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The Rice King | Kitchn


As quickly as he was launched, Keisaburo Koda, his spouse, and their two sons drove — the barbed wire, 29 blocks of navy barracks, and dirt-flat expanse of dry prairie fading quick within the rearview mirror. They drove all day and all night time and into the day once more. They left behind the Amache focus camp in japanese Colorado’s High Plains to succeed in San Joaquin Valley in central California, greater than 1,300 miles away. 

It had been greater than three years for the reason that Kodas had seen their farm — three years since Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the round-up and incarceration of greater than 120,000 Japanese Americans with out even a nod at due course of. Before World War II, Keisaburo was generally known as “The Rice King,” and operated a ten,000-acre, vertically built-in farm producing the perfect japonica rice, a rounder and thicker Asian rice selection, within the nation. In California, he’d pioneered the approach for aerial seeding, put in a state-of-the artwork miller and drier, and arrange a 1,000-head hog farm for utilizing the rice’s byproduct, nuka (or rice bran), as feed. 

When he returned, the 2 airplanes used for aerial seeding have been lengthy gone, as was the remainder of their greatest gear, the livestock, and 9,000 acres of their greatest land, together with their household house and the housing for employees. More than 30 years of his life’s work merely taken.

“I really don’t know where they spent that first night,” says Robin Koda, the granddaughter of Keisaburo, who presently runs the operation now known as Koda Farms, California’s oldest family-owned rice farm, along with her brother, Ross. “They came home to essentially nothing.” (She surmises the wheels that ferried her household again house in 1945 was acquired when her father, Edward, was quickly launched for a supervised work program.) 

Keisaburo, as soon as a faculty principal, arrived in California in 1908. Like lots of the Issei (first-generation Japanese Americans), Keisaburo was not a first-born son. “In old-school Japan, it was the first-born son who inherited everything,” says Robin. “Everybody else is that spare heir kind of thing. Part of the reason why I think he came over was he recognized that, and he was adventuresome and America was the land of opportunity.” 

Keisaburo’s early years in America have been definitely an journey. He first went wildcatting for oil within the Coalinga hills earlier than working a sequence of laundry retailers. In between, he established the North America Tuna Canning Company, which processed the catches of 39 Japanese American fishing vessels, in San Pedro. (Japanese Americans pioneered America’s tuna business, turning what was as soon as thought of a trash fish right into a beloved American staple). But farming, particularly rice farming, known as to him. Koda’s father, as soon as a samurai of the Taira Clan, was a rice miller and dealer, and even when Keisaburo couldn’t take over the household enterprise, specifically, he needed to hold on the legacy in his personal means. 

He began out farming as a leaser and supervisor, “dabbling in rice” as Robin put it, north of Sacramento, the place California’s conventional rice farming stronghold relies, and rapidly discovered it was no approach to make a residing. He knew he needed to develop into a landowner. But the California Alien Land Act of 1913 prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” — a thinly veiled statute primarily directed at stopping Japanese Americans from proudly owning agricultural land. The Naturalization Act of 1870 had expanded naturalization rights already loved by “free white” immigrants to these of “African descent,” however purposefully omitted Asian immigrants, lengthy a goal of vicious enmity, beautiful violence, and political and legislative harassment on the West Coast. There was a workaround, although: Many Japanese immigrants merely bought land of their American-born kids’s names. 

Keisaburo began searching for land north of Sacramento, however the wind up there was very developed and beneficial, and nobody would promote to him as a result of he was Japanese. He began shifting additional and additional south, till lastly he discovered a landholder prepared to promote to an Issei in 1927: the Miller and Lux Corporation.

“My grandfather did not choose to farm in San Joaquin Valley, making us the southernmost rice farm in California,” Robin tells me. “It’s just a fluke of politics. Henry Miller was willing to sell my grandfather a sizeable tract of land, which was continuous acreage, so you wouldn’t have to haul all your equipment and labor, hopscotching across several counties.” 

In some methods, Keisaburo was like many Japanese immigrants, about half of whom have been engaged in farming as a result of they’d labored in agriculture again house. Back then, Japan’s intensive agriculture was far more superior than that in America, and so many Japanese immigrant farmers have been capable of purchase undesirable land and switch it worthwhile, utilizing their experience in soil, fertilizers, irrigation, and drainage. White farmers would later complain that “the Japs” have been taking all the perfect land. By 1940, about 63 p.c of Japanese Americans labored in farming, wholesaling, retailing, or transporting meals merchandise, and whereas the common worth per acre was $37.94, for Nikkei (second-generation Japanese Americans) farms it was $279.96 — about seven and a half instances the worth. 

But there was not less than a method through which Keisaburo was totally different from the common Japanese American farmer. Most selected quick-growth crops, which required little capital funding, due, partly, to the Alien Land Acts. But Keisaburo selected a labor-intensive crop and on notably difficult terrain.

