Arroyo Grande Valley Farmland History
by
Ella Honeycutt

The Arroyo Grande Valley was first opened for settlement in 1868 and the business district consisted of a black smith shop, stage station and schoolhouse. " The valley was a tangled mass of brush, vines and trees, of so dense a growth that the creek had no channel but spread over the entire valley during a fresher. 

Hence the valley has been built up in successive layers, 20 feet or more deep, of decaying vegetation and sediment from one of the richest hill countries to be found in the states. This land today is some of the richest in the world," wrote land developer, John F. Beckett, in 1898 and quoted by local historian, Jean Hubbard, in the Five Cities Press Recorder on September 21, l994."Farming in the Arroyo Grande area at the turn of the century had a common thread, which weaves through the life of the earliest settlers of all nationalities. Life was severe requiring arduous labor in their struggle to survive," wrote Kay T. Fukuhara in the Pacific Citizen Holiday Issue, December 1976. The loneliness especially plagued the women who were so far removed from their homeland and families and were faced with language differences. 

"The early arrivals were farmers - truly pioneers, who cut down trees, filled in gullies, cleared the wild growths, leveled the ground and dug wells. The work was done by hand and self sufficiency was a necessity. A new arrival was a reason to celebrate because there were few people living in the area. The farmers assisted the new neighbor in getting settled in and their experiences bound them together as neighbor and friend, during good times and bad times. The pioneer women matched the determination of their men. They were not afraid of work, and they toiled in the fields by day as well as feeding and caring for their families. These women also cared for and fed boarding workers who were alone in this new land," wrote Kay T. Fukuhara. 

The pioneers were a religious people whose faith and courage helped them through trying times. The rewards and blessings were many because the soil was fertile, and the crops they harvested were spectacular. 

Prize Winning Crops

In 1976 the Burpee Seed Company issued a catalogue commemorating their 100th Anniversary by featuring a reproduction of their 1888 seed catalogue. ArroyoGrande farmers were featured in the catalogue because they won many cash prizes for their outstanding vegetables and flowers. 

"At the turn of the century the prolific soil in the Arroyo Grande Valley produced prize winning bumper crops of cabbages, carrots, beans, peas, pumpkins, onions, and other crops," local Historian Doris Olsen wrote in the January 17, 1976, Santa Maria Times. "The local farmers won so many cash awards that they boasted they were the only valley in the world by reason of its prolific soil to be barred from national seed contests." 

Dr. Edwin Paulding, Arroyo Grande’s pioneer physician arrived in 1883 and was so impressed by the crops that he wrote: "Many a farmer has paid for his land in the valley out of the proceeds of his first crop. There is a pumpkin field across the creek that has so many pumpkins in it that you could run across the field on them and not touch your foot to the ground. Many of the pumpkins weighted nearly 200 pounds." 

"Pioneer Arroyo Grande farmer J.V.N. Young is listed in the 1888 catalog as the winner of the 1887 national seed contest for his four pound twelve-ounce onion, grown from Burpee seed. In 1889 Young again won the national Burpee seed contest. Young's farm was located in the Newsom Springs area and the soil is still fertile," wrote Doris Olson.  Agriculture Fairs were held in the 1890's and J.V.N. Young won many competitions." A special excursion train ran between Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo for the local vegetable displays and for later flower shows. The Reverend Lewis C. Routzahn, a Lutheran minister in ill health, came to Arroyo Grande in the late 1800s and began experimenting with flowers growing in the fields of his father-in-law, T.H. McClure. The seeds from the sweet peas and other strains and varieties he produced are still offered today by Burpee Seed Company, according to the Burpee article. 

The industry Routzahn pioneered spread to Santa Maria and Lompoc where flowers are still grown for their seed. "Burpee and other seed companies praised the productivity of the local soil, proclaiming it UNSURPASSED WORLDWIDE for growing certain vegetables and flowers, year around. "The early farmers were good stewards of the land and their expertise in farming developed a viable and sustainable agricultural industry. 

