Hikari Farms keeps the legacy of the Issei farmers alive

Interior photo of a greenhouse

Hikari Farms greenhouse. photo by Gil Asakawa

Interior photo of a greenhouse
Hikari Farms greenhouse. photo by Gil Asakawa

WATSONVILLE, Calif. — Hikari Farms has faced hardships before, so Janet Nagamine, who manages the third-generation family farm in Watsonville, is optimistic that the operation will continue and even grow in spite of the battering that California has taken from Mother Nature in the past couple of months.

Watsonville has been subjected to flood warnings, but Nagamine says Hikari Farms has avoided disaster because most of its crops are in greenhouses. One of the greenhouses’ roof has been damaged, though, so she knows there will be some damage from that, and the over-saturated soil has affected crops like daikon. Outdoor crops like apples will suffer, and Nagamine says the timing of the rains has pushed back the pruning of blossoms, which may affect Hikari’s business.

“Overall, I have to say we’re not as exposed as most farmers, you know, it’s just certain sections of our property that are saturated because of the flow of the creeks and stuff,” Nagamine says.

The organic produce that Hikari Farms has become known for — vegetables like crisp Japanese cucumbers, rakkyo onions, komatsuna mustard spinach, mizuna mustard greens, ginger, turmeric and more — are still being grown and harvested. They’re still available at Bay Area supermarkets, in dishes at area restaurants where the kitchens are run by Japanese chefs, and at pop-up markets at area Japanese American community centers and churches from San Jose to San Francisco, including at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco’s Japantown.

A nabe lunch made with Hikari produce. photo by Gil Asakawa

Nagamine is proud that Hikari Farms has established a reputation with area Japanese Americans, and with Japanese chefs who don’t have easy access to some of these produce for their recipes.

The farm has evolved over the decades from proverbial humble beginnings.

Akira Nagamine was born in Kagoshima in southern Kyushu, and came to the U.S. in the late 1950s to work at the Shikuma Ranch growing flowers in Watsonville. In California, he married Hideko Fukutome, who was born in Denver but had been sent to Kagoshima to be raised. The two families knew each other and Hideko was recruited along with Akira and the other laborers and returned to the U.S.

The couple worked in hothouses growing flowers after leaving the Shikuma Ranch, and Akira and his brother and brother-in-law founded a small operation in 1962 to grow carnations.

Nagamine eventually expanded and moved the business and established the A. Nagamine Nursery in 1967. But the flower business eventually withered, when trade agreements moved the floral industry to Latin America, where costs were cheaper. The nursery was on a downward track, when Nagamine’s sons suggested he start growing organic produce.

“My brother Roy, he transitioned the greenhouses from a nursery florist into an organic vegetable production site,” Janet Nagamine says. Her brothers were involved in organic vegetables long before organics became a thing, back in 1998.

A woman gives a presentation while standing in front of a screen.
Janet Nagamine manages the third-generation farm.
photo by Gil Asakawa

Janet Nagamine joined the business in 2013 when the family couldn’t sustain the business. Her original intent was to help her family divest itself from the farm. “Oh, yeah,” she recalls. “Really, I stepped in to clean the place and lease it out with no intention of being involved in farming, or running the business. It was decided that it’s just best to close. So that’s when I came in, to lease the place out.”

But, she adds, “I didn’t like any of the choices that I was seeing: a lot of marijuana (growers), a lot of real estate investors and people who are not connected to the community who just wanted that return on investment.

“It just didn’t feel right, because my parents live there. And I wanted them to be able to roam around and putter around and do what they wanted. And I didn’t want these corporate folks saying that my parents can’t do this or that and I just felt like the place wouldn’t be theirs.”

So in the end, Janet Nagamine stepped up and now runs the farm, along with her parents. She’s not quite a full-time farmer — she’s actually a medical doctor who works in hospitals giving inpatient care and hospice care. But she has cut back her medical practice to part-time so she can run the farm and raise her own family nearby. Her mom just celebrated her 102nd birthday, and her dad is 98, so she knows they need her there. She has come to accept the fact that because Hikari Farms’ produce has become known in the region, its produce represents a legacy that needs to continue even after her parents are gone.

“That is what it is,” she says. “It’s really a legacy farm. Yeah.” That legacy is the cultural presence of the Issei who settled in the area, and the Nisei who became farmers in the postwar years, and the work and respect they put into the land. She considers Hikari Farms a combination of a farm, a cultural center and a museum, and she has a vision to eventually establish Hikari Farms as those three combined.

Right now, though, there’s a very small staff doing all the work, and financial responsibilities such as the greenhouse roof that needs repair before she can think of taking the farm to the next business level. There’s not even a sign proclaiming ”Hikari Farms.” That’s why the only real public presence is a Facebook page where Nagamine can promote upcoming pop-ups in the region (although the posts aren’t very current right now). The pop-up markets are popular, but Nagamine says it’s not just for the organic Japanese produce — she says her parents attend them and they’re treated like superstar celebrities.

At the farm, her mom sweeps the warehouse floor before a nabe lunch with Hikari produce is offered for visiting guests, and afterwards, her mom leads a group of visitors who volunteer to help peel and trim rakkyo onions to make into delicious pickles, which Nagamine note are “all the rage” these days.

Akira Nagamine, meanwhile sits among visitors and admires Janet giving a practiced presentation about the history of Hikari Farms. After all these years, it’s still a family business — not many companies, farms or any other going concern can make that claim these days.

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