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Japanese American National Museum Magazine

America’s Strawberry: Fruit of Our Labor

Think of a bright red, plump strawberry, its juicy sweetness dancing on your tongue, filling up your senses. Now think of having to do without the delicious treat. Indeed, there were times in the history of the California strawberry industry when the whole enterprise seemed ready to collapse.

The fact that the industry thrives today is a testament to the hard work of its practitioners, a group which includes many Japanese Americans.

Strawberries have been farmed in the United States since the mid-19th century, but they did not flourish in California. However, for the pioneers who dared to grow strawberries, there existed a healthy consumer market ready to gobble up their berries.

Hiroshi Shikuma remembers that by 1906 his father had managed to make a “few dollars” through farming strawberries. “There was a big decision for him,” Shikuma recalled, “whether to go back to Japan with the money he had earned or to go into this venture in Salinas”.

His father entered into a partnership with two other Japanese and three Caucasian farmers. It was a remarkable example of early inter-racial cooperation. However, crop failure decided the fate of many Issei, and the venture was “a total disaster...he lost all his money,” Shikuma said.

The Shikuma family managed to start over and eventually became one of the largest strawberry farmers in the Watsonville area before World War II.

The Issei saw opportunity in the risky crop: business was not dominated by a single ethnic group the market would buy at a good price; and they could begin with little start-up money. Intense labor requirements could be met by using all family members.

Moreover, a large harvest could be coaxed from a small plot of land, and a family could support itself on a few acres. As family and friends followed the pioneers to America, they were drawn into the business, and soon, the infant strawberry industry was dominated by Japanese immigrants and their children.

As prosperity came, some growers’ fields produced more fruit than they could manage. Paul Murata said his family hired laborers. “During strawberry time, we had a Japanese labor camp. All Issei, but they were young yet. They were still in their 20s or 30s...There were a lot of single men.”

Other farmers, such as the Shikumas and the Driscolls, another pioneering farming family, relied on a system of sharecropping, supplying land and plants to families who supplied the physical labor. Profits were split evenly. Many Issei jumped at the chance to begin farming without capital investment and maintain autonomy over their two to four acres.

The increasing prosperity and number of growers spawned a movement to organize the industry. On April 9, 1917, the Central California Berry Growers Association was formed. Five Japanese and five Caucasian growers served as its board of directors.

As an example of inter-racial cooperation, it was atypical for its time. In fact, it was a time in which “Yellow Peril” fears lead to passage of the Japanese Exclusion Act. Nevertheless, equal economic power and precedence of inter-racial ventures within the industry allowed the Central California Berry Association to thrive even against the tide of popular opinion.

In organizing, the growers began to exert greater control over market prices and establish quality standards. They also funded research with the University of California, Berkeley, to cross-breed a variety of strawberry more suited to California. The changes strengthened the industry and proved profitable, but it was a success that would be shattered by World War II.

Paul Murata’s father, a visible figure in the community, was arrested shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. “We all quit school and ran the farm until we were evacuated,” Murata remembered.

The devastation of Japanese Americans was reflected in the industry. The amount of land used for strawberries fell, and Caucasian growers lost many long-time employees to the camps.

Additionally, a new danger faced the university research project headed by Dr. Harold E. Thomas. Third generation strawberry grower Tom Driscoll remembers, “During the war, the university decided the strawberry would never be an industry (in California), and they were going to take Dr. Thomas and put him into cotton research for the war effort.”

Tom’s father, Ned, created a private research institute and hired Dr Thomas to continue his work. The move stirred controversy. On one hand, research continued uninterrupted through the war. On the other hand, the move to research into the private sector split the industry into two camps: those who benefited from the Driscoll varieties and those who did not.

At war’s end, the rebuilding process began. Murata returned to Southern California to find that “the biggest struggle was the discrimination. Nobody wanted to lease you land to farm”.

Shikuma called upon his father’s business associates at a commission house to lend him the money to restart.

For those without land or friendly business contacts, the return was a more frightening experience. “They had no house to go to. They had no land to go to,” remembered Terrance Sheehy, a second generation berry farmer.

Sheehy’s father, Kenneth, sent recruiters to the camps, and hundreds of internees left to become sharecroppers for various growers, including the Driscolls and Shikumas.

In Santa Maria, where the Sheehy Berry Fram is located, alack of housing was aproblem. The Sheehys provided building material, and former camp carpenters supervised construction. Consequently, says Sheehy, “all the housing was exact coies (of camp barracks).”

Kiyoshi Nishimura, a Sheehy employee, laughed and recalled, “It was just like camp.”

Bringing Japanese Americans into Santa Maria was a risk, Sheehy added. “There was definite hostility here, an I think my father did a courageous thing because he suffered some discrimination and some indignation for just that...for befriending and taking the Japanese Americans on.” In time, Santa Maria became more tolerant toward the “new element.”

The post-war years saw a great demand for the sweet red fruit. Murata’s strawberry and chili farm expanded rapidly. “In 1947, we had about 35 acres, and then in 1948 we had about a hundred,” he said. Profits were high, and sharecropper families quickly saved the capital to strike out on their own.

There were many reasons fro the renewed success of the strawberry industry. Just before the war the University of California had developed two varieties that were better suited to California’s weather, yielded large crops and were more resistant to disease. Also, a new market was created with the advent of frozen foods. Finally, with better berries and refrigeration, California growers could ship their fruit to other states.

Ironically, the industry’s success led to its downfall in 1957. Said Wastonville berry farmer Kuni Shinta, “Nineteen fifty-seven was a somewhat banner year. That precipitated a lot more doctors and lawyers and whoever had the capital to try to exploit this market.”

“Fifty-six, ’57, was more or less of a crash,” said Sheehy, “just like the stock market crash” and the total acreage of strawberry production “went way, way down.”

The growers who remained had to start over. Second generation grower Tom Murakami recalled, “It was rough...My folks were there to help me out. They had a few dollars, and we had a few dollars.”

The industry reorganized. In 1958, The Central California Berry Growers Association officially changed its name to Naturipe. It was the largest cooperative in the industry.

Dave Riggs, president of the California Strawberry Advisory Board, entered the industry during the 1970s, “All through the early ‘70s, the acreage in strawberries continually increased,” Riggs said.

Through the board, an aggressive marketing and promotions campaign was established. The board has tried to increase consumer awareness and prevent another market crash by whetting appetites for strawberries when production is high.

Today, California supplies 70 percent of all the nation’s strawberries. It is a success earned in spite of critics who said strawberries would never grow in California. Clearly, America’s strawberry is the fruit of hard work, perseverance and a unique history of racial cooperation.


* This article originally appeared in the Summer / Fall 1989 issue of the Japanese American National Museum Member Magazine.

© 1989 Japanese American National Museum

farmers strawberry farms


These articles were originally published in the print member's magazine of the Japanese American National Museum.