A new relationship: Yakama Nation acquires Inaba Produce Farms near Wapato

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SOLIDIFYING A BOND ­— General Manager Lon Inaba stands in front of Inaba Produce Farms near Wapato on Nov. 3. The third-generation, family-owned operation was acquired this week by the Yakama Nation. photo by Joel Donofrio / Yakima Herald-Republic

WAPATO — The close relationship between the Yakama Nation and the Inaba family took another step this week, as tribal leaders announced their purchase of Inaba Produce Farms.

The farm, located southwest of Wapato on the Yakama reservation, is a third-generation family farm operated by siblings Lon, Wayne, Norm, Diane and their mother, Shiz. The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation helped Lon’s grandfather begin farming there in the early 1900s, he said, so it’s only fitting that they will continue their association with the operation.

“I grew up on the reservation, and they helped my grandfather and my father through a lot of hardships,” Inaba said of the Yakama Nation. “A lot of the tribal people don’t have a farming background. That’s what we’re here for, to help them learn the business. It’s a great transition for our farm.”

Lon’s grandfather, Shukichi Inaba, emigrated from Japan and arrived in Wapato in 1907. He and his brother, Tomoji, used teams of horses and manual labor to clear 120 acres of leased tribal land, transforming it from sagebrush to cropland. They also helped construct the irrigation delivery systems.

Today, Inaba Produce Farms grows more than 20 crops — many farmed organically — on approximately 1,500 acres of land within the Yakama reservation.

“When the Inaba family began farming here on the Yakama reservation in the early 1900s, Yakama tribal members supported their efforts, leasing land to them when the laws of the United States did not permit Japanese immigrants to be landowners,” said Virgil Lewis Sr., the Yakama Tribal Council vice chairman, in a Nov. 1 news release announcing the purchase.

“Today, the Inaba family honors our historic relationship by selling Inaba Produce Farms to the Yakama Nation to support our sovereignty and food security.”

Operations today

As Lon Inaba showed Yakima Herald-Republic staff around the operation on Nov. 3, he described how his family uses greenhouses, hydrocoolers and shipping facilities to provide fresh produce to stores throughout the region.

His background in engineering helped tie six ice machines purchased from Aransas Pass, Texas, shrimp producers on the Gulf of Mexico into the Inaba farms’ system of cooling and preserving crops such as sweet corn.

“We have the capacity to make 100 tons of ice,” Inaba said. “That’s a great fit for the tribal fishermen.”

Cooling the vegetables immediately after harvest extends their shelf life at the grocery store, as prolonged exposure to heat takes the sugar out of them, Inaba explained. His decades of knowledge and expertise in areas like this will help as Yakama Nation leaders take over operation of Inaba farms.

“We bought most of this (cooling equipment) used … I know it all intimately, because I either built it or worked with the guys who installed it,” he said. “We want to pass along and build this knowledge with the tribal members.”

Inaba is particularly excited about younger Yakama Nation workers having a chance to succeed in the farming industry.

“I tell them, ‘I could be your grandpa’s farm.’ They can learn from me,” Inaba said. “If you have that knowledge growing up, that gives you an edge. If you give somebody an edge, that gives them confidence and the opportunity to get ahead.”

Lon and his brother, Wayne, will continue to work as the general manager and deputy manager for the newly named Yakama Nation Farms. This transition fits with the Yakama Nation Agriculture Plan, adopted in 2019, which directed the development of a Yakama Nation agricultural enterprise.

Food sovereignty

Across the nation, Native American communities are prioritizing food sovereignty initiatives to support food security for their members, and to promote healthy eating, economic and employment opportunities, and the preservation of cultural and natural resources, said Phil Rigdon, Yakama Nation’s superintendent of natural resources and a Yakama Nation Farms board member.

“The acquisition of Inaba Produce Farms will jump-start the Yakama Nation’s implementation of our agriculture plan,” Rigdon said. “We hope to expand the farm’s current fresh food box program to offer specialty food boxes to organizations and the greater community at a margin that will help to support and grow existing hunger-reduction food box programs.”

Lon Inaba said his family has been helping the Northwest Harvest food bank in Yakima for many years, including contributing produce to the fresh food box program during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s so much food that’s wasted. When we have this opportunity to bring this food to people who can’t afford it, it’s a great thing,” he added.

Inaba Produce Farms employs between 20 and 25 workers year-round, and around 250 during the peak harvest season, Inaba said. By starting seeds in greenhouses in February and growing crops with a range of harvest times, it helps retain employees and provide work for them over the majority of the farming season.

“If you have a diversity of crops, you can have more stability for your workers,” Inaba said. “We also have the ability to house between 75 and 100 folks, and we’ve been doing that for over 30 years.”

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