The soil on Keisaburo’s farm is adobe, which has a excessive clay content material and is heavy and gradual to empty. “Farming on adobe, we use an analogy,” says Robin.It’s like farming in the bathtub.” Since that watery soil wouldn’t maintain seeds and permit them to germinate, Keisaburo had the thought to soak rice seeds after which distribute the already germinated seeds over the soil — his course of, known as aerial rice seeding, is now the usual observe in California. Rice requires extra processing than, say, lettuce. But Keisaburo noticed an unserved market in California, the place Asian-style quick grain rice had develop into a staple since Chinese migrants confirmed up within the 1850s for mining, and later railroad work, and needed to be shipped in from Asia. Once harvested, it needs to be dried, after which both saved or milled to take away its arduous husk. When I requested Robin if it was a stroke of luck that Keisaburo might farm rice in any respect — nevermind the perfect rice in America — on the land he was capable of purchase, she retorted, “Sure as heck was.”

Luck, although, might solely go up to now in Nineteen Forties America for Japanese Americans. The Koda household noticed the rising tide of anti-Japanese sentiment: headlines, notably from Hearst newspapers just like the San Francisco Chronicle, blaring conspiracy theories that each one Japanese Americans have been shifty spies, and California politicians, who had been agitating in opposition to Asians for 90 years, ramping up their vicious assaults. They determined to close down operations, within the hopes that they may return from incarceration to the farm intact. But the federal government “got wind of it” and mandated that they keep operational, ostensibly to supply cotton for the warfare effort, which meant Keisaburo needed to signal over energy of lawyer to, as Robin places it, “non-Asians,” who instantly offered off what they may.

“A lot of the people who bought that land for nothing were immediate neighbors, and to this day, their descendants still own that land,” says Robin. The Kodas tried to sue for $2,497,500, however the case was settled in 1965, the 12 months after Keisaburo handed, for simply $362,500. That’s lower than 10 cents on the greenback, with out accounting for curiosity or inflation. The quantity barely coated their authorized prices. To today, the Kodas can see their grandfather’s outdated mill standing derelict on land he as soon as owned. “What does it take for a person to start over again with practically nothing and see that poignant reminder on a daily basis?” she asks. “But he did it.” 

After the camps, Keisaburo stepped again to let his two sons, William and Edward, take over the day-to-day farming, and set his sights on civic activism to dismantle a number of the worst strictures in opposition to his fellow Japanese Americans. Keisaburo labored with the Japanese Americans Citizens League to take down the Alien Land Law, which was deemed unconstitutional in 1948, and arranged and served as president of a Naturalization Rights League. He additionally began an insurance coverage firm and opened Bank of Tokyo’s first California department, to assist Japanese Americans, who nonetheless confronted endemic discrimination, get honest protection and charges. 

Of course, he didn’t solely depart the farm — he and his sons established a breeding program with the famend rice breeder Arthur Hughes Williams. They have been the primary farmers within the U.S. to develop candy rice, Sho-Chiku-Bai, which implies “three friends in winter,” which continues to be a top-selling product immediately, in addition to sweet-rice flour (mochiko), which is a thickening agent). They developed a medium-grain rice, Kokuho Rose, which debuted in 1963 after 10 years of improvement (with just one rice crop per 12 months, improvement was gradual). Kokuho Rose was high-yielding for the time, however as breeding superior, it got here to yield one third lower than up to date strains and was harder to reap. 

“By today’s standards, it grows too tall,” says Robin. “The taller your rice gets, the more likely it’s gonna flop over. Combines have these threshing heads, and it’s tricky to pick up rice that’s laying flat on the ground. You can’t really effectively harvest it.” Despite its inconvenience, the heirloom rice is now prized for its heritage and taste — pure, candy, and a contact floral from a little bit of Persian DNA from Assyrian rice. “We just have the sense of loyalty to this strain,” says Robin. So does Martha Stewart together with a number of the nation’s greatest eating places together with San Francisco’s Mister Jiu’s, New York’s Superiority Burger, and Los Angeles’s Porridge and Puffs. You can now discover it in Whole Foods, or order it online.

For all their grandfather’s superhuman contributions, he did depart one mission unfinished for Robin and Ross, who have been raised on the farm and progressively took it over, notably after their uncle William and father Edward handed, in 1961 and 2006, respectively. In his retirement years, Keisaburo took up the promotion of brown rice. For years, white rice was prevalent as a result of it was extra shelf-stable — the bran, together with all that fiber and vitamins, on brown rice can go rancid in a 12 months (one tip from Robin: Refrigerate your brown rice). Keisaburo would tour round with a rice cooker, making samples of brown rice for anybody who would let him in. He as soon as introduced the godfather of macrobiotics, George Ohsawa, to a Buddhist temple in San Francisco — a number of a long time too quickly — the place “it went over like a lead balloon,” says Robin. 

It can be as much as his grandchildren to meet that deferred obsession: Ross bought a level in economics from Stanford and took over the farming operation, whereas Robin, who calls herself a “farmist” — a portmanteau of farm and artist — bought an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and takes care of the advertising and marketing aspect of the enterprise, in addition to their 95-year-old mom, Tama. In 2003, together with its natural program, Koda Farms began producing brown Kokuho rice — most famously the centerpiece of the beloved sorrel rice bowl at Sqirl in Los Angeles. The identify “Kokuho,” by the best way, means “national treasure,” which appears nearly proper.

Mari Uyehara

Contributor

Mari Uyehara was beforehand a senior editor at Saveur, Time Out New York, and Martha Stewart Living Radio, and her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and Serious Eats. Her column on American meals in TASTE gained a James Beard Award in 2019.



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