Natural Progression: Sharecropper descendant James Nakahara supports emerging farmers

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James Nakahara

James Nakahara

If you’ve ever dreamed of starting your own farm, you might want to talk to James Nakahara of Kitchen Table Advisors. His job at the Northern California nonprofit is to counsel fledgling agricultural entrepreneurs, and he can provide you with all sorts of useful information about irrigation techniques, soil properties and organic growing practices. He can offer you suggestions on how to manage and market your business, and if you require specialized services, he can connect you with the right government agency or professional association to meet your needs.

Keep in mind, however, that the conversation might leave you a little daunted.

“I can’t think of anything harder than being a farmer in California, given all the challenges that people face,” Nakahara recently told Nichi Bei News. “You need to wear so many different hats, and your margins are so paper-thin,” he explained. As a newcomer to the field, the odds will be stacked against you on an economic landscape which “really caters to large-scale agriculture that’s heavily subsidized,” thus posing “a lot of structural barriers to being successful.”

Nakahara added that these barriers are “all made more challenging if you’re not a wealthy white person.” He’s quite familiar with this extra level of difficulty, since Kitchen Table Advisors mainly serves clients from “historically underserved and underrepresented communities,” meaning that the organization prioritizes supporting people of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals and low-income earners.

Overcoming the countless obstacles in pursuing an agricultural career means “you have to be innovative in some fashion,” Nakahara said, such as “creating a niche market that you can control more directly” or “having this varietal selection that really connects you with buyers.”

As examples of this strategy, he cited the efforts of three KTA clients — Cultural Roots Nursery near Davis, Kula Nursery in Oakland and Hikari Farms in Watsonville — that all cater to a narrow yet loyal customer base by selling plants relevant to Asian heritage.

“People are starting to figure out the economics that make sense to be able to still grow those culturally-resonant varieties,” Nakahara posited, reporting that he’s seen more farmers tending to specialized crops now than when he entered the profession over a decade ago.

The 36-year-old Yonsei has his own cultural tether to the field — his great-grandparents labored as sharecroppers near Monterey Bay after immigrating from Fukuoka Prefecture in the early 1900s.

“I know that they were living off East Lake Street in Salinas, and I know they were working on multiple farms,” he said, “but I don’t have a ton of details on what specific crops they were growing.”

A good guess would be strawberries or sugar beets, both of which occupied the bulk of Nikkei attention in that time and place. Japanese farmers have also been credited with introducing broccoli, lettuce and celery to the Monterey Bay region, one of the key locations contributing to the community’s remarkable agricultural impact on California during the first half of the 20th century.

Nakahara has researched this history, and according to his findings, by 1920, Nikkei farmers operated more than 450,000 acres of land in the Golden State, averaging a gross profit of $125 per acre — dwarfing the $25 to $50 generated by their white counterparts. When asked to account for how members of this disadvantaged minority accomplished such a feat, Nakahara responded that pride may have motivated them, as “farming was not looked down upon as a career as much. It wasn’t this downtrodden thing. It was the first opportunity that a lot of Japanese immigrants had to be successful in the U.S.”

Furthermore, he speculated that their cultural attitudes — “not complaining, working hard, making the best of what you have, being innovative” — helped them prosper. He added that they must have benefited from the similarity between the soil types of their homeland and California, lessening their need to adjust to unfamiliar growing conditions.

Even while targeted by waves of discriminatory legislation restricting their property rights, Nikkei farmers thrived for decades. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, however, their era of formidable agricultural influence came to an abrupt end.

Nakahara said the subsequent incarceration of their communities enabled the government to confiscate their farms, swiftly hijacking operations that had been built up by years of determined effort. He added that the War Relocation Authority located its prison camps “in places where the U.S. government had agricultural goals to improve land and improve infrastructure,” paving the way for furlough programs to exploit the labor and expertise of inmates.

