A Family History in Rice
By Elizabeth Linhart Money
In late 2003, Martha Stewart told her viewers what Japanese and Japanese Americans already knew: Koda Farms, situated in the dusty heart of California’s Central Valley, produces the best sushi rice on the market. Far from the Asian river deltas where rice was domesticated 10,000 years ago, Koda Farms is hardly the place one imagines such venerated grain would be growing. A modern American operation, it has produced medium- and short-grained rice for over 81 years.
I’m at Koda Farms in South Dos Palos, about an hour southeast of Tracy, looking at a fleet of trucks moving across an expanse of fields punctuated by warehouses and a grain mill. The brother-andsister team of Robin and Ross Koda share with me their concerns about GMO rice, and discuss the difficulty of marketing outside the commodity system. The farm has gained the loyalty of customers as far away as Japan, as well as that of locals in our Asian communities, who treasure Koda’s medium-grain Kokuho Rose and short-grain Sho-Chiku-Bai varieties. But all accolades aside, Koda Farms is defined by its history. The perseverance, ingenuity, and optimism of previous generations have turned every adversity into advantage, making this a uniquely American success story.
An Ingrained Family Tradition
Keisaburo Koda, Robin and Ross’s grandfather, was born with rice already in his blood. Son of a samurai turned rice miller and broker, and the descendant of a rice trader who lived during the Tokugawa Shogunate, Keisaburo was raised in central Japan. He earned a university degree early on. Though it is uncertain if he had the family trade on his mind as he set sail for California, when he arrived in 1908, the state’s fledgling rice industry was just about to boom.
Like so much else, rice arrived in California with the immigrant gold seekers who flooded into the region on the heels of the gold strike at the American River in 1848. To satisfy the demands of Chinese immigrants, whose numbers surpassed 20,000 in 1852, rice was shipped in from Asia and South America. The first efforts to grow rice here were disappointing, due to poor understanding of the Central Valley’s soil and climate. That situation changed rapidly in 1908 when Professor William Wylie Mackie, a soil scientist working in Butte County, concluded that the Sutter Basin, a highly alkaline and frequently flooded area of the Sacramento Valley, could become “the best rice producing land in the world.” An associate of Mackie’s, a Japanese immigrant named Kenju Ikuta, sought to use this knowledge to benefit his Japanese community.
By this time, Japanese workers had replaced the Chinese as the state’s dominant agricultural labor force, due in large part to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Japanese suffered under much the same discrimination that the Chinese had experienced, with restrictions as to where they could live, what schools their children could attend, and what land they could buy.
Ikuta encouraged local Japanese families to seek out plots with parched, hardpan soil, regarded by the white farmers as wasteland, and often available for as little as $2 an acre. In a few short years, plots that were once considered “fit only for the Japanese” were exploding in grain.
Land prices in the Sacramento Valley jumped from $30 an acre in 1913 to $200 in 1918, and by that year California had over 125,000 acres planted in rice. Unfortunately, by the time Keisaburo Koda decided to try his hand at the family business, the lot of Japanese farmers had worsened immensely.
The Rice King
If you have ever traveled the length of the Central Valley, you’ll know that the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys are vastly different. To the north, the Sacramento Valley is a land of wide rivers with lush grasslands and riparian corridors. By contrast, the larger San Joaquin Valley, lying south of the Delta, is considerably drier.
“Water is a continual concern,” Ross says as we drive through acres of knee-high Kokuho Rose waiting to be harvested by the massive machines slumbering through the lunchtime hour. In late summer, the only water visible is in a distant canal snaking its way through a parched landscape.
“So why here?” I ask.
Robin explains that in 1913, California passed the Alien Land Law, which prohibited non-citizens from owning property. The law contained no mention of Japanese immigrants, but they were its specific targets. Thus Keisaburo had to make his young sons, who were American citizens, shareholders in his new company. But more than that, Ross contends, no one would sell good farmland to a Japanese man. “He looked for land up north,” Ross says, “but no one would sell, so he kept driving south until someone would.”
The southern move did have positive consequences, however. For one, it prompted Keisaburo to explore and fine-tune the use of aerial seeding. Faced with rough soil that wouldn’t hold the seed after flooding, Keisaburo tried soaking the rice seed and dispersing it over a preflooded field via airplane. The heavier, germinated seed sank into the soil, allowing it to take root with a head start on weeds. The popularity of aerial rice seeding spread throughout California and it remains the dominant practice to this day.
Robin suspects racism also played a part in Keisaburo’s decision to vertically integrate all levels of the farm. “Being Asian,” she explains, “he was subjected to inflated processing rates or low-ball offers for his paddy rice.” By buying his own planes, and building a mill and rice dryer on site, Keisaburo had complete control over the cost of production while ensuring the highest quality for his rice. Such shrewdness and care earned him the nickname “the Rice King” among many Japanese Americans. Sadly, all would change with the arrival of World War II and President Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066 in February 1942.
The “Brown Rice Era”
Like other Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, Keisaburo was forced to give up everything and relocate his family to a faraway internment camp. After three long years, he returned to find that the strangers he had left the farm with had sold off his airplanes, equipment, and nearly 9,000 acres of land. Furthermore, tensions in the Valley remained high, as local newspapers ran editorials opposing the return of the Japanese and gunshots were fired into many Japanese homes and churches in neighboring Turlock and Livingston. Keisaburo decided to turn over most of the farm’s control to his sons, William and Edward. Building it back up to its pre-war size and distinction, the brothers became the first commercial growers of “sweet rice” and instituted a rice-breeding program that eventually led to the development of Kokuho Rose.
