Your vegetable and fruit consumption possibilities can be endless. Inside the produce aisles can lay rows of deep forest-green cucumbers or perfectly assembled round red skin tomatoes. In another market, carefully aligned Gai Lan (Chinese broccoli) are stacked into healthy green architecture and next to them can be the colorful mild and hot Japanese peppers that tingle your tongues. As consumers, it’s a privilege to have access to so much produce and be able to select any to take home. But yours are not the first pair of hands the produce has had contact with.
Prior to any produce being delivered to grocery stores or sold in markets, the agricultural process for each vegetable and fruit is carefully and strategically developed. The process from beginning to end tells the story of dedicated farmers that patiently follow their cultivation until harvesting season. Through family traditions or generational practices, farmers are practicing sustainable techniques to produce fresh vegetables and fruits. Their extraneous work and process are not easily seen at your neighborhood grocery. Rather, each vegetable and fruit can be a storyteller of the many human touches, human interactions and the human efforts being placed before its consumption.
The Sakuma Brothers –
Large Production Farm
The Sakuma Brothers, located in Skagit County, own one of the largest farms in the state of Washington. Now a fourth generational family business, Steve Sakuma is the president of the corporation that operates a commercial fruit processing and packaging plant, a development laboratory and a nursery operation. The growth of the family establishment, passed down from his Japanese immigrant grandparents, requires an extensive amount of time and carefully monitored stages to ensure quality fruits.
Today, the Sakuma Brothers grow mainly strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries—about 200 acres are reserved for strawberries. For strawberries itself, the process of reaching its final consumer destination can take up to three production years, says Steve Sakuma.
First: The small fruit plant is placed in a nursery stock where propagation begins. For each fruit, they carry different varieties. Like the strawberries in Washington State, varieties can include the “Totem,” the “Hood” or the “Rainier.” At Sakuma Brother’s, they take cuttings from a mother plant and multiply them in their nursery.
Second: The fruit plants are transferred into a green house as it becomes matured to be planted into the commercial fields.
“Each acre produces 7-8 tons per acre of strawberries,” says Sakuma.
Third: This year, strawberry plants reached soil during March-April. This stage requires the longest patience as the fruit will not produce until the following June. During this year-long wait, tending to the plant requires careful watering and prevention methods to keep pesticides and viruses away.
Fourth: Between June and July, the Sakuma Brother’s would need about 350-425 workers to start hand-picking the strawberries in a 21-day period. An average schedule would begin work at 5 a.m. and ending at 1 p.m. Some workers are seasonal migrants that move north from California and Oregon. For the last 15 years, Steve Sakuma says seasonal workers come from Wahaka, Mexico—home to a large indigenous group. Depending on immigration patterns, Sakuma has also witnessed Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees during the 70s-80s and during the 90s, an influx of Russian and Ukrainian groups.
Fifth: While technological inventions and machines have improved, strawberries are 100 percent hand-picked to ensure the highest quality as it sells in fresh market. Unlike raspberries, 98 percent can be machine picked because the fruit are often used in puree mixes.
Sixth: Because strawberries final destinations are usually in fresh markets, they enter a stage called field packing. Workers start at 6 a.m and begin hand-packing strawberries in containers ready to be loaded inside trucks.
Seventh: Strawberries that are not picked for fresh markets enter a cooler processing plant that enters a barrel with or without sugar. The strawberries are then sent to a cold storage in Bellingham that maintains its inventory until distributed to buyers. For example, the Sakuma Brothers have a contract with Haagen Dazs ice-cream. Until the company needs strawberries, they will be kept safely in cold storage.
A generational family business, Sakuma emphasizes on the importance of growing and the willingness to adapt to economical changes in order for the next generation to expand.
“You have to grow,” says Sakuma. “If you do not grow, then your next generation gets nothing out of the business.”
Mareth Fulton, local farmer from Zillah, Washington –
Middle Scale Farm Production
Mareth Fulton is a part-time farmer who owns 44 acres of vineyard in Zillah, Washington. After several travels to Japan, her visionary vineyard project began. During one stay in Japan, she did a farm tour and began to pay close attention to Japan’s small farms.
“The small farms in Japan were done in a very precise manner with intense cultivation,” says Fulton.
With farming techniques and insights gathered from her Japan trips, Fulton’s vineyard began to grow primarily Asian vegetables. Today, her vineyard reserves two acres to grow vegetables exclusively for Uwajimaya. The partnership began when Fulton met with Alan Lau—a produce worker at Uwajimaya for 30 years.
“We began to operate on a wish list of vegetables that Uwajimaya wanted,” says Fulton.
In the early spring, Fulton’s vineyard is seen with Komatsuna—a large leafy green that can be called “Japanese Mustard Spinach” and Misome—a richly deep green vegetables ideal for pickling. For most parts of the spring season, Fulton maintains Gai Lan, (alternately called Chinese broccoli), Dai Kon greens and Malabar spinach usually used in South East Asian cooking. By summer, Fulton’s vineyard is filled with cucumbers, squash and peppers.
