Embrace of Sustainable Ag Tech & Practices Enables 3rd Gen Farm in Orange County, CA to Survive Urbanization
December 12, 2012 | Melonie Magruder
When Matt and A.G. Kawamura’s grandparents first came to California from Japan at the beginning of the 20th century, they worked as seasonal fruit pickers and, eventually, sharecroppers in an Orange County that was mostly about orange trees and maybe a couple of other crops.
Within a few years, however, the founders of what became Orange County Produce had created a fertilizer and farm supply company. After World War II, during which they were relocated to an internment camp in Arizona, the Kawamuras launched a company that grew and shipped fresh produce like lettuce, cabbage and cantaloupes. By the end of the 1950s, they had three southland farming operations, and returned to Orange County to consolidate and take advantage of the region’s fertile growing climate.
Three generations later, the Kawamura grandsons head the main agricultural operation in Orange County, having survived latter-20th century urbanization, sky rocketing land values that drove other farmers away and competition from corporate farming interests throughout the country. And they’ve done so while maintaining a philosophy that local food sheds, where local production of fruits and vegetables defines national domestic food security, are what keep communities healthy, happy and harmonious.
“There are 20 million people living within an hour and a half of our farmlands,” A.G. Kawamura said. “There’s plenty of market out there.”
Orange County Produce was able to thrive as a midsize grower in a region where real estate prices tend to support huge corporate developers because they rolled with the times, constantly adjusting yield expectations, incorporating sustainable farming practices like drip irrigation, switching shrewdly to crops that bring a higher dollar in the marketplace and avoiding crops that grow well in the area, but aren’t sustainable financially.
“At one time, this was the best place in the country to grow celery,” A.G. said. “But celery prices don’t support the production costs, so you move on to what works for us, like chard and kale and beets. There used to be a sugar beet factory here years ago. And we’re growing asparagus for the first time in years in the county.”
OC Produce’s eight or nine plots are farmed on leased land and their produce is distributed mostly locally – through farmers markets, local restaurants, to wholesalers and directly to local retail outlets. And, over the years, the Kawamuras relied on feedback from local customers to determine what kinds of crops they would grow, expanding their list of produce available year round.
“You know, in our grandparents’ day, people had root cellars and fresh produce was just not available certain times of the year,” A.G. said. “My dad was the first farmer to ship California strawberries on a plane.”
When it comes to determining the best sustainable growing practices in a 21st century environment, A.G. has more than just family background to draw on. He served as California’s Secretary of Agriculture during Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure. The position gave him a clear-eyed view of California’s regulatory environment.
“California is very, very regulated compared to the rest of the country,” A.G. said. “The system puts an enormous burden on small and midsized growers. Issues like immigration, worker hygiene or dust limitations, even when you know a rainstorm is coming, end up costing the farmer. Food safety is a timely and important subject, but the cost of compliance is heavy for growers.”
A.G. believes in developing a system for “incentivizing” farmers and creating a fairer cost structure for growers. He thinks the cost of growing certified organic is sustainable – until there is too much organic produce and market prices make such practices, well, impractical.
So he mixes science with the “art” of farming to keep his business thriving. Sustainable pest management, limited innoculants that don’t destroy the soil, water run-off capture and balancing organic with conventional growing methods keep him in the black.
“We can’t invest money and time in certified organic growing practices in certain of our fields because we never know if the landowner will suddenly sell to a big developer and we’ll have to move,” A.G. said. “But about 30 percent of our crops are certified organic and we try to expand that.”
One of OC Produce’s greater growing projects is found at Orange County’s Great Park. The city of Irvine took over the former El Toro Marine base with the idea of transforming it into the largest metropolitan park in the country. One hundred fourteen acres were leased to OC Produce, situated between old, crisscrossing, military runways.
The contaminated terrain was subject to a Super Fund cleanup, but A.G. said that the land had lain untouched for so many years that it was not too difficult to amend the soil into a rich, organic canvas, perfect for the strawberries that contribute to the park’s Farm and Food Lab program.
“I’m more excited about the future for Orange County Produce today than I was when I left Sacramento,” A.G. said. “My nephew is prepping to take over the business someday and many of our employees’ children are working for us now. I expect we’ll be around for a long time.”