RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. — The view from Hatano Farm is mesmerizing. Sown with flowers and edged by cacti, the 5.5-acre plot sits on a gently descending hillside above a cliff that drops off into the Pacific Ocean. Facing south, you can stand in its soft, crumbly dirt and become transfixed by the vast expanse of two-tone blue, the deep water shimmering placidly underneath a brilliant sky. When you turn east and look down the shoreline, you’ll see slopes carpeted in the dark green hues of coastal sage scrub. With the sea breeze blowing across your skin and the calls of cheerful songbirds in your ear, you might never want to leave.
James Hatano never wanted to leave, starting his farm here in the 1950s and sticking around to admire the view for more than half a century. When he first found this plot on the Palos Verdes Peninsula — some 20 miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles as the crow flies — the land was owned by the army. An air defense brigade was using the vicinity for a Nike missile launch site, one of 16 in the greater Los Angeles area intended to protect against potential bomber attacks. The army made for an atypical landlord, but Hatano procured a lease and forged ahead with clearing scrub, installing an irrigation system and cultivating the soil.
By this point, he already had plenty of agricultural experience. Born in 1927, Hatano came from a farming family. They were raising watermelons, peas and beans in the small Central Valley town of Porterville when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Subsequently incarcerated in a War Relocation Authority prison camp at Poston in Arizona, the family happened to meet a group of farmers from the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The encounter was unexpected, since the government did not send Southern California Nikkei to Poston, but this group had relocated to the Central Valley soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, anticipating that they would be banished from the coast. Since they didn’t go far enough to escape the WRA’s reach, they ended up detained with the Hatano family.
Influenced by connections made with those farmers, the elder Hatanos headed to Southern California after the war, settling directly above the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Redondo Beach. Prior to joining his parents there, James enlisted in the Army, and after a stint stationed in Germany, he reunited with them and got into the business of growing flowers. Before long, he ventured the short distance down the coast to establish himself on the land that bears his name today.
Growing flowers not only provided Hatano with a livelihood, but it also introduced him to his future wife, Rumiko Fujinami. He met her at the wholesale market in downtown L.A. where he sold his harvests. The daughter of flower growers in the San Fernando Valley, she presumably attended the market to assist her parents. James and Rumiko married in 1954, raising three boys and two girls in a rented house just a half-mile down the road from his farm.
Their eldest child, Doug, recently met with the Nichi Bei Weekly in late February, out at the plot. Born in 1955, he spent most of his youth among the rows of flowers or on the nearby slopes, explaining that in those days he had “nothing else to do but be out here,” adding that, “it was a family thing — we all came out, my mom, my dad, everybody.” By the time he was 10 years old, Doug was driving a tractor, one of his first contributions in a lifelong habit of helping his dad on this land. The only one of his siblings to gravitate to agricultural work, he said, “I just took more interest in it.”
In the early days, Doug recalled that the farm primarily produced baby’s breath, chrysanthemums and stock, an ornamental cut flower his dad supplied in “truckloads and truckloads” to the float-decorators of Pasadena’s annual Rose Parade. James tried out a range of other flower varieties — “whatever we could sell in the market,” Doug said — and eventually branched out into prickly pear cactus, mainly to meet demand from Mexican restaurants. “They’re kinda slimy, like okra,” he said of the young cactus paddles, which are “supposed to have good dietary benefits.”
Following a similar pattern as his father, Doug set out on his own when he reached his late 20s, buying 50 acres of land up in the city of Arroyo Grande, a four-hour drive up the coast. In the beginning, he grew what he knew, but when his flowers failed to flourish, he switched to vegetables — lettuce, cabbage, zucchini, green beans, bell peppers and tomatoes. He started leasing another 150 acres, but after five years retreated from the enterprise, selling his initial 50 acres and accepting a friend’s invitation to join him in the petroleum industry. The price he got for his land “was too good to pass up,” he said, and he’d become tired of competing with cheaper produce imported from Mexico.