To plant her greens in the vineyard, Fulton says the process requires a very systematic process with precise team management.
First: Fulton orders seeds exclusively from Kitazawa Seed Company—one of the oldest seed companies in America that specializes in Asian vegetable seeds.
Second: Next, Fulton plants the seeds inside a seed house. For example, the Misome seeds may be housed for up to four weeks.
Third: For the green vegetables, they go under a low tunnel system using galvanized pipe straps to form rainbow arches 30 inches high. This tunnel system would be covered in a fine mesh to keep pest pressure down and to protect the plant from mechanical damages.
Fourth: As the vegetables begin to mature, they may sit in soil for up to 8-10 weeks. During this period, workers begin weeding out and thinning the plants for a nourished growth.
Fifth: From beginning to end, Fulton’s vineyard requires about eight people to manage its agricultural process. Two women are responsible for harvesting and packaging and are done twice a week.
Sixth: In the end, Fulton’s harvested Asian vegetables are delivered to Uwajimaya once a week. But every year in August, its delivery is up to two times a week.
“Growing Asian vegetables are similar to growing other kinds,” says Fulton. “But what I’m doing is introducing customers to a variety. The difference is in marketing.”
Toulee Lor—a local farmer in Carnation, Washington –
Smaller Scale Farm Production
Every Wednesday, Toulee Lor and his children sell their produce and flowers at Seattle’s Columbia City Farmers Market. Lor’s family is Hmong American. According to Washington State University’s King County Extension and Farm Teams research, Hmong are from the highlands of Laos who immigrated as refugees during the Vietnam War. Today, Hmong farmers have become a rich fabrication and representation of King County’s agricultural landscape since a major immigration wave in the 1980s.
“There’s about 200-300 Hmong family farms in Washington,” says Lor. “But only 40-50 Hmong farmers.”
Located in Carnation, Washington, Lor’s family farm is 11 acres and the majority of their produce are Asian vegetables. Since 1994, Lor and his wife have been the main cultivators of their farm while their children help at the local farmer markets. For Lor, he began his farming ambitions twenty years ago when he learned the art and techniques from his parents while living in Laos for 11 years.
Lor adopted sustainable farming skills. When the opportunity to rent a piece of land in Carnation became attainable, he never wavered. With almost 20 years experience, Lor’s practice of traditional family farming is seen through his hard work. His pair of working hands is wrapped with a thick layer of calluses. Looking closely, one’s bare eye is unable to locate his fingerprints. One can only imagine the commitment to withstand the seasonal changes, weather conditions and laborious work in order to witness the growth of one seed.
First: Lor begins his seed selection from December to February—always choosing a variety including Asian vegetables seeds. “I buy my seeds from a large company in San Francisco,” says Lor.
Second: To create moisture for his vegetables to grow, Lor begins a process of overturning the earth soil upside down. Often times, he creates rows that are six feet wide.
Third: By March, Lor begins putting seeds in the soil using his three large Taylor farming machineries. He describes placing the seeds inside a container of the machine and will be evenly scattered and distributed onto the soil once the machine in being pushed.
Fourth: As the seeds are growing inside the soil, Lor patiently waits two weeks to check for soil quality. In addition, he waits to see a healthy spurt of the plant in which he calls the eye. “When I see two small leaves with an eye in the middle, I know it’s good and I won’t need to replant,” says Lor.
Fifth: From May to September, Lor and his wife spend endless hours at their farm. Usually from 6 a.m. until 11p.m. For Lor, the work feels like a 24-hour process. And depending on the vegetable, Lor must follow certain times to hand-pick in order to ensure the best quality. For example, he must begin picking his Kale between 5 a.m. until 8 a.m. during the summer months to utilize early morning moistures. But for his beets and peas, Lor says he can pick them anytime because moisture is not as important.
Sixth: As his vegetables are being grown, Lor is careful to keep bugs from eating away his plants. Therefore, his acre of land has installed five sprinklers that are set to water three times a week to prevent bugs away.
Seventh: When his vegetables are ready, his wife begins the pick and carefully places them in boxes as they travel once a week down to Columbia City to sell the fruits of their labor and sometimes, even more trips down to Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
Whether it’s a small farm or big farm, mass produced or produced only for local markets, each farmer has their unique niche, tradition and style. Sometimes, techniques passed from generations. Other times, knowledge adapted from other countries. Each farmer can specialize in a fruit or vegetable. Each farmer can choose to rely on new technological inventions or stick with traditional farming. Each farmer’s clientele can be different. But no matter the differences, each farmer will always have a process. A strategic process tailored for their farm and a process that vividly displays a supply chain story until it reaches the hands of consumers.