If you were asked what activities you associate with your Japanese American identity, what would you say? Grabbing imagawayaki in Little Tokyo, visiting the incarceration camps, or dancing Bon Odori? Maybe eating homemade spam musubis in between basketball tournament games?
My answer? Walking a farm.
Tanaka Farms, specifically.
Every year since I was in third grade, I look forward to summer time. Not because school is out, but because it means my favorite event is coming up: Walk the Farm at Tanaka Farms.
Walk the Farm is a mile walk around Tanaka Farms where you get to sample fresh fruits and vegetables, watch taiko performances, and learn more about farmers in Japan who were affected by the 2011 9.0 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Walk the Farm was created to raise funds to help these Japanese farmers rebuild from the devastating destruction caused to their farmland and homes. Although American news outlets stopped covering the disaster, the farmers are still struggling even today.
As a kid, Walk the Farm was all my favorite things wrapped in one. Sweet sizzling Maui onions. Spicy Anaheim chilies bathed in shoyu. Kakigori and tri tip sliders served by volunteers. The reddest, most yummy looking strawberries I’ve ever seen. Big smiles and laughter all around.
It’s become a thriving JA community event, and I’ve never been able to go twenty feet without saying hi to someone I know from the Japanese American community or giving hugs to another auntie. It is amazing to see thousands of walkers, volunteers, and sponsors all come together for a fun day and a great cause.
I was so sad to hear that many Obon festivals couldn’t be held in person or to full capacity this year because of COVID, so I’m really glad that we were able to have Walk the Farm as a way to continue the annual tradition of bringing the community together.
The event is ever-evolving, too. I’ve loved the newest parts of the Walk the past two years, where we get to pick and eat fruits and veggies straight from the Farm. It literally can’t get fresher than that! My cousins, aunties, uncles, sister, parents, and I have fun eating perfect carrots, tomatoes, and strawberries off the vine. Even my grandma participates - although these days she does the route in a golf cart! Every year, we find new ways to enjoy Walk the Farm as a family and a community.
From participating as a walker the first few years, to volunteering by creating the Walk the Farm website and passing out vegetables, to meeting and learning first-hand from the farmers we support in Japan, to writing about them in the Rafu Shimpo, every year I’m more inspired and determined to make sure our friends halfway across the world and other farmers affected by natural disasters are not forgotten.
My family and I had the opportunity to visit farmers in Sendai, Japan who have received support from Walk the Farm. I distinctly remember the raw emotion of one of the farmers as she took my hands in hers and gave me a deep bow with tears in her eyes. It shocked me since a deep bow in Japan signifies great respect, and I was only a teenager. She told me that she and her husband were so grateful to Walk the Farm for aiding them in their recovery and for giving them hope during their hardest times. She said that the silver lining of the disaster was the connections she was able to make with people from all over the world like from Walk the Farm.
In more recent years, Walk the Farm has sponsored Japanese students who are pursuing a career in agriculture. It was so exciting to meet Miho and Ayaka, two students from Fukushima University, at this year’s Walk. Miho is interested in US plant-based foods. Ayaka wants to be a teacher to encourage younger generations to continue farming in Japan. I am inspired by both of their passions to change the field of agriculture for the better.
As I reflected on the huge impact Tanaka Farms has had on me and so many others, I became more interested in Japanese American farms on the West Coast. As I learned more and more about JA farm history, it has become my mission to make sure that our history of Japanese American farmers is not forgotten either, with the Issei Nisei Farm Legacy Project.
Don’t miss out on the second part of the story in the next issue!