COLUMNISTS

A little farm in a big city

John Oncken

If perchance through business, pleasure or necessity (as I was) you find yourself in southern California for an extended period, you will soon tire of trips to the ocean and viewing cute communities made up of closely packed, expensive houses (median price of $1.1 million) and seek something different. The closed El Toro Marine Air Base (currently undergoing redevelopment) intrigues me. However, it's off-limits to the public.

The Tanaka family. Far left, Glenn and Shirley with son, Kenny, right, and his wife, Kristi, and their three children.

One small farm

True, there are a multitude of historic sites and parks to be seen and enjoyed and even one farm that is advertised and promoted as a destination where you can see crops growing, buy vegetables from a market and “pick your own” crops in season. My daughter Laurel and I decided to visit this family-owned farm on a recent Sunday and see what it was about.

Tanaka Farms began with great-grandfather Takeo, who immigrated from Hiroshima Japan in the early 1900s. His son, George, was born in Dinuba, California. The family worked on a small farm as farm hands. In 1941, Grandpa George got his own truck to ship produce in La Habra, California.

To Utah

The next year (1942), George fled to Utah so he didn't have to go into the WWII internment camps. While in Utah he met his soon-to-be wife Chris. In 1945, after the end of World WarII, George and Chris Tanaka returned to Orange County and settled in Fountain Valley where they farmed various properties, growing tomatoes, vegetables and strawberries.

In 1957, Son Glenn Tanaka was born in Fountain Valley.

From 1977 to the 1990s the Tanaka family grew wholesale tomatoes and strawberries. They expanded their acreage up to 300 acres and also started their own packing and distribution business across the country.

Thousands of people visit Tanaka Farms each year. The 30-acre farm produces fruits & vegetables that supplies the produce stand, provides for its CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, and various educational tours.

Glenn Tanaka attended Cal State Pomona where he studied Agricultural Business. It was here that he met his soon-to-be wife, Shirley, who was studying nutrition. Shirley also grew up in a farming family in Riverside.

Visiting the farm

Glenn Tanaka and his wife Shirley had a son, Kenny, in 1983, and by the time he started preschool in 1986, the agritourism business model was about to become a reality!

Bringing Kenny's preschool class out to the farm for an educational tour was the spark. Kids learned about farming, how seeds turn into plants, picked some vegetables, and, of course, picked their own pumpkin! Now, over 30 years later, thousands of school children visit the farm every year.

Maui onions and strawberries growing together, it’s called companion planting.

Farms disappear

Most of Orange County, especially Irvine, was farmland until the mid-1950’s when tract housing began to take over the cities. Suburban areas started to spread with very few farms having survived this change.

Tanaka Farms is the only remaining family-run farm in Irvine that hosts educational and U-Pick tours. The 30 acres on which the farm is currently located was at one time part of a 100-acre strawberry farm.

Strawberries grow hydroponically in these water-filled rain gutters. Tanaka Farm has a half million strawberry plants.

In 1996, Strawberry Farms Golf Course bought 70 acres of the land and left the remaining 30 acres to the City of Irvine. Two years later, Tanaka leased the remaining 30 acres and moved his farming operation from Irvine Center Drive and Baker Parkway in Irvine. Thus began the transformation away from wholesale farming to responsible farming techniques and agritourism.

The farm is now situated in a valley in the heart of Irvine. It's hard to believe that this beautiful farm can exist among all of the development in Orange County.

Kenny Tanaka is married to Christine, a school teacher in Irvine. Together they have two children, Landon, and Kaylee.

Enjoying a tour of Tanaka Farm via a flat rack wagon.

Thousands of tours

In 2003, the popularity of the Strawberry Tours skyrocketed from a few hundred visitors to thousands, and the farm continues to host individual families and schools from all over Southern California today.

Because of the ways farming has changed in recent years, the Tanakas have had to be creative with their endeavors in order to continue farming in Southern California.

The farm's current operations include: a Produce Market stand, a CSA (community Supported Agriculture) Program, Educational Farm Tours, a Pumpkin Patch and a Christmas tree lot.

A family picking fresh vegetables.

Now nestled in a valley of Irvine, the 30-acre farm is owned and operated by “Farmer Kenny” along with his mother and father. The farm produces 60 different varieties of fruits and vegetables year-round, hosts educational farm tours, has a Christmas tree lot, and runs a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that delivers weekly boxes of fresh produce to local businesses and residents.

Tanaka’s annual pumpkin patch attracts the biggest crowd with around 60,000 visitors during the month of October. During this surge, Tanaka’s staff of 22 employees swells to include more than 100 seasonal workers. 

Newly dug carrots at the Tanaka Farm Market.

The Tanakas also provides educational farm tours to thousands of school children every year.

And while the hayrides, pumpkin patches and fresh produce stands take us back to simpler times, few may realize how much technology is cropping up on today’s farms.

“Our mission is to educate, entertain and feed families all year long,” Tanaka explained. “We do strawberry tours, watermelon tours, U-pick tours, so people can pick their own vegetables. We give them that hands-on experience.” 

Tanaka, who grew up working on the family farm, said that after college it was the agritourism element that really drew him into the business. 

“The U-Pick Wagon Ride includes a wagon ride around the farm led by one of our tour guides where riders learn about Tanaka Farms and its history, farming methods, and the crops we grow” Kenny explains. ”They will make a few stops in the fields to pick their produce (produce varies and is dependent on crop availability)."

Cost is $20 per person with children 2 and under free.

A variety of fruit and vegetables at the farm.

“I really liked interacting with kids,” he says. “Showing them how to eat fruits and vegetables, where they’re coming from, and teaching visitors how to eat healthy at an early age.”

Harvesting tech on the farm

Many of the farm’s operations are still done today the same way as when Tanaka was a kid. In fact, some of his great-grandfather’s equipment and tractors still work the fields. But in the early 2000s, as the business started to evolve from a wholesale farm to a destination farm with tours and events, Tanaka knew the company needed to make some changes. 

“When our tours started becoming popular and we wanted to try advertising. That's probably when technology came more into play for us,” he said.

Tanaka recalled a long and painful process of getting the farm online. It started with a Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), which allowed Tanaka Farms to run one credit card machine on one phone line.

The next iteration was a T1 line that required tearing up the property for installation and came at a huge cost. Even then, Tanaka said service was extremely slow. Finally, Tanaka Farms switched to a high-speed internet system that increased its upload and download speeds from 3 megabits per second (mbps) to 300 mbps.

30 acres among among millions of people…interesting.

John Oncken can be reached at jfodairy2@gmail.com