Working harder than ever: the last remaining Japanese American farmers

September 16, 2023

The story of Japanese American farmers in California paints a complex picture of generational resilience in the face of adversity and economic change. Alan Hayashi, a 62-year-old farmer, represents the last remaining Japanese American farming families in an area that once thrived with them. His 120-hectare farm in Arroyo Grande, California, has been in his family for four generations.

Before World War II, two-thirds of Japanese Americans on the West Coast worked in agriculture, playing a vital role in cultivating fruits and vegetables that included strawberries, tomatoes, celery, and peppers. However, their success was disrupted by the war. The government’s incarceration of Japanese Americans led to immense property losses and denied them the chance to build generational wealth.

While some Japanese American farming families like the Hayashis managed to rebuild after the war, their operations remained significantly smaller than before. The rise of large industrial farms and post-war development in Southern California suburbs contributed to the challenges faced by small-scale family operations.

The descendants of Japanese American farmers from the sansei generation (third-generation) have had to adapt to changing economic and social forces. Many are forgoing retirement to keep their family farms alive. These aging farmers, like Alan Hayashi, work long hours to ensure their farms’ survival.

Some farms, like Tanaka Farms in Irvine, have transitioned to agritourism as a way to remain viable. They offer farm tours, educational programming, and direct sales to visitors. Such diversification has allowed them to thrive despite the challenges.

The story of Japanese American farmers also highlights the discrimination they faced in the past, such as racist ordinances and land ownership restrictions. Despite these obstacles, they developed remarkable farming skills and created co-ops to sell their produce.

Today, efforts are underway to document the history of Japanese American farms with prewar roots, as a growing number of community-led projects aim to preserve this legacy. While the generational story of Japanese American farmers in California includes hardships, it also reflects resilience, determination, and the desire to honor the memory of their ancestors through their work in agriculture.

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