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Our Strawberry Roots

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Glen Hasegawa sits back, feet up on his desk, in the refinished turn-of-the-century farmhouse where his family’s strawberry operation is run. He’s got a surfer’s lean muscularity and maybe a touch of that cocky attitude, too. On his right, a computer screen blinks. Periodically, his cell phone rings; a walkie-talkie bleats.

Hasegawa is a graduate of the agricultural school at Fresno State. That explains the computer. He manages this farm and another one he owns with his brother. That explains the telecommunications. The surfer attitude? Well, the 32-year-old catches waves in his spare time.

But beneath that flashy modern surface, Hasegawa’s strawberry-raising roots run deep. His father was a California strawberry farmer and his grandfather before him farmed strawberries here, too.

Japanese Americans have been farming strawberries around here since the turn of the century, when the first big wave of emigrants from Japan reached the West Coast.

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“My dad’s dad was a farmer,” says Hasegawa, “ever since he came over from Japan, anyway. In Nagoya, he’d worked in the textile business. When he came over here, he just took any job he could get as a laborer.

“That first generation really took to strawberries. I can’t really tell you why. They probably saw the potential. It’s not an easy crop to grow; it takes a lot of hand work and a lot of patience. Maybe it just fit the demeanor of the Japanese Americans, as far as being able to stick with it.”

A survey taken in 1910 found that almost 80% of the strawberry growers in Los Angeles County were Japanese. When the Central California Berry Growing Assn., the first strawberry marketing co-op, was founded in 1917, the bylaws required that half of the board of directors be Japanese American. This was an extraordinary move at a time so virulently anti-Japanese that the California legislature four years before had passed a law effectively forbidding Japanese Americans from owning land.

The Japanese American relationship with strawberries began when farm laborers from Japan proved particularly able to adapt their homeland’s intensive growing practices to the small fields then available. “Strawberries could be grown on a small plot of land and were among the most profitable of crops in terms of potential yield and value per acre of land utilized,” wrote Lane Ryo Hirabayashi in “The Delectable Berry,” the program for a 1989 exhibit on Japanese American strawberry growers at the Japanese-American History Museum.

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At about the same time, the berry market was booming, thanks to the invention of refrigerated rail cars, which permitted the fragile fruit to be transported beyond the city limits.

Japanese Americans farmed strawberries from Bainbridge Island off the north coast of Washington to San Diego. In the Los Angeles area, they were concentrated in the Gardena Valley, an area that included present-day Gardena, Compton, Palos Verdes, Long Beach, Torrance, Carson, Hawthorne, Lennox and parts of Inglewood.

From 1900 to 1910, the Japanese American population of Los Angeles exploded from about 1,200 to more than 8,400. Most were extremely poor and spoke little, if any, English, which forced them into farm labor--in particular, strawberry growing, where a foothold had already been established.

Beyond that, Hirabayashi says, many saw themselves as dekaseki-nin, which translates as “sojourners,” temporary workers who were looking for “occupations that were economically rewarding, but that did not require large financial investments or permanent commitments.” Such as working in the strawberry fields until they had made enough money to return home.

“Our families over there were very poor,” says George Yamamoto, a 63-year-old second-generation grower in Oxnard. His father came over in 1923 at age 16, along with his uncle. “The more people they could get out and earning money, or even just out of the house and eating less food, that was important.”

Yamamoto’s uncle returned to Japan after several years, but his father stayed, going home only long enough to marry. Even though they made America their new home, Yamamoto’s parents were typical in that English remained a second--or even third--language.

“My dad learned enough to do business, but my mom spoke more Spanish than she did English,” he says. “Working out in the fields with the workers, she had to learn to speak Spanish, but she never really had any social dealings with English-speaking people. She was always at work or with the kids.”

As with other immigrant groups, the Japanese Americans tended to seek out others who spoke the same language and to follow them in professions--whether or not they had any experience at it.

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“As far as farming and helping each other out, all of my dad’s friends were Japanese-speaking people, all of them, without exception,” says Yamamoto. “They tended to create small clusters of friends who all spoke the same language and came from the same general area in Japan.”

