First broccoli crop grown by SM Produce during Great Depression

First broccoli crop grown by SM Produce during Great Depression

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The Tomooka brothers, Toyokichi and Toyokuma, came to California from Japan in the early 1900s, with Toyokichi coming first and settling in the Santa Maria area where he married Yone Matsuoka.

Toyokuma, 18 years old at the time, arrived in San Francisco on Nov. 12, 1905. Since his passport and documentation as a permanent resident was the ticket that allowed him to be employed, he found a job as a house boy, earning $7.50 per week, a position that he held during the tragic 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The following year Toyokuma hopped a freight train to join his older brother, Toyokichi, in Guadalupe where the two worked for Union Sugar Company, each earning $10 per week.

Eventually, the two brothers farmed sugar beets and potatoes on leased land in Oso Flaco. However, when California’s Alien Land Law of 1913 was enacted, which made aliens ineligible for citizenship, the brothers were unsure how they could continue with their farming operation. Their future was made even more dismal when new laws made it impossible for an immigrant to either own or lease land. Somehow, though, the brothers survived.

When Toyokuma was 31 years old, he felt that the time had come for him to find a wife. Using the matchmaking services of Yojiro Oishi, he began a correspondence with Kane Akizuki in Japan, and exchanged photos. When Kane received the photo of Toyokuma, a wedding ring was attached, and she thus became a picture bride. Had this matchmaking process taken place a year later, Kane would not have been able to leave Japan as giving passports to picture brides was prohibited.

On June 24, 1919, at the age of 19, Kane left her family and friends in Yokohama and sailed to California, arriving in San Francisco 17 days later where she easily passed through immigration.

Since Kane had no western-style clothing, the two went on a shopping spree and spent $300 on American clothing before climbing aboard a train headed for Toyokuma’s 300-acre home and farm in Oso Flaco.

Living next door to her brother-in-law and his wife, Kane learned to cook and wash clothes for her new husband and his 10 field workers. She later helped in the fields, with her day starting at 4 a.m.

She refused to complain about the work as she was determined to do whatever it took to make a life in America.

When children began to arrive, life was even more trying for the woman, especially during the harvest when she washed clothes and cooked for about 40 hungry field workers.

Kane lived in Oso Flaco for a little more than three months when she suffered an attack of appendicitis, and needed an appendectomy. At that time there were no hospitals, just a large room filled with bed-ridden patients and women helping to take care of them. Again, the strong-willed woman survived another hurdle in life.

Masayoshi (Massey), born in 1920, was the first child. Two years later, the couple’s second child, Yoshito, was born. By 1936, the family, in addition to Massey and Yoshito, consisted of Kiko (the only daughter), Isamu, Suyeo, Tom and Takashi.

Toyokuma, admired for his good work horses, was justifiably proud. When a fire broke out and 17 of his 40 horses were killed, the man was overwrought with grief. In those days of no mechanical equipment, the man picked up his shovel and dug burial sites for all of the horses he lost in the fire.

Since the brothers leased the farm land, and the leases couldn’t be renewed, the Tomookas moved many times.

In 1924 they moved to the Avila and Pismo Beach area where they grew bush peas with Chickayoshi Kobara. Since the house was located about a mile from what is now Avila Hot Springs, Massey started school in an old school house which is still partially visible from Highway 101.

Speaking no English when he started school, and his family having little financial means, Massey experienced some difficult times. His shoes were lined with pieces of cardboard that needed to be replaced every morning.

In 1926 the Tomooka families moved to the 160-acre ranch of J. J. Souza in Santa Maria, farmland located close to the Bonita School where their school age children attended.

In June of 1930, when Santa Maria Produce was being organized in Santa Maria, four of the potential owners (Fujimoto, Karasuda and the two Tomooka brothers) contacted Ken Kitasako, who recently graduated from Stanford, offering him a job as bookkeeper. Ken, who worked summers for Setsuo Aratani at Guadalupe Produce while attending Stanford, was a natural for the position. A Mr. Akahoshi was the general manager of the company.

In October of 1930, when Jack O’Brien, who had been occupying a shed, vacated his property, Santa Maria Produce moved in.

As Ken Kitasako said, “We were going through the Great Depression, and times were tough. I thought to myself that these people had a lot of guts.” As tough as it was, though, that’s the way it was.

The company started by packing mixed vegetables until Mr. Akahoshi said that they were going to start packing broccoli. The shocked Kitisako exclaimed, “Broccoli? What’s that?” Akahoshi went on to say that the full name was Italian sprouting broccoli and that Toyokichi had already been growing a patch from seed that Mr. Akahoshi brought back from Chicago. Since the Italians were already marketing the vegetable in Chicago, they called it “Italian sprouting broccoli.”

The first crop, which was grown by Santa Maria Produce on a trial basis on about five acres, came out well, and Akahoshi had it shipped to a Japanese wholesaler in Chicago, saying, “This will be a coming thing.”

When the word came out that the local company had a new product, people took notice. That’s how broccoli, now a multimillion dollar crop, got started in the Santa Maria Valley, if not the entire state of California.

Note: The Tomookas sent 10 crates of broccoli to the Los Angeles market to see if anyone was interested in purchasing this new vegetable. When a telegram came back, offering to pay $5 for it, Toyokichi, who was known to have had a hot temper, said to forget it. “Disc it all up!” Later, when he was told that it was $5 per crate, which was a lot of money in those days, the man sang a different tune.

Contact Shirley Contreras at shirleycontreras2@yahoo.com.

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