Down to Earth : Urban farming comes naturally to A.G. Kawamura. It lets him nurture ideas along with food for O.C.'s tables.
A.G. Kawamura--philosopher-farmer, builder of edible landscapes--steers his Chevy Blazer off the highway into a green-shimmering bean field. By all appearances, with a walkie-talkie in his lap, a pager on his hip and a cell phone on his ear, he is a high-powered grower stopping in for a 30-second inspection.
But he immediately puts down the phone, seeking eye contact with pickers, whom he greets in well-accented, fluent Spanish. As Kawamura runs his fingers through beans being sorted and crated, and as he hops out of the truck every few minutes to check drip lines, new plantings and corn harvesting, it is doubtful that he will be defined only by his modern accouterments.
For Kawamura, a 40-year-old, third-generation farmer, his job of growing vegetables on 800 leased acres in Irvine is one of enchantment and even of spirituality, and he will be the first to say so.
He says it to agriculture experts, whom he addressed a few weeks ago at a United Nations forum on world hunger. He says it to schoolchildren touring Centennial Farm at the Orange County Fairgrounds, which his firm largely built. And he says it to the social activists he invites twice a week onto his fields to collect--"glean"--food for the hungry.
“Farmers are like doctors; we deal with living things,” says Kawamura in his even-tempered voice. “A good doctor is not out playing golf when you need him, or the patient may die. If we fail to remember that what we’re caring for is alive, it can be attacked by so many things--weather, bugs, diseases.”
This is not to say that Kawamura is not an astute businessman--although, yes, he does like to read poetry and New Age books, wears his hair in a ponytail and graduated from that counterculture nest, UC Berkeley, in the ‘70s.
With his brother and partner, Matt, managing sales and shipping from facilities in Fullerton, Kawamura oversees an operation with annual gross sales in the high seven figures. They are heirs to one of Orange County’s biggest produce operations, Western Marketing Co. of California, which was moved here from Los Angeles in 1953 by their father and grandfather.
Keeping a step ahead of developers’ bulldozers--he has had to move his trailer offices to new sites four times in 15 years--Kawamura continually fights to balance his production needs with the limitations of urban farming.
Like growers in the San Fernando Valley and San Diego County, he must do without the age-old practices taken for granted by his farmer friends in wide-open parts of the San Joaquin Valley.
With produce growing sometimes just 20 feet from Irvine homeowners’ backyards, Kawamura’s workers cannot set off noise machines to scare off corn-munching starlings, for example, or crank up tractors at 4:30 a.m.
When watering systems create mud on the highways, a tractor with scraper is sent out to clean it up. Workers keep an eye on wind patterns in an effort to keep field dust from settling into neighborhoods.
Homeowners do complain, although Kawamura says sometimes the objections are comical. A woman recently called because a food truck selling fast-food to workers was visible from her backyard. There was no litter problem, she said; the truck just looked “tacky.”
“We don’t expect to get pats on the back from people for doing our job, but we do wish they better understood the requirements” of farming, says Kawamura, who lives in Huntington Beach with his wife, Dianne. “After all, farmers feed 5.8 billion people in this world.”
With much of Orange County’s land covered by concrete, residents have little day-to-day appreciation of agriculture, Kawamura says.
“There is a need for rural experience. I sometimes ask people when was the last time they touched a plant--a living plant, not the fruit in the refrigerator. A lot of people don’t know.”
At Costa Mesa’s Centennial Farm, a three-acre educational exhibit, children are astonished to see a carrot being pulled from the ground. Kawamura was similarly amazed when, on a recent tour, a couple of boys accused workers of having inserted the carrot in the ground beforehand.
“People really don’t think there’s any agriculture in the county. They drive by it every day, but it doesn’t click,” Kawamura says.
He says O.C. agriculture should be anything but an abstraction: About two-thirds of the food he grows annually--some 15,000 tons of celery, sweet white corn, green beans, radicchio, strawberries and various squash--ends up on local tables.