Though characteristic of immigrants from other countries as well, for Japanese Americans, this was made even stronger by the Japanese tradition of kumiai, or mutual aid cooperatives, says Hirabayashi. And to a certain extent, these groups continue today. Naturipe, the grower’s association that evolved from the original Central California group, is still nearly 90% Japanese American.

“My dad and his friends started a Buddhist church in downtown Los Angeles [the Higashi Buddhist Temple, now moved to 3rd Street from its original location on San Pedro Street],” Yamamoto says. “To this day, whether they’re living up here in Ventura County or down in Orange County, a lot of the original members still drive there for church.”

The Japanese typically started as either day laborers (working for an hourly or piece wage) or sharecroppers (providing the labor and splitting the harvest with the landowners, who supplied land, tools and materials). Eventually, the more prosperous moved on to leasing land (paying a fixed amount of rent and keeping all of the profits themselves).

Because of the Alien Land Laws, though, it was extremely difficult for the first generation of Japanese Americans to make the profitable leap to landowner. These state statutes, which were passed in 1913 and strengthened in 1920--and which weren’t struck down until after World War II--forbade the ownership of land by first-generation Japanese.

Some got around the law by buying land in the names of their children or other American-born Japanese, but not many. In the 1940s, as few as 30% of the Japanese Americans involved in strawberry farming farmed their own land.

Still, strawberries could be profitable even on very small farms. Growers have raised families and sent children to medical school on farms that are less than 50 acres.

Even today, in an agricultural climate where farms of less than 100 acres are normally reserved only for farmers’ market-type operators, the average strawberry farm in California is 36 acres--roughly one-tenth of the average of other types of farms.

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Though berries were and still are very lucrative (statistics from 1910 show a per-acre yield 2 1/2 times that of mixed vegetables), until the 1960s they were only harvested for five or six months. That left plenty of time for growing secondary crops, which were desperately needed to feed Southern California’s booming population.

As farmers became more prosperous, they were able to work more land and moved from the crowded central Gardena Valley to other parts of the area, where acreage was more plentiful--West Los Angeles, Orange County and beyond.

When 72-year-old Jim Tamai’s parents immigrated in 1917, they joined his uncle in the Imperial Valley, where they grew melons. “Imagine going from a crowded little island to there,” he says, gesturing with his rough, square farmer hands in the little trailer that serves as his office. It sits at the back of his home ranch--a vest-pocket field carved out of a nook just off Pacific Coast Highway. As he talks, a tiny mouse skitters across the screen on the rear window. Four of his kids work with him in the business; his oldest son is an orthopedic surgeon in Alaska.

“There was nothing there then--of course, there’s nothing there now--but I guess there was a whole lot of farming ground, and that was something really different.”

Despite the movement into other types of farming, Japanese Americans remained the backbone of the strawberry industry, so much so that World War II and the banishment of West Coast Japanese Americans either to internment camps or areas far from the West Coast nearly brought about the industry’s collapse.

A Los Angeles Times story in 1942 pointed out that before the war, Japanese American farms grew more than 95% of Southern California’s strawberries.

In fact, California strawberry production, which had been as high as 27.4 million pounds just before the war, plummeted to 7.5 million pounds in 1944.

Of course, the loss of strawberries was nothing compared to the human cost.

“Being in camp really affected my father,” says Steve Murata, a 43-year-old third-generation farmer. “It’s really strange, but now when I go to Laughlin in the summer, it’s right on the river, it’s hot, it’s within a couple of hours of where [the camp] was, I sit there and think about my dad and my mom spending four years there.”

Rather than being interned, many farmers relocated, basically starting over again. “Instead of going to one of those concentration camps, my dad moved the family to Utah,” says Yamamoto. “He had a friend over there and they all worked thinning sugar beets, picking cherries and peaches and all that kind of stuff. Eventually, he and a bunch of his friends started farming there. They leased some land and grew celery and cabbage and that kind of stuff.”

After the war, though, as the strawberry industry boomed, Japanese farmers became hot prospects. Hirabayashi says Driscoll Strawberry Associates, a major grower’s cooperative, actively recruited returning internees, signing up more than 300 families from the Poston, Ariz., camp alone. Sheehy Berry Farms, which was pioneering new ground in Santa Maria, offered Japanese sharecroppers free housing and rice.