Meanwhile, Keisaburo threw himself tirelessly into the arena of Japanese American civil rights. Over the years, he worked to repeal the Alien Land Law, organize the Naturalization Rights League, and open California’s first branch of the Bank of Tokyo, whose aim was to ensure equal treatment in banking. In 1954 he also proudly became a naturalized American citizen.
But one “hobby” that Keisaburo took up in his retirement years vexed the family-particularly Robin and Ross’ father-no end: his indefatigable promotion of brown rice. Recounting stories of her grandfather’s enthusiasm for this rustic food and its purported health benefits, Robin adds with loving amusement, “He would take his pressure cooker and a bag of brown rice with him wherever he went, and demo it for anyone willing to try it.”
At the same time, a new openness was emerging in American culture. The Beat movement was calling into question basic American assumptions about art, freedom, nature, and spirituality, and Buddhism had entered the American consciousness, along with Asian cuisine. Beat poet Gary Snyder, who married Carole Koda, Robin and Ross’s cousin, in 1991, is known to have brought a sack of brown rice to augment the standard Forest Service fare of eggs, cabbage, onions, canned tuna, Spam, and hard cheese when he worked on fire lookout duty in the Northern Cascades in the summer of 1952-a time that was later immortalized in Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels and The Dharma Bums.
Still, few knew of the virtues of brown rice, which is full of fiber, B vitamins, antioxidants, and essential Fatty acids. If they did they likely learned it from George Ohsawa, a proponent of the diet that would become known as macrobiotics. Originating in Japan and arriving in the U.S. via Paris in the early 1950s, macrobiotics promotes a local, seasonal diet based on the balance between yin and yang. It en courages practitioners to eschew caffeine, alcohol, sugar, most fats, and all processed foods in favor of whole grains (specifically brown rice), lightly cooked vegetables, and the occasional wedge of tofu. As Ohsawa saw the potential for macrobiotics in America, he eagerly sought a source for the staple brown rice.
Hearing of Koda Farms, he made a trip to California in 1959. After staying a week, Ohsawa proclaimed his search over, and Koda Farms began selling brown rice to one of Ohsawa’s distributors. While Keisaburo persuaded Ohsawa to address the congregation of his Buddhist temple in San Francisco, brown rice never caught on there. But within the next decade it became de rigueur at more counter-culture zendos, such as the San Francisco Zen Center, where Abbot Shunryu Suzuki frequently drew an associa tion between brown rice and the mindful practice of Zen Buddhism. One of Suzuki-roshi’s followers, Edward Espe Brown, often refers to the years of his tenure as head cook at the Tassajara Mountain Zen Center (beginning in the late 1960s) as “the Brown Rice Era.” In The Complete Tassajara Cookbook, he elaborates, writing, “They used to say that if one followed the proper diet, then one would feel peaceful and happy. Apparently this was true, because when they didn’t have their proper food [i.e., brown rice], they were outraged.”
A New Generation
Since 1998, Robin and Ross have been putting their own stamp on the family business. The farm is still a hive of activity. A crew of 60 employees (plus lots of heavy machinery) moves grain from field to mill, where it is cleaned, polished (or not, if it is going to be sold as brown rice), packaged into 10-pound bags, and loaded onto trucks. The current generation also maintains the vertical integration of farm operations that Keisaburo worked so hard to put into place, and dedication to quality remains tantamount: According to Ross the rice must reach a moisture content of just 12.5 percent before it is harvested, and each bag must contain no more than 2 percent broken kernels.
The Koda seed nursery selects only the highest-quality candidates for annual planting, all of which have undergone a painstaking, three-year cycle.
The siblings have also instituted a number of changes. In 2004 they began converting some of the farm to organic. Using a three-year system of crop rotation and a tightly watched regime of organic fertilization and water control, which Ross refers to as a “constant process of fine-tuning,” the Kodas now have 400 certified organic acres and 350 in transition. While reaching their goal of 1,200 certified acres may seem like an uphill battle at times, Ross admits it’s worth it, adding, “I like the idea of improving the soil as key to increasing yields.” Coincidentally, the Kodas’ move toward organic has opened the market to one of the things closest to Keisaburo’s heart: brown rice. While the “brown rice era” of the 1960s and
1970s didn’t translate into a noticeable up-tick in their sales, the recent evolution of the organic and local food movement has. Robin explains that in the past, brown rice was milled in small amounts and available only after the fall harvest, but “the health benefits of brown rice intersect nicely with the values of customers supportive of sustainable, organic farming practices,” she says. Now, brown Kokuho Rose is available year-round and they have begun selling specialty organic brown rice mixes that include a variety of other whole grains, seeds, and spices. Light on the fork and aromatic on the palate, Koda’s Organic Nirvana blends bear little resemblance to the heavy hippie food of Edward Espe Brown’s first days at Tassajara.
The Kodas work hard to market their new products, but as with the conversion to organic, they feel it is well worth it. Twice a month Robin hauls her load of organic brown and polished rice to the Alemany Farmer’s Market in San Francisco. Despite the distance, she finds the grassroots approach rewarding.
“It’s great interfacing with shoppers who are educated, receptive, and not just price shopping,” she says, adding, “it makes me feel that we have come full circle.” • kodafarms.com
Elizabeth Linhart Money is a freelance food and travel writer living across the Bay in North Beach. In addition to these pages, her work regularly appears in Edible Shasta-Butte and is featured in SmartGuide: San Francisco, a guidebook recently published by InsightGuides/Berlitz.