Kawamura’s dream is for all the county’s food needs to be supplied by county farms. Crops no longer feasible to grow here, such as asparagus, peaches, apricots, sugar beets and walnuts, would be profitable again. An “edible landscape,” signifying a county that feeds itself, would sprout.
It is a message that Kawamura has been delivering for years as a local agricultural leader. He recently finished a term as president of the Orange County Farm Bureau, a trade group, and is a director of the Western Growers Assn. and the state Celery Advisory Board.
“If there’s any one term to describe A.G., it’s leadership,” says Rick Lefeuvre, agricultural commissioner for Orange County. “He’s a key member of our farming community and is never shy about stepping to the forefront of an issue, explaining why things are done the way they are in farming issues.”
A good chunk of Kawamura’s 60-hour workweek is devoted to the Centennial Farm Foundation and Orange County Harvest, whose volunteers reap tons of leftover food from fields after the harvesting operation is complete. (“They’re like locusts,” he says with admiration. “There’s nothing left after they’re through.”)
Part of Kawamura’s altruism is home-grown: His mother, June, was instrumental in starting in Fullerton the Florence Crittendon Services, for troubled teenagers.
Another part he brought back from Berkeley. A Third World development course, he says, changed his life.
“It taught me a lot of things I hadn’t been exposed to before, like underdevelopment, environmental and social problems. If I hadn’t gone through that learning, I might have been different.”
It showed him a world at the other end of the scale from Newport Beach, where Kawamura grew up and attended school. He was born in Los Angeles at a time when his grandfather, Arthur Shinji Kawamura, and father, Genji Gene Kawamura, were expanding their celery business.
Arthur Kawamura had emigrated from Japan in the early 1900s and was one of the first Japanese to graduate from Santa Ana High School. In the 1940s, he, Genji and June were interned in the relocation camp at Gila, Ariz. Unlike many detainees, however, they were not penniless when they were released; their assets had been held in trust by their banker, Jim Quinn, at United California Bank in Los Angeles.
In the ‘50s, they moved the operation to Orange County, cashing in on a burgeoning strawberry trade. The firm began to ship other farmers’ crops as well as their own--now the mainstay of their business.
As a teenager, Kawamura, whose given name is Arthur, was not pushed into the business, except for summer work at the family produce stand. In the early ‘70s, he flipped burgers at Laguna’s Festival of Arts snack bar and worked at restaurants.
Although he attended UC Davis before transferring to Berkeley, he didn’t major in the school’s renowned agricultural program. He had an interest in writing and majored in English, later switching to English and Spanish comparative literature. His ability to speak Spanish to his employees, he says, is one of the most important skills he brings to his farming.
After college, he worked briefly near Bakersfield as a grape harvester, living in a small farmhouse with only his cat for company. He worked alone, from 3 a.m. to noon, giving him time to ponder both his future and the state of the world.
He decided to enter the family business.
“It was partly out of obligation, partly out of curiosity and partly out of the realization that if you want to make things happen and be part of positive change in the world, you can do a lot more with a business behind you than you can in the Peace Corps or on an individual, volunteer basis.”
He began by working eight years in the sales and shipping part of the business, which his brother now oversees. At times it was a steep learning curve.
“I learned the hard way, took a lot of lumps, made a lot of mistakes,” Kawamura says. “Sometimes I sold too cheaply, not realizing the markets were going to rise. Or I’d oversell. It was hard to say no to people, so I got picked off by crafty brokers. But that perspective was important before I came out to do the growing part of it.”
As a grower, Kawamura quickly adapted to the demands of urban farming. With water prices having more than doubled over the past decade, and with his operation spread out over 20-some sites, getting the most productivity per acre is essential.
Because Orange County’s climate permits year-round farming, Kawamura double-crops, planting beans after celery one year, corn after beans the next. This effectively turns his 800 acres--all leased from the Irvine Co.--into 1,600; meanwhile, the corn mulch returns organic material to the ground.
