she became seriously ill. Diagnosed with a systematic autoimmune disease, she had to quit, and was forced to lay low for a decade and a half.

“And then when I started feeling better, this opportunity came up,” she says.
In 2000, Shiroyama was living in Oakland when her father called at the beginning of the year to ask a favor. He said his order from the Kitazawa Seed Company hadn’t arrived, and he wondered if she would run down to San Jose to pick it up. Balking at the 80-mile roundtrip drive, Shiroyama picked up the phone and reached Helen Komatsu, the youngest daughter of company founder Gijiu Kitazawa. Shiroyama learned that Helen’s husband had been managing the businesses until he died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving Helen in charge. A nurse by trade, she had just entered her 70s, and conceivably lacked excitement about inheriting the new responsibility.

After Shiroyama finished squaring away her father’s order, she got to pondering the future of the company, given its seemingly precarious position. Then she called Helen back and told her, “If your family wants to sell the business, I would love to be considered as a first option … mostly because of what that business meant to my family and our culinary traditions.” So Helen took down Shiroyama’s name and phone number, without giving much indication as to her thoughts about the offer.

Four months passed, and then on Mother’s Day, while Shiroyama and her husband Jim Ryugo were hosting their parents for brunch, the phone rang. Shiroyama didn’t recognize the caller at first, so Helen clarified, “Kitazawa Seed Company — you said you wanted to buy this business. I want you to buy it, and I want you to buy it, like, now!”

Shiroyama broke the news to her family over the meal. She says Jim started “freaking out” with worry, but her father responded with delight. “Oh good,” she recalls him remarking, “Now I can get all the seeds I want.”

The deal didn’t become final until later that summer. Shiroyama felt strongly that all Kitazawa relatives first be granted the chance to claim their birthright before any sale could go through, urging Helen “to contact every niece and nephew to let them know what you want to do, because it’s a family business.” She and Jim also sought a thorough accounting of assets, allowing for the Kitazawas to “see everything was transparent and that we weren’t taking advantage.”

One critical asset, the customer database, turned out to be quite small, and consisted of almost entirely Japanese names. Assuming many of those individuals shared the advanced age of Shiroyama’s father, “it meant to me that we had to flip that pretty quickly in five years,” she divulges.

Now, after nearly two decades of ownership, she appears to have decisively succeeded in that task, bringing an expanding community of enthusiasts into communion with the fresh vegetables of her childhood. Nostalgia inspired Shiroyama to shepherd the Kitazawa legacy into the future; the practical lessons of her rural upbringing equipped her to adapt the business to an evolving marketplace. And today she stands in the rare position of leading a scrappy, independent company into its second century.

“I’m really proud to carry on the Kitazawa Seed name,” she affirms. “It’s so meaningful to me.”

Alec Yoshio MacDonald is working on a book about the Kitazawa Seed Company. He would like to hear about your experiences with Kitazawa seeds at alec.macdonald@gmail.com.

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