A Day at Japanese American Family Farm, Hikari Farms
Growing up in a large Japanese and Japanese American community outside of LA (Torrance, CA), I was fortunate to have access to a wide array of high quality Japanese herbs and vegetables. My Dad also has an incredible green thumb, so I grew up enjoying produce from his garden.
When I moved to San Francisco eight years ago, I realized how spoiled I had been! There are a couple of Japanese markets in Japantown, but the level of quality and variety just weren’t comparable. That’s why I was so happy to discover Hikari Farms through Bi-Rite market a couple of years back. Everything they grow is certified organic, and you can just feel the love they put into growing everything.
So I was over the moon when Janet Nagamine, the second generation owner reached out and invited me to the farm for a tour, presentation, and hot pot lunch on a rainy day in May. Hikari Farms isn’t open to the public, so I am so excited to share my experience and everything I learned about this small but mighty and inspirational farm here.
First, a bit of history…
In 1956, Janet’s father, Akira Nagamine, came to the United States with just $24.32 in his pocket and a 30-month contract to work with a strawberry grower in Watsonville, CA. He was from a farming family in Kagoshima, Japan, and brought with him generations of farming knowledge from the farming ancestors who came before him. Like many immigrants, he came in search of more opportunities and a better life.
Amazingly, within just six years of moving to this country, the Nagamine family was able to buy six acres of land in 1962. A few years later, Mr. Nagamine founded A. Nagamine Nursery, which specialized in flowers and was very successful. He and his wife raised their three children on the farm, saving enough with their small business to send their children to college. Eventually, the flower industry moved largely to Central and South America, and the business experienced a sharp decline.
In 2014, when Mr. Nagamine was 88 years old, the family considered closing down the farm. He wasn’t quite ready to walk away from his life’s work, and didn’t want to put the farm’s foreman, who had been with him for 41 years, out of a job. While they were waiting to find a leasee, Mr. Nagamine decided to diversify by growing just すこし (sukoshi, or a little bit) organic Japanese vegetables and selling them to a few local restaurants, just for fun.
Their daughter, Janet, had lived out her parents' dream by completing medical school and becoming a physician. During this time, she came back to the farm and observed her parents working. She was amazed by their ingenuity and resourcefulness, and realized how deeply rooted farming was in her DNA. Though her lineage on both sides trace back to generations of farming in Japan, it wasn’t until she came home that she began to fully appreciate and respect this deeply rooted tradition.
Since then, so much has happened. Some of my favorite Bay Area restaurants like Ramen Shop and State Bird Provisions source their produce from Hikari Farms. Shops like Bi Rite, Rainbow Grocery, Nijiya, and Marukai carry their produce like organic wasabi arugula, senmoto negi (green onions), turnips, and their famous Japanese cucumbers. Kitchen Table Advisors, and Good Eggs have partnered to support sustainable small farms like Hikari (as well as a diverse array of largely female, migrant, and farmers of color), through business advising and financial tools.
There is even a documentary in progress about Mr. Nagamine’s inspiring immigrant story! I was humbled and even brought to tears a couple of times hearing how much Janet admires her parents’ resilience and ingenuity. When you’re with Janet, that admiration and pride is contagious. She gave me a renewed sense of pride in being Japanese American.
Today, Hikari Farms hosts private events for their family and customers, as well as agricultural and cultural events like their annual family New Year’s mochitsuki. Janet also helped revive a 30-year-old tradition which works to strengthen their relationship with Japan through trainee programs, seed programs, and preserving the regional foods of Kagoshima, Japan. On the day I visited, there was a team of four of Japanese trainees helping to host the farm-to table event for the Kagoshima Kenjin-kai.
I loved learning about all the clever farming techniques that the Nagamine family brought with them from Kagoshima, Japan, including シュロの皮 shuro no kawa, which is the the skin of a palm tree. It can be used to make rope, protect plants from cold and heat, is breathable, and doesn’t mold. Upon further research I learned that this natural byproduct is used to make brooms and tawashi scrub brushes, too! When a piece of rope is old and has broken apart, the Nagamines simply braid it back together with another piece of rope to reuse it. To this day, each seedling is planted by hand using a single hashi (a chopstick). Everything at Hikari Farms is lovingly made by hand, including the original greenhouse structure built by Mr. Nagamine in 1967.
Janet has started going back to work more at Kaiser in Watsonville, where she works in Internal Medicine. As is the case with most farms, the farming schedule is intense year-round. When most farms take a break for the winter, Hikari Farms is especially busy since New Year’s is a major holiday.
Like me, Janet grew up visiting her grandmother in Japan during summers. As a young girl, the only Japanese foods she would eat were udon and edamame. Recently, Janet has begun growing edamame on the farm in honor of her grandmother. Now in their 90s, the elder Nagamines are still hard at work on the farm, doing their best to impart their knowledge to the younger generation.
Thank you, Janet, for sharing your family’s story with me, and inviting me over for a meal. It was an unforgettable experience, and a memory I will always cherish. Somehow, you manage to have two of the most demanding jobs in the world. You are truly a super woman and gatekeeper of our heritage. I’m so grateful for Hikari Farms and honored to share your story. Arigato!
If you’re based in the Bay Area and would like to support Hikari Farms, their organic Japanese product is available at online home grocer Good Eggs!