Strawberry production doubled in 1946 to 16.8 million pounds, then grew again to 37.3 million pounds in 1947. By 1950, California’s strawberry harvest was 81.3 million pounds--almost four times the prewar high. The West Coast’s share of the national strawberry market, which had been less than 20% before the war, amounted to 60% by 1955 (today California alone accounts for 80%).

The strawberry gold rush was on. Murata’s father, who had graduated from Drake University law school after the war, went back to berries. “You know how family businesses are,” Murata says. “In my family, all the girls are doctors, all the guys are farmers.”

The profitability combined with urban pressures from the postwar population boom also encouraged farmers to move to new areas, first to Orange County, then, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, to Oxnard. By 1974, the once relatively unimportant Oxnard area had pulled even with Los Angeles and Orange County combined. Today, it has more than double the strawberry acreage.

Tamai’s father, who initially did landscaping work in West Los Angeles after the war, joined his brother in moving to Oxnard to farm for Driscoll in 1950. After a year, they leased their own land and planted strawberries. Today, he and his children work a total of about 75 acres on five small farms stretching from San Diego to Oxnard.

The Yamamotos returned to farming in West Los Angeles after the war. “But it wasn’t long before we had to move some of our operations down to Orange County,” he says. “We were getting surrounded by houses. And the Marina Freeway cut our property right in half.”

When Orange County started getting crowded, Yamamoto and his brother moved to Oxnard. “We saw that down there we were getting encroachment from all the houses and decided to move up here. It was basically an agricultural area, and it still is.”

The Hasegawas also moved from Orange County in 1970, selling their 30-acre farm in Fountain Valley for enough to buy 80 acres in Oxnard. “It was either a small farm or a good-sized housing tract,” he says.

But with each succeeding generation, fewer Japanese Americans remained on the farm.

“My parents’ generation didn’t want their kids having to do the same thing,” says Yamamoto. “They encouraged us to get an education; they encouraged us to be an engineer or an accountant or a lawyer or a doctor. My dad’s generation didn’t want their children struggling as much as they did.

“For guys like us in the second generation, unless we really wanted to do it, we were encouraged not to do it. Not a whole lot of us stayed on the dirt.

“But it’s a funny thing. Now, some of those people’s children are coming back. I have friends, their kids were CPAs or lawyers, and they decided they didn’t like that lifestyle. They came back, and now they’re working for their fathers or grandfathers.”

It’s that old, irresistible combination of small farms and large profits, says Hasegawa: “I think the third generation looks at strawberry growing and sees how lucrative it is. I’m not even going to pretend to say that I work as hard as my dad did. I’m just trying to advance the business, hopefully using some technology he didn’t have. My father, though, he built this business with a shovel.”

Along with hundreds of other farmers just like him.

* Drennen tea towel and “Pensoso Decorativo” classes from Zero Minus Plus, Santa Monica, and The Woods, West Los Angeles.

STRAWBERRY PRESERVES

This recipe is a variation on one by Sylvia Thompson, the author of the “Kitchen Garden Cookbook,” which has just been reissued in paperback (Bantam, 1997). There are many ways to tell when a mixture has reached the jellying point. I’ve tried them all and think the best is by feel. You will feel the syrup thicken into a jam, and when you lift the spoon from the mixture, a properly set jam or jelly drips off at different points, rather than running off in a smooth stream.

2 pounds strawberries

2 1/2 cups sugar

1/4 cup lemon juice (or combination lemon and orange juices)

Wash and hull strawberries. Pick out half, preferably the largest and firmest, add half of sugar and juice and crush with fork in bowl. Add remaining sugar, stir well and add remaining whole hulled berries.

Place in wide preserving pan over high heat. Cook, stirring, until mixture comes to full rolling boil. Transfer to mixing bowl and set aside, uncovered, overnight.

Next day, bring berry mixture to boil in wide preserving pan over high heat. Cook, stirring, until mixture jells. Ladle into sterilized 8-ounce glass jars to within 1/2-inch of top and cover with clean, new lids, screwing bands down tight.

