The Path to Vegetable Nirvana : Agriculture: A new generation of Chinos is continuing the family quest for knowledge and perfection in produce.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometimes, if he pauses long enough from his labors, Tom Chino can still see the figures of his late mother and father right there beside him, hard at work in the family's growing fields.

Just as always, his mother wears her protective kerchief and wide-brimmed hat. And his father, suntanned and ramrod straight, walks among the lines of vegetables like a silent general inspecting his troops.

The images are brief but reassuring, a signal that family patriarch Junzo Chino and his wife, Hatsuyo, still lend a comforting presence to the tiny vegetable farm east of Del Mar they founded nearly 50 years ago.

Mama, as she was known to her close friends and nine children, died last September after a long illness. Papa Chino had passed away almost a year earlier at age 96.

The legacy of these two Japanese immigrants is more than a vegetable-growing phenomenon that some say has cornered the competitive market on

freshness and variety.

Theirs is a story of a tightly knit family with an almost religious love and respect for the land and all that it can be coaxed to produce. Living in simple farmhouse quarters and working their 52 acres together, they have resisted cashing in on their valuable farmland to quietly concentrate on growing the best possible produce.

The Chino secret combines the oldest farming traditions and the cutting edge of agricultural technology. The family knows and tends the land intimately, using knowledge about how to work small plots that the island-dwelling Japanese people developed over centuries.

They work the soil with their hands, with a sixth sense about the weather conditions that have prevailed over their valley for the past half a century, trying different combinations of manure and dried cow's blood as fertilizer.

On the modern side, they research and seek out the newest seed hybrids and experiment with them, throwing out the failures until they reach near-perfection.

As a result, their vast array of watermelons, corn, tomatoes, strawberries and string beans, lettuce, cabbage and carrots--each a still-life of artistic perfection--have become some of the main ingredients for California cuisine. And their sun-splashed spread, which does about half a million dollars of business annually, has become a model of the quality that the small farmer can achieve, experts say.

For more than a decade, the Chinos have been the sole suppliers to two of California's most famous restaurants--Spago of Los Angeles and Berkeley's Chez Panisse--and, since 1969, have attracted to their roadside stand long lines of loyal customers.

Now a new generation of Chino vegetable farmers prepares to carry on the unique agricultural niche that Junzo and Hatsuyo Chino left behind.

"There was a time when I thought my father and mother would farm this land forever," said Tom Chino, a soft-spoken, laconic 43-year-old who years ago abandoned a career as a Salk Institute cancer researcher to return to the family farm.

"But now they're gone. We no longer can rely on them for their wealth of empirical knowledge and wisdom, not just about farming but about life as well. They were strong personalities, and, while it wasn't always spoken, we always knew what they wanted. Now it's up to us to maintain those standards that my parents set."

Indeed, these are months of transition for the four Chinos who remain at the farm, as the children try out the new democracy of running a family-owned business without their parents, friends say.

The Chino kids don't want to let Mama and Papa down.

"It's important that they remain strong as a family--to follow the example their parents taught them," said Spago owner and family friend Wolfgang Puck. "If everyone gets along, there won't be much change, but if there are problems, they might have to sell off bits of the farm, which would really be a shame."

The strength of the family arrangement, says Puck, who often spends part of his summer vacation hanging out at the farm, is that Tom, Frank, Kay and Fred Chino each has established a farming specialty.

"They all do their jobs well because they worked so long with their parents," Puck said. "Who else has the good fortune of working so many decades with their mentors? The Chinos aren't children anymore. They're up to the task."

Another family friend believes that the elder Chinos lend a hand on the farm, even in death.

"Mama and Papa were such a strong presence," said Roger Powelson, who spent several summers with the family. "Even now, 14 years later, I can still close my eyes and still hear Mama tell me that, if I didn't use my head, it would turn into a pumpkin.

"Those strong personalities are still there at that farm. Because there's a little bit of Mama and Papa in all of those kids, standing by right there to guide them."

The newest generation of Chinos--all of whom are in their 40s and 50s--are no ordinary farmers. Like Tom, the youngest, they are all college graduates who nonetheless remain faithful to the simple, independent vision their parents articulated through decades of backbreaking labor.