As with so many others, Nakahara’s grandfather Harry was yanked off one patch of familiar ground near the coast and put to work on another one further inland. Before the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, Harry had been assisting with his family’s farming activities around Salinas on the weekends while attending architecture school up in Berkeley during the week. He was dating a woman from Honolulu named Betty Okubo, and they got married as soon as Executive Order 9066 served notice that the government might otherwise separate them.
Along with his parents, siblings and new bride, Harry spent a couple months at the Salinas

Assembly Center before everyone was shipped off to the prison at Tule Lake. From there, Harry ended up in a remote furlough camp in Walla Walla, Wash., working for a farmer named Vernon Stroud.

Betty had become pregnant, and Vernon’s wife Juanita, outraged by the overall poor treatment of the Nikkei population, demanded her husband supply the expectant mother with fresh vegetables to support healthy gestation. Family lore credits that benevolent gesture with ensuring Betty safely gave birth to her first baby despite the undesirable circumstances.

“As a ‘thank you,’ Baachan and Jiichan named their next son — my dad — Vernon, after the farmer who helped them out,” Nakahara said, adding that his grandparents “named all their kids after people who helped them out during the war.”

Those four kids grew up to be a lawyer, a judge, an architect and a doctor, their career trajectories seemingly unhindered by the trauma inflicted upon their parents. Although no such cloud hung over his upbringing in Oakland, Nakahara’s own professional path proved a little more rocky.

“I went to UC Riverside out of high school and was a really small fish in a really big pond,” he said, admitting to having “a really hard time adjusting to life in Southern California and living out in the desert.” He returned to the East Bay without finishing his degree. “I was kind of lost,” he recalled.

He started taking community college classes, and found some in landscape horticulture that he liked. On top of this formal education, he lucked into an indispensable practical experience thanks to his cousin Molly Nakahara, who he proclaimed “has been a constant inspiration for me” for “the way she cares about and demonstrates a deep love and connection with nature and animals and plants.” As children, the cousins had played together in Harry and Betty’s home garden — “the first time I remember learning about flowers or fruit” — and, as adults, Molly welcomed him to her own plot of land, a small operation named Dinner Bell Farm in the Sierra Foothills.

In 2011, Nakahara headed up there for a two-week stint. Right after he arrived, Molly had to leave abruptly when her father to white rice, targeting people with diabetes and other conditions that require they restrict their carbohydrate intake.

It is also developing a rice alternative in which all grains are manufactured from konnyaku.

“We hope to make konnyaku into one of the world’s dietary staples,” Nakamura said.

According to the Japan Konjac Association in Tokyo, which seeks to increase consumption of the healthy root to fight “lifestyle-related diseases,” because konnyaku is low in calories and rich in dietary fiber, the more you eat it, the more you lose weight.

Konnyaku, which is usually a gray color with black specks or white, has a 97 percent water content, according to the JKA. “It is the savior of problems with obesity today,” said an association official.

 

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Advisable Choices for Cultural Connection

Kitchen Table Advisors has worked with many Asian American farmers in Northern California who grow plants relevant to the Asian diaspora. These farmers sell produce, flowers, starts or seeds — available online, on-site, at restaurants, at pop-ups or at farmers markets. Check out their Websites for details.

Produce
Feral Heart Farm in Sunol (feralheartfarm.com)
Hikari Farms in Watsonville (goodeggs.com/hikarifarms)
Moua Farm in Elverta (mouafarmsac.square.site)
Namu Farm in Winters (instagram.com/namu_farm)
Shao Shan Farm in Sebastopol (instagram.com/shaoshanfarm)

Flowers
Lunaria Flower Farm in Pescadero (lunariaflowerfarm.com)
Starts
Cultural Roots Nursery in Winters
(culturalrootsnursery.com)
Kula Nursery in Oakland
(kulanursery.com)
Seeds
Second Generation Seeds in Winters
(secondgenerationseeds.com)

 

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