The history of the Arroyo Grande Valley vegetable farmers and their descendants is a compelling story. Families from foreign lands and local areas working together developed an intense vegetable industry at the turn of the century. Their dedication to good land stewardship can be seen in the fields that produce bumper crops of vegetables three times a year and are sold worldwide 

Getting the Bumper Vegetable Crops to the Market

1800’s-1930

The horse and wagon was used to transport produce until 1881 when the Pacific Coast Railroad tracks were laid and the Pismo wharf was built. "Even with the wharves at Port San Luis and Pismo and the little gauge Pacific Railway that ran from the harbor to as far south as Los Olivos, transportation, was unreliable," wrote Jean Hubbard. 

Many farmers grew dry beans for their cash crop because they could warehouse sacks of beans. A stalled railroad car or a storm often spelled disaster to a farmer who relied on the train or ships to get his produce to vegetable markets in distant cities through out the country. 

"Trucks started replacing the horse and wagon for transporting the crops to market in the 1920’s and this allowed the farmers to diversify. This was also the birth of co-operatives. Groups of farmers banded together to sell their produce, thus able to get higher prices, and be more innovative in capturing markets.  Clayton Conrow had been appointed local agent for Los Angeles - Santa Barbara Motor Express in 1925. When Motor Express left the area a group of local farmers talked Clayton into handling their produce. He and his younger brother, Albert, then started the Arroyo Grande Trucking Company. They were granted a state franchise in 1934 as a certified common carrier of farm produce in the areas between San Luis Obispo and Carpinteria to the primary markets of the State, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose," said a newspaper article of the day. 

"The first location of the Arroyo Grande Truck Company was on east Branch Street, by the old pumpkin dehydrator across from the Loomis Feed store. In 1938 the Norwegian lumber freighter "Elg" ran aground off Oceano. To lighten his ship the captain had part of the cargo thrown overboard. The Conrow’s got enough lumber to start building the dock on West Branch where Bank of America stands today," wrote Jean Hubbard in 1994. 

1952-1999

The Arroyo Grande trucking company was founded in 1929. The company changed hands several times before Ed Nelson and his brother-in -law, Edwin Taylor, purchased it in 1952. The company continued to expand and in an article in the Herald Recorder on July 13, 1962 Ed Nelson stated, "One reason for the expansion of the company is the tremendous amount of agricultural products that are grown locally." 

"In 1963 the Arroyo Grande Trucking company merged with Fitzgerald Brothers Trucking Company to form the Certified Freight Lines. In early 1970 they had a restructuring of the company and with 25 employees they rebuilt, with the produce growers as the base, a business that has become a successful and viable transportation company," wrote Jean Hubbard. The loading dock of Certified Freight Lines was built in the heart of Arroyo Grande in 1938 and up until 1984 the vegetable industry was part of the City’s daily life. Truck after truck of freshly picked vegetables were quickly unloaded at the freight terminal and a steady stream of Certified Freight trucks would arrive and leave with fresh vegetables for the big city markets. The intense vegetable industry was a vital part of downtown and easily recognized an economic base. 

The spirit of the community changed when the Bank of America purchased the corner on Branch Street in down town Arroyo Grande in 1984 and Certified Freight moved their operation to Oceano. They renovated the 50-year-old Oceano Packing shed for their headquarters. "Certified Freight Lines is dedicated to the produce industry and has over 75 employees and the leasing services of 95 owner-operators, who own their own trucks and help deliver CFL freight," Jean Hubbard wrote in 1994. Certified Freight has enjoyed continued growth in serving California and the West Coast with a complete refrigeration service and is truly a home grown industry. 

Bumper Crops

For over a century the Arroyo Grande Valley and the La Cienega Valley have been famous for growing high-quality vegetables because of the mild climate and rich soil. The area receives about twenty inches of rainfall in a five-month period from November to March. 

The summers are cool because of morning and evening fog. A variety of leafy vegetables are grown because of the ideal weather. 