Each year, that vision yields a prized harvest that includes 50 varieties of melon to ripen on staggered vines, 60 varieties of lettuce to unfold their red, green and yellow leaves, and 102 kinds of ripe, juicy tomatoes.

The Chinos don't just grow carrots. They produce round carrots, white ones, yellow ones and miniature versions. Their strawberries are tantalizingly red triangles--except for the rare white Alpine variety that grows wild throughout Europe.

Consulting with seed sellers, agricultural specialists and gardening experts worldwide, they continue their quest for the most perfect and exotic fruits and vegetables, fussing over texture and taste like fine restaurant chefs.

"We taste things," Frank Chino said. "And if we don't like them, we make changes. If we have to, we start over."

Clad in the usual farm uniform-- faded blue jeans and a red-checked work shirt, Tom Chino said the family wants its stamp on every vegetable it grows.

"We want it to come out of our own dirt," he explained. "We want to pick it at its prime, under our own conditions to see what it really tastes like. That kind of experimentation has been our driving force."

The produce sold at the family's weathered, 1940s-era roadside stand on Calzada del Bosque is picked at dawn for that day's customers, harvested at the peak of ripeness--never shipped off unripe in refrigerated trucks.

Food experts say the quality of the Chinos' produce is a byproduct of the family's unique spirit.

"There's something romantic about this family," said Ruth Reichl, food editor of The Times.

"They're certainly no ordinary farmers. They're artists of the earth, a group of incredibly educated people sitting on land that is worth a million times more than they could ever make on it through farming.

"But this is what they choose to do without compromise. It's a lesson to anyone who is passionate about their own work."

Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, was one of the first well-known chefs to discover the Chino farm 15 years ago. She recalled the day that a friend in San Diego sent her a special shipment of Chino's green beans--along with the prediction that they would change her life.

"At the time, I was using some green beans from Mexico that I thought were quite wonderful," she recalled. "But when I tasted the Chino beans, well, they just turned my head around. I realized that what I had been using were really quite nothing. That's how my relationship with this wonderful family started."

Today, Waters regularly visits the farm that she says has revolutionized vegetable growing.

"What the Chinos do, it's not like growing a couple of tomatoes--it's seeing what a tomato is all about, to grow every shape, color and size you can imagine. It's opening a whole world of possibilities with the tomato.

"Anyone who goes there with an open mind and taste buds will never again go back to the supermarket for their produce."

The Chino story in California began with perhaps Junzo Chino's most stubborn act of a resolute career. He walked here.

He was sent to America just before World War I by his father in search of an older brother who had left years earlier and never returned to Japan. But Junzo Chino was denied entrance to the United States. He eventually landed in Peru, where he began an arduous, two-year trek to Imperial County.

Years later, Junzo met his wife-to-be at a Los Angeles market he ran at the time. It was Hatsuyo who taught him the farming traditions that would become the cornerstone of the Chino dynasty.

Eventually, Junzo found his brother and they began to farm together. But life for the agricultural immigrants was hard. During World War II, the Chino family was interned for several years in a government work camp with other Japanese. It is a time the elder Chinos rarely again mentioned in their lives, their children recall.

In 1946, despite pressure from locals who resented the presence of the Japanese family, the Chinos founded their farm about 20 miles north of San Diego in the fertile river bottom that today separates Fairbanks Ranch from Rancho Santa Fe.

They established contacts with produce buyers in Los Angeles. And they worked the land.

"In those years," Tom Chino recalled, "my parents were enamored with the idea that real farmers grew crops for the commercial market. The one thing they didn't want to be considered was a hobby farmer."

Over the years, attitudes changed. In 1969, the family opened its roadside stand and began selling directly to local residents. Meanwhile, with the help of academic researchers, they began to reinvest their profits into a search for new strains of produce.

Then came the late 1970s, when the Chinos were discovered by the top California chefs. Menus at Spago and Chez Panisse soon listed the Chino farm as their sole vegetable source. In 1980, the family cut its wholesale and commercial ties and began to concentrate exclusively on variety and quality.