“We have a marketing orientation,” he says. “Some farmers grow it and hope they can sell it. We want to grow it knowing it’s already sold.
“Cabbage is a good example. Everybody and their brother can grow cabbage in the wintertime. But if you have to depend on a flood in Texas or a major freeze in Florida to knock out those crops enough to make your crop profitable, you might as well go to Vegas and put your money on the table. We don’t grow cabbage anymore.”
His year-round growing operation, called Orange County Produce, also gives fairly steady work to his 200 pickers, most of whom are Mexican nationals with temporary work permits.
While acknowledging environmental problems created by farming in decades past, Kawamura insists that modern conventional agriculture is on the right track. He has disdain for much of the criticism from environmentalists over the use of methyl bromide and other chemicals.
“I get sad that the environmental community likes to pick on the agricultural community. They have the best intentions, but . . . people with good intentions can cause problems, like the Alar apple scare. . . . Environmentalism [is] a business just like us. They have dues-paying members and have to keep issues in their members’ faces.”
Environmental groups argue that the issues speak for themselves: Little is known, for example, about the long-term health effects of methyl bromide, a highly toxic pesticide sometimes used in strawberry fields near schools.
Kawamura also resents academics telling farmers how they should operate: “The amount of money they sink into these test plots at their universities is astronomical compared to [money available for] an actual commercial plot.”
As he said in his speech at the world food conference in Washington:
“The notion of two kinds of agriculture, conventional and sustainable, is a divisive and disruptive waste of energy and resources. Agriculture by definition is sustainable. In general, it seems that farmers are not looked upon as valuable national resources, but rather as expendable nuisances. . . . People do not make the connection between the restaurant, the chain store and the field next door.”
Kawamura believes that the more the public understands farming, the more it will be accepted. The 42,000 children who visited Centennial Farm last year represent a good start, he says. (Thousands of people will see the farm each day during the Orange County Fair, July 12-28.)
There’s no substitute for being out with your hands in the dirt, Kawamura says. His stepson, Derek Stovall, is starting to learn the business by selling his family’s produce at farmers markets in Orange County.
One of Kawamura’s most potent farming experiences came on a chilly fall morning in 1979.
He was up early to inspect a bean crop in the Capistrano Valley. The previous night he had bragged to his vacationing father that their crop looked robust, a lucky thing, since the market for beans was equally strong.
But the once-green field, he saw with a shock, was ghostly white. By 10 a.m., it had turned black--20 acres of worthless dead beans.
Orange County, Kawamura realized, had been visited by its yearly average of a single night of frost. In one instant, the neophyte farmer absorbed the truth known to growers worldwide: Weather can undo the finest farming.
“The humbling part of working with nature is that you recognize pretty quickly that you can’t make a crop come off if Mother Nature has other ideas,” he says. “Plus, it makes you realize you’re part of the system. You’re not apart from it.”
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Arthur ‘A.G.’ Kawamura
Background: Born in Los Angeles; grew up in Newport Beach.
Family: Wife Dianne; stepson Derek Stovall, 21; daughter Yvonne, 10.
Interests: Farming, reading, writing, playing golf.
On the company’s origins: “After the war, my grandfather was in Arizona trying to harvest a crop of lettuce, but because he wasn’t a citizen, he wasn’t allowed to. So my dad [who was a citizen] got a call [in L.A.] in the middle of night to come help him. That was the beginning of Western Marketing Co.”
On his pickers: “The pay is low [minimum wage], but we’ve worked hard to create a fair working environment. If we have a good year, our older employees [receive bonuses]. But it doesn’t do anybody any good if we go out of business because we’re too generous.”
On goals: “We’re looking into new niches, such as new packaging and value-added products, such as the salads in a bag you see in stores. We want to take our product one step further in terms of kitchen-ready.”
On his business philosophy: “It’s OK to make money, but do good things with it. If you let economics drive everything, you’re letting go of a choice. If you can make good profits and do good things with those profits, you have . . . democracy with a heart, enlightened capitalism.”