"The natural features that make the Arroyo Grande Valley such an abundant agricultural area also make it desirable for urban and suburban centers," wrote John Ashbaugh in the Coordinated Agricultural Support Program report. 

Agriculture in the Arroyo Grande Valley is an intense industry generating millions of dollars to the local economy. " The Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange ships more than 3.75 million boxes of produce, by truck each year," according to the report. 

The Strawberry Industry

"Kinzo Saruwatari family moved to Los Berros where they became the first to grow berries prior to 1922. They packed the berries in wooden boxes before sending them to L.A from the old Oceano depot. The empty boxes were returned to the farm to be refilled and shipped to Los Angles again," wrote Kay Fukuhara. In 1929, the Berry Growers Association was formed and existed until 1941-42. Los Berros became known as " strawberry country" before World War II. Problems developed when the berry plants became diseased and the growers did not know how to protect their plants. They tried rotating their fields to different crops but this did not stop the infestation and many farmers quit growing berries. 

"The Strawberry Growers Association was formed again in 1956 with about 15 members and the commercial industry mushroomed. The membership in 1976 included M. Kagawa, K. Kawaoka, T. Kobara, Y. Matsumoto, J. Nagashima, E. Nakamura, Obayashi brothers, C. Sakamoto, and T. Sato," wrote Kay Fukuhara in 1976. New farmers such as the Obayashis in 1942, and the Matsumotos in 1952, brought with them new experience in fighting disease in strawberry plants," wrote Kay Fukuhara. By 1983 an average of 15,000 trays of strawberries moved across the dock facility at Certified Freight Lines in Oceano.  In 1981 the Arroyo Grande City Council and Planning Commission changed their long- standing policy against annexations. The Local Agency Formation Commission’s approval of the prezoning and annexation of the "Stem Area" by Arroyo Grande and Grover City on January 22, 1982, changed the land use of 22% of the total farmland used for strawberry production in San Luis Obispo County. Coastal San Luis Resource Conservation District submitted a paper on the importance of addressing the benefits the county and cities derived from the strawberry industry, to LAFCo and the San Luis Board of Supervisors. The $2 million gross income in 1982, the dollar turn over, jobs, and the business created by the strawberry industry was not adequately addressed because LAFCO did not require an E.I.R. on the "Stem" annexation. 

The Strawberry industry in San Luis Obispo County ranked ninth in the nation in the 1997 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "There were 16 million pounds harvested, even though only 500 acres are dedicated to growing strawberries," stated Robert Lilly, assistant county agricultural commissioner. 

SLO County Agricultural commissioner's 1998 Official Report

In 1998 the vegetable industry grossed $132.9 million in San Luis Obispo County and vegetables continue to be the highest value commodity, continuing to surpass vineyard production ($74 million) values. 

Prime Farmland within the City of Arroyo Grande

In the 1970’s Valley Gardens and Greenwood Acres housing tracts were developed on the prime farmland. The remaining Greenwood property was eventually rezoned to 5-acre parcels as a permanent buffer zone. The encroachment into the farmland in the 1970’s and the problems that were created for the farmers and the continued attempts to cover more prime farmland with housing had to be prevented. In the latter part of 1970 the Arroyo Grande City Council held workshops on the General Plan and the consensus of the community was to annex the Oak Park area and develop the hills, in order to keep the prime farmlands for the production of vegetables. 

Arroyo Grande is one of thirteen cities in California with highly productive farmland within their city limits. In 1988 the Arroyo Grande City Council recognized the social and political effects of urbanization and the farming conflict that occurs. The City Council adopted the "Right to Farm Ordinance", which is still in effect. 

In 1998 a new council was elected to govern when citizens of Arroyo Grande again used the ballot box to demonstrate that the prime farmland within the city limits was not to become an industrial park. The past council failed to recognize the importance of the viable agriculture industry, which is very productive, due to the climate, water, soil and a long growing season which allows multiple crops to be harvested each year. 