"It all came together like pieces of a puzzle," Frank Chino said. "Suddenly, restaurants were looking for the highest-quality ingredients. And we knew how to provide them."

Soon, the Chinos became a California phenomenon. Ensuing years brought stories and plugs in all kinds of culinary magazines, as well as Vogue, Playboy, National Geographic. A writer from the New Yorker recently spent a year on and off with the family to tell a soon-to-be-published story about their work and their roots.

Once, a reporter asked Junzo Chino about his favorite vegetable. His response: celery. "Because," he explained, "they are the hardest to grow."

Despite the family's fame, it's easy to drive right past the Chino farm; there's no announcement other than an obscure sign that reads "The Vegetable Shop."

The Chinos shun publicity. For years, the family has had an unlisted number, which was eventually leaked. Since then, they have received business offers from restaurants from as far away as Chicago.

They don't return the calls, Frank Chino said. And they now screen inquiries through an answering machine. The Chinos refuse to ship or deliver their produce to anyone but Spago and Chez Panisse; more customers would just mean more distraction from their passion for experimenting with the land. Even local restaurant chefs have to stand in line with other customers.

Gustaf Magnuson, co-owner of Gustaf Anders, visited the Chinos' stand almost daily before his restaurant relocated from La Jolla to Santa Ana. He always arrived an hour early to ensure that the selection was choice, listening to the classical music piped from inside the stand.

Indeed, as family friends say, the Chinos don't go to the world, the world comes to them. Tom Chino explains why.

"Basically, we detest marketing," he said. "We want our vegetables to stand on their own. If we had to sell them, we wouldn't grow them."

Until Tom married a few years ago, all four siblings who still run the farm lived in the house where they were raised. (The other five Chinos--a judge, two doctors, a county health worker and a housewife--all live in California.)

Shy like their parents, the local siblings rise each morning before dawn to help their staff harvest the morning's crop, saying little even to one another as they scurry about in 1940s and '50s-era farm vehicles--low-built go-carts, ramshackle buggies and roofless Volkswagen beetles.

Using walkie-talkies, they speak Japanese to each other and the handful of trainees here from their parents' native land through an agriculture program.

The rough-hewn wooden stand opens promptly at 10 a.m. By then, there is usually a line outside--everyone from the wealthy locals driving Jaguars and Rolls-Royces to curious European visitors to the Mexican laborers who arrive from adjoining farms--not to work, but to buy.

Customers browse a rainbow selection of about 60 types of vegetables. There are no marked prices, which are higher than supermarket but competitive--broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, bok choy and arugula for $1 a bunch, strawberries for $2 a pint.

The business is operated informally. There's no cash register or receipts. What isn't sold is fed to the neighbor's sheep. And customers who dwell on the prices are often greeted with silence.

Some say the family's minimalist social style is refreshing in a public relations-crazy era.

"We've been rather circumspect about our customers," Tom Chino said. "We don't pamper them as much as other places might. The stand has always been a sidelight--our real purpose is growing the vegetables.

"As far as the prices go, our attitude has been, 'Go to hell if you don't like it.' We sell good quality. If you want to complain about the price, don't come here."

Few people complain.

Sometimes, however, the Chinos will simply give away produce to grateful customers.

Recent years, however, have been stressful ones for the Chinos. With both parents in failing health, they often became distracted from their farm work. And there were occasional generational tensions as Junzo resisted some of the changes in method, such as drip irrigation, that new technology often dictated.

"They were old," Tom Chino said. "And we had to take care of them."

These days, though, the precarious economy and high costs of farming haven't escaped the Chinos. Privately, they worry how long they can afford to work the land.

Stopping a moment from the monotony of his vegetable sorting, Tom Chino considered whether he could ever leave the farm behind.

"I would leave only if I had assurances that the farm would run well and my brothers and sister would not be under any tremendous burden. We are a family and family unity is important."

Then he smiled.

"But, in truth, I think I'd feel a bit hollow if I didn't know I could come back to this place if I wanted to, just to feel the spiritualness of it."

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