From the Farmer's Tractor
January 27, 2008
Tom Ikeda, 48, is a third generation farmer in California’s Arroyo Grande Valley, also known as Oceano, just south of Pismo Beach. Ikeda farms a little over 600 acres of vegetables for his family-run Ikeda Bros. farm, and packs his produce under the Oceano label. Although Ikeda’s main crop is Chinese Napa Cabbage, his farm also raises bok choy, baby bok choy, celery, bell peppers, spinach, cilantro, avocados, field cut flowers and many varieties of lettuce.
How did you get into farming Asian vegetables?
My grandfather immigrated from Japan back in the early 1900s and settled into the Oceano area in the early 20s. My dad and uncles eventually took over the business and in the 50s, they started growing Asian vegetables.
I’ve been working at the farm since the 60s, spending summers there as a child. After college, in the early 80s, I came to work with my dad and uncles full time. Three of my cousins also came to work at the farm, and these days, I run the business with them. I’ve been working on the farm for a little over 25 years, full time.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
Our irrigation methods have definitely changed. We do more drip irrigation now, whereas 30 years ago, we used to do more furrow flood irrigation. These days, furrow flood irrigation makes up less than 5% of what we do now in terms of irrigation. Minimum tillage ground work has become much more prevalent in our operation too – it’s gone from 0 to 60% over the last 10 years. Also, we’re dealing more with issues of water quality and food safety than we did in years past.
How will Asian vegetable farming evolve in the next five years?
Over the past number of years, ethnic foods have really grown in popularity. Asian vegetables in particular have become much more mainstream, especially over the past five to seven years. I believe this trend will continue into the next five years and beyond.
Food safety issues will also continue to be a big part of farming in the next five years. As an industry, we’ve been focusing more on leafy greens, but as we move forward, we’re going to be focusing on vegetables across the board.
What is your greatest challenge as an Asian vegetable farmer?
Asian vegetables are a still specialty crop, so a lot of the pesticides used for more mainstream vegetables have not been tested on our varieties. That makes it difficult to find appropriate methods for pest control. Chinese Napa Cabbage in particular is susceptible to worms, so we really have to be careful and take advantage of the small window we have each growing season to spray preventatively while protecting our irrigation methods.
Chinese Napa Cabbage is also extremely salt sensitive. Since we are farming along the coast, there are always concerns about saltwater intrusion, so we really have to monitor water conditions very carefully.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
We’re an integrated operation and market through sales and cooling co-op, Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange, or POVE. Our salesmen have a feel for how we do business and they’ll start asking for specific things. That way, we’ll know what they are looking for and therefore, what we should be heading towards.
For example, one thing that the retailers have been very interested in is convenience packaging. People are looking for more bagged items with smaller, more usable amounts, especially when it comes to Asian vegetables. They like individually packaged Napa Cabbage, or the smaller baby bok choy versus regular bok choy, so that when they make a weekly stir-fry, they don’t have a lot of waste leftover. As Asian vegetables have really entered the mainstream, we’ve seen increased demand for these types of innovations.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
We’re really trying to reduce run-off from the ranch, and make sure that if there is run-off, that the water is clean. Minimum tillage is another way to keep organic material in the root zone. We’re reducing our use of diesel fuel and making fewer passes through the field to work the ground. Newer irrigation methods are saving us on water.
We are also doing more wide bed farming, which means that in the same amount of space, we can produce 25 to 50% more crop, and that makes our tractor, water and fertilizer use more efficient. Additionally, we do soil and tissue testing to reduce our needs for fertilizer. Overall, we are working to be more efficient with the resources that we have.
Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?
Through word of mouth, we sell some items directly to customers. Our cut flowers are sold directly to some smaller, local stores. Local restaurants and groceries purchase from our co-op. And we are currently looking into doing more direct sales programs through things like community supported farm subscriptions.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
When we meet customers, they are usually interested in how we’re growing things. They want to know about our philosophy of farming, how we are reducing the amount of conventional inputs like pesticides, and that we are making responsible growing decisions. Talking to the customer gives them piece of mind, and helps them understand that we are growing our crops in the proper way.