Even after his career transition, Doug remained tethered to agriculture via his dad’s farm. He dropped by constantly to help out, loading up a van with a harvest or performing maintenance on a tractor. Filial loyalty surely motivated these visits, but the chance to soak up the splendid scenery couldn’t have hurt, either. That was what made the place so special — something James never took for granted. According to Doug, “He used to sit in the truck over there and look out and say, ‘Where else can you work and have a beautiful view and fresh air?’”
Admittedly, the view has changed a lot over the years. Take a closer look down that eastern shoreline, and you’ll spy clusters of buildings hunkered low on the green slopes. Many of those structures are white Mediterranean-style mansions with red clay-tile roofing; one of them replaced Doug’s childhood home some 30 years ago. And much of that green now happens to be a golf course. The farm plot itself is smaller than its original size, whittled back decades ago to make way for encroaching development.
James Hatano is no longer around to monitor how the scenery is shifting — he passed away in 2015. According to the March 17, 2020 Rancho Palos Verdes City Council meeting agenda report, three years prior to his death, he made preparations to retire by attempting to transfer his lease to his foreman, Martin Martinez, who had worked at Hatano Farm since 1982.
The army no longer owned the land, and James directed his transfer request to the city of Rancho Palos Verdes, which had taken control of the property soon after incorporating as a municipality in 1973. The series of leasing agreements he had with the city over the ensuing decades were low-stakes and quite casual; in fact, when James made his transfer request, city staff discovered that the latest agreement had expired more than a year previously. They also realized that they were in violation of the terms by which they had originally acquired the property from the army: When the city had first proposed plans for managing the deactivated Nike missile site, the city had promised to support parks and recreation, not private commercial interests such as agriculture.
Despite uncovering this oversight, Rancho Palos Verdes permitted Hatano Farm to remain in operation on a month-to-month lease with a rent of $100 per year. Under this arrangement, Martinez spent several more years running the farm, taking full responsibility for the land he had helped tend ever since he was a teenager. However, in late November of last year, the city council finally moved to comply with the terms of its property acquisition and voted to terminate the lease. Before the vote, Rancho Palos Verdes staff had met with Martinez, who “did express a great deal of concern” that he might lose the farm because it represented “his only form of income,” according to city documents.
The city council’s decision to push him out drew much attention from the public and the media. Observers felt sympathy for Martinez and expressed worry about his future, while also demanding that some effort be made to acknowledge and preserve Hatano Farm’s legacy. To many local residents, the plot that James had cultivated for more than half a century represented the last connection to a bygone era when Japanese American agriculture dominated the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The pioneering Nikkei farmers who had shaped the peninsula’s prewar history were also the ones responsible for James showing up there in the postwar. Only a handful of them came back to work that land once more, and James outlasted them all.
With its November vote generating such an outcry, the city council discussed the issue further during its January and February meetings. Staff presented various options for honoring the Hatano legacy, and councilmembers directed them to continue developing a solution. Yet while the property seems likely to receive a historic designation or special treatment of some kind, Martinez’s fate looks sealed — in the end, the council upheld its decision to terminate his lease.
All of this had already transpired when Doug met with the Nichi Bei Weekly out on the property, and he appeared resigned to the fact that it was destined for a transformation. “Pretty hard to fight city hall,” he said stoically. He’d stayed active with the farm, dropping by every month or so to work on tractors and visit with Martinez, who he’s known for 40 years. Standing in a shady spot away from the flower rows, the two men chatted together with the Nichi Bei Weekly, joking lightly in a mix of English and Spanish.
When asked, Martinez declined to go on the record with any comments about his future, which remains hazy. His lease expires on Aug. 16, the deadline for him to remove his equipment and cede control of the property to the city. He gave no indication as to how he’ll spend his remaining days on the farm, but you can bet he’ll take plenty of time to admire that view.