In 1998, in responding to a General Plan Update Survey, 87% of Arroyo Grande citizens overwhelming supported agriculture as a viable industry within the city limits of Arroyo Grande. 

Two workshops were held on the General Plan update and there was solid community support for the highly productive agricultural industry within the city. 

A message was sent to the elected officials, to keep things in balance, so farmers could continue farming.

In 1999 the City Council joined the County of San Luis Obispo in signing a resolution supporting the Dixson family and other farmers in their quest to find funding to keep the prime vegetable farmland in production 

Japanese Vegetable Farmers

History of Japanese farming on the Central Coast has two periods; namely the prewar, with World War II in between. Prewar is dated from 1903 to 1941 and post war from 1945 to the present time. This is an account of the early years before World War II and the hardships endured by the Japanese farmers and friendships that continued after the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

1903-1941

"There was about sixty Japanese living in the area around 1912. The Alien Land Law was enacted in 1913 prohibiting all aliens of oriental origin to own or lease land in the United States. (Law was declared unconstitutional in 1952) Bob Fukunaga was born in Hawaii and was a citizen of the United States and could legally lease land on the Central Coast to the farmers from Japan," wrote Kay Fukuhara. 

In the early part of the century Japanese farmers grew bush peas on the hills in and around Arroyo Grande. In 1922 the Pea growers of Pismo Beach formed the Pismo Pea Growers association, with George Fukunaga as the manager. In 1925 growers in the Arroyo Grande area followed suit, forming the Arroyo Grande Pea Growers Association. It was the merger of the two organizations in the 1930’s that became the Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange (POVE), as it is known today, a non-profit cooperative. 

"The Japanese farmers began moving to the low land of the Arroyo Grande Valley because water was available and crops could be grown throughout the year. The fine quality poled beans became famous throughout the country because of their sweet taste. By the late 1920s the lower Arroyo Grande Valley was the most important vegetable farming region in San Luis Obispo County and farmers were able to weather the depression with little hardship," wrote Kay Fukuhara. 

1945-1999

"Relocation of Japanese from the West Coast in 1941 created a catastrophe, which cannot be ignored, or left untold because it is a fact of History. Farming operations by the Japanese people came to an abrupt halt and mass evacuation of farmers and others took place. Crops were left in the fields as the farmers were rounded up with their families and shipped to internment camps," wrote Kay Fukuhara. 

During the absence of the Japanese farmers from the West Coast some families had their property burglarized and destroyed. " The families that farmed in the Arroyo Grande Valley were very fortunate and their losses were minimal because they had good friends in the valley that looked after their farmland and their possessions. Peter Bachino, John Enos, Vard Loomis, Cyril Phelan, Joe Silveira, Ed Taylor, and Ernest Vollmer were among those who stepped forward, in face of pressure from their own community, to help their Japanese friends," these facts were written in the San Luis Obispo County Magazine. When the Japanese farmers were allowed to return to the Central Coast after World War II, only a few members of the Oceano Vegetable Exchange returned to farm. 

The S. Kobara family was the first family to return home in 1945. They opened their home to help friends resettle in the Arroyo Grande Valley. The families that returned had farms to come back to but they had very little capital with which to farm and businesses willing to extend credit, were almost nonexistent. Once again, it was the same families along with Jack Snyder, the village blacksmith and the Wilkinson’s Meat Market owner, who helped their Japanese friends by extending them credit when no one else would. The trouble families had returning to the valley was compounded by the hate some people openly displayed. Families could not sleep in their beds and had to sleep on the floor because a few people vented their anger by shooting at the homes at night. 

Getting reestablished under these circumstances was no easy task and the lack of capital forced farmers to do with out needed supplies and equipment to farm. Again, the same people helped out by loaning farm equipment to the Japanese farmers who would work all night using the loaned equipment, in order to return it to the farmers to use in the daytime. Gas for the farm machinery was sold to them on credit by one of the Baxter brothers of Pismo Beach, causing problems with the other brother. 

Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange

The Pismo Vegetable Exchange was reestablished after the war and celery was the most important crop because the pole peas had developed a disease and could not be grown profitably. Ken Kitasako took over as general manager in 1955, and second generation farmers tilled the land. Stone Saruwatari, Kingo Kawaoka,Hilo Fuchiwaki, Kazuo, Seirin, and Saburo Ikeda, Nori Kawaoka had taken over from their parents and they continued the post war rebuilding program. 

As capital became more available the packing house was replaced by modern cold-storage facilities and the hydrovacumn-cooling tube was installed to meet the ever-increasing production. In 1976, Dennis Donovan was hired when Ken Kitasko retired. Dennis brought three generations of produce sales experience with him and new ideas. 

Many changes have taken place over the years at POVE and buyers and consumers are the ones who dictate the crops that are grown and shipped. POVE has become one of the most important vegetable-shipping companies on the Central Coast. 

"During the course of one year as many as 24 vegetables are grown and shipped throughout the United States and overseas," stated Donovan. 

The contribution of Japanese families to the rich history of the Arroyo Grande Valley can be appreciated by viewing the farmland and the produce that is grown. POVE can rightfully claim to be the world’s largest grower and shipper of Nappa (Chinese Cabbage) which is their specialty crop. 

The frontier spirit that carved out an agricultural industry that has prospered for over 100 years continues today. Grand children and great grandchildren of the Japanese, Portuguese, Philippine, Caucasian and Mexican families are still farming in the Arroyo Grande Valley and La Cienaga Valley. They plan to follow in their father and grandfather’s footsteps and farm into the next century and beyond, but they are facing an unknown future, because of intense development pressures on the Central Coast. 

"The landowners and lessees who produce and ship the crops are a highly proficient and experienced group of farmers who know the valley well, understand the larger environment in which they compete. They have consistently prospered - - or at least held steady against the trend toward urbanization that has engulfed so many other coastal agricultural areas in California," wrote Dr. Steve McCray, an agricultural economist, in the Coordinated Agricultural Support Study. The study was made possible by a grant from the State Coastal Conservancy for the City of Arroyo Grande. 

Without a successful farmland protection program in place, even with increasing public support, the chances of keeping the Arroyo Grande Valley a National Treasure is minimized. 

 

Arroyo Grande Valley 1957 ------------- still in production 2005

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The following bibliography provided background information for the Arroyo Grande Valley Prime Farmland, A National Treasure to Protect.
 


Kay T. Fukuhara
Pacific Citizen’s Holiday Issue, Dec 1976
Doris Olsen, Arroyo Grande Historian
 Santa Maria Times, Jan. 17, 1976
Jean Hubbard, Arroyo Grande Historian
Times Press Recorder, Sept. 26, 1944
Clark Moore, Area Conservationist
 U.S.D.A, Soil Conservation Service, retired
Edwin F Nelson, Published in the Congressional Record
Reported by Jean Hubbard, June 26, 1994 
Doreen Liberto-Blanck, Arroyo Grande City Planner
Coordinated Agricultural Support Program Report for the City of Arroyo Grande August 1994 (CASP), updated June 1996 
David Hayes Project Manager, California Coastal Conservancy
CASP Report, August 1994, update June 1996
Dr. Steve McCray, Agricultural Economist 
CASP Report, August 1994
John Ashbaugh, AIC,
CASP Report, August 1994
Robert Lilly, Assistant County Agricultural Commissioner 
1998 Annual Report, San Luis Obispo County Department of Agriculture
San Luis Obispo Tribune Article, September 8, 1999
“SLO County-Among Nation’s Top Agricultural Regions,” by David Snee
Pictures from the Five Cities Press Recorder
 Harvest Editions, 1984 and 1994 
Coastal San Luis Resource Conservation District 
Official Records, Jan. 1982
Dennis Donovan, General Manager of Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange (POVE)
 Informational and articles on POVE
Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange farmers SLO County Magazine
 Author unknown