Place jars in large kettle of boiling water and process 10 minutes. Remove from water and cool. Lids should not spring back when touched.

4 (8-ounce) jars. Each tablespoon:

35 calories; 0 sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 9 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.08 gram fiber.

PERFUMED STRAWBERRIES IN MERINGUE BASKETS

The addition of rose geranium is not as whimsical as it may seem. Strawberries are from the same botanical family as roses and, if you smell hard enough, rose geraniums have a trace of the flower’s perfume. Already-made meringue baskets can be bought at many bakeries.

MERINGUE BASKETS

4 egg whites

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/2 cup sugar, preferably superfine

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

STRAWBERRIES

2 pints strawberries

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon snipped rose geranium leaves

MERINGUE BASKETS

Beat egg whites until foamy. Add cream of tartar and sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition until whites are stiff and glossy and sugar is completely dissolved. Fold in vanilla.

Spoon egg white mixture into pastry bag. Pipe whites onto parchment-lined baking sheet in 6 3-inch disks; smooth each disk with back of spoon. Attach star tip to pastry bag and pipe whites around outside edge of disk. Repeat twice to form three-tiered side of basket.

Bake at 250 degrees 1 hour. Turn off oven and leave meringues inside 6 more hours.

STRAWBERRIES

Wash and hull 1/2 pint berries. Crush with fork in large bowl. Add sugar and leaves and stir to combine well. Wash and hull remaining berries, cutting into bite-sized pieces. Combine with crushed berries and spoon into meringue baskets.

6 servings. Each serving:

121 calories; 39 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 28 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.53 grams fiber;

STRAWBERRY-ALMOND BUTTER

This remarkably simple recipe is adapted from Helen Evans Brown’s landmark “West Coast Cookbook” (Little, Brown; 1952).

1/4 pound (1 stick) butter

1/2 pound powdered sugar

1/2 pound strawberries, hulled

1/4 cup very finely ground almonds

Dash salt

Cream butter with powdered sugar in food processor until light and fluffy. Add strawberries and puree. Add almonds and salt and pulse to mix. Serve with waffles or crepes or on toast.

2 cups. Each tablespoon:

58 calories; 37 mg sodium; 8 mg cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.05 gram fiber.

GERRI LYNNE GRUBER’S STRAWBERRY-BANANA PIE

This recipe won first prize at last year’s “Pie Bake a la Beverly Hills” sponsored by the Beverly Hills Farmers Market.

FILLING

4 pints strawberries, washed and hulled

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin

2 tablespoons cold water

2 bananas, sliced

PIE CRUST

1 1/2 cups flour

3 tablespoons water

1/2 cup shortening

FILLING

Mash about 1 1/2 pints strawberries with sugar in saucepan. Dissolve cornstarch in lemon juice and add to strawberry mixture. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and juice becomes transparent. Remove from heat. Dissolve gelatin in water and stir into strawberry mixture. Cool.

Cut remaining strawberries in half and gently stir into strawberry mixture along with bananas. Chill several hours or overnight.

PIE CRUST

Mix 1/4 cup flour with water to form paste. Cut shortening into remaining flour. Add paste to flour-shortening mixture. Mix with fork, then knead until dough comes together. Roll into ball, wrap tightly and chill before rolling out.

Roll out dough to 10-inch circle and gently place in 9-inch pie plate. Pierce dough with fork all around sides and bottoms to prevent air bubbles from forming. Bake at 425 degrees 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven and cool.

Just before serving, pour strawberry mixture into crust, making sure best and biggest strawberries are on top.

6 to 8 servings. Each of 8 servings:

369 calories; 3 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 61 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 1 gram fiber.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Kitchen Tips

*When you get strawberries home, refrigerate them immediately, preferably loosely wrapped in a plastic bag with holes poked in it to allow air to circulate. (Those new perforated vegetable storage bags work well for strawberries.)

*Moisture is an enemy of strawberries. Do not wash them until you’re ready to use them. And then be sure to wash them before you remove the caps--they’ll absorb water through the cut.


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