When Alice Waters—the unofficial yet undisputed queen of cooking with local produce—sings the praises of a farm, you know it must be exceptional. Waters was the first chef to fall in love with the Chino Family Farm, and has publicly sung its praises from her Northern California home ever since. The Chino Family Farm is nestled in the centre of Rancho Santa Fe, an affluent northern San Diego suburb known for swerving, eucalyptus-lined streets and Bill Gates' purchase of Jenny Craig's horse ranch. It's four miles from the ocean as the crow flies, which translates to about a 12-minute drive.
A 1992 profile in the New Yorker put the Chino Family Farm on the mainstream map, but the farm's devoted followers already knew its importance in culinary America. Wolfgang Puck is another one of many American chefs who have travelled far and wide to learn and buy from the Chino family. Today the Chino vegetable shop features on the state of California's tourism website as an attraction worth seeking out.
The farm opened in the months following the end of World War II, when Japan-born Junzo Chino, his wife Hatsuya, and their six Japanese-American children were released from an internment camp. Since 1969, the year they reached full ownership, the Chino farm has been entirely family run. Ultimately the family had nine children, the youngest of whom—Tom Chino—runs the farm today, alongside two of his siblings, Frank and Kay. Tom's son Makoto Chino, a 28-year-old with a law degree, is his father's right-hand man and likely future head farmer.
Junzo and Hatsuya farmed in California before World War II, but never under very stable circumstances. "They move[d] their mixed vegetable and flower farming operation from place to place about every two years due to alien exclusion laws in California," Tom Chino said. Before they had their youngest three children, the Chino parents moved to Carlsbad, a northern coastal suburb of San Diego County. They were comfortable there for a time, but in February of 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, and the internment of Japanese and Japanese-American citizens began. The family was sent to the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona.
Tom Chino was not yet born, and knows very little of his family's experience. "My parents and our family were and are not particularly reflective. I only have a somewhat episodic and not particularly comprehensive knowledge of the past of our family," he said. "I can remember my brother Jack [Junji] Chino saying once in reflection, after the passing of our father, that he had lost all his toys."
When the family returned to California, they had nothing. The few items they left for safekeeping with friends were lost. Their belongings, some precious, were left with friends, but ultimately "were lost during the vicissitudes of life, war, and perfidy," Tom said. The friends were disloyal, and the items taken. With their assets gone, the family relied on their reputation and cultural capital to carry on. Friends in the produce business helped secure the 56-acre property that is now Chino Family Farm. The postwar boom expedited success, and the farm was profitable.
At the time, there was one elementary school that served the families of Rancho Santa Fe. Although diversity of families continues to increase, it was almost exclusively white children who attended then. Separately, both Makoto and Tom Chino mentioned the Rancho Santa Fe township shifting its boundary lines soon after the Chino family bought the farm. The farm was then in unincorporated land and the children were forced to change school districts, which was not even a thinly veiled attempt at keeping the Chino family out. "The reception of a group of Japanese-American growers in Rancho Santa Fe was not particularly welcoming," Tom said diplomatically. These wounds, while old, understandably leave multi-generational scars.
Now, though, the Chino Family Farm fruit and vegetable stand is a local gem. At restaurants all over San Diego—including fine dining institutions in Rancho Santa Fe—menus boast about their Chino Farms produce, listing "glazed Chino Farms carrots" or "finely sliced Chino Farms beets" wherever possible.
I asked Tom how the forced internment of his parents and older siblings influenced the running of the farm, if at all. "I guess [one] result of an enforced governmental isolation of people of Japanese descent is that the farm become a self-sustaining unit with its own social groups and activities. It was a rich environment with the integration of work and life and populated, initially, with a large number of family members." The natural result of both institutional and local oppression was for the family to look inward, and trust fewer outsiders.
There are remnants of this even in Makoto, a third-generation Chino. He was very careful with his words during our initial conversation. "You can write whatever you want about the farm, but I just want to be very careful about how I make my family look."
Nowadays, many of the workers at Chino Family Farm are Mexican and Mexican-American. Several of them come from the same village in Oaxaca, Makoto told me proudly. The Oaxacan farmers grew up speaking a local indigenous language more than they spoke Spanish, so between the Chinos and some of their farmers, there are several languages spoken, and they oscillate between English and Spanish. Most of the farms in the Southwestern United States likely have a similar story, but this is a more recent development for to the Chino family. Tom explained this shift: "The first years of the farm had many Japanese-American labourers, because, after the camp experience, the former camp members had few options for jobs, and the farm gave them a chance to get on their feet. Soon after, the workforce became mostly Mexican nationals as the former camp members were able to move on the start their own farms, work in other fields, or some returned to Japan." The family maintains a connection with Japanese farming and has hosted more than 1,000 trainees from Japan who come to work at the farm and marinate in its practices and philosophies.
Makoto feels the weight of the responsibility to modernise the farm and keep it profitable in a changing economy. Unlike his father he does not have siblings, so the responsibility is his alone. Some traditions are dear to the family. ("There's something beautiful about not modernising. There's something beautiful about being cash-only," Makoto said.) But for some others, they'll need to adapt in order to continue to be profitable. Makoto approaches this looming task analytically but like his father, the farm and its history are part of his identity—even if they'd both humbly shrug that off. "I think I could be a great lawyer, but I also have the tools at hand to be the greatest farmer. I'm in a position where I want to learn as much about how we do it now and then still have some freedom to…I don't know. I feel such a pressure to not screw up what's here now," Makoto said.
All over the country farmers are reckoning with the reality that the benefit of the perfectly uniform, out-of-season tomato with a barcode sticker on it outweighs the costs for many consumers. In other words, people may be enamoured of the idea of a local family farm, but that doesn't keep the irrigation system running.
Devotees of Chino Farm vary in their opinions on what makes it special. Pastry chef Bruno Albouze from local fine dining restaurant Ponsaty's, like many, believes it's the Mara de Bois strawberries, which were previously only found at Chino Farm and are now a principal offering. He stopped by while I was there and purchased several punnets for that night. ("Nothing matches the elegance and taste of a Mara de Bois strawberry on the top of my orange-chocolate creme brûlée!" he beamed.) Others simply say that the product is top-notch. There are many single-product buyers demanding corn only from Chino, or coming for the micro herbs. It's difficult to find romanesco or epazote in your local grocery store, and you certainly won't have a friendly farmer suggesting cooking options. The farm has been seasonal and sustainable since its inception, with careful attention paid to respecting the local environment.
What makes Chino Farm special is something bigger, yet more elusive, for Makoto. "I wish it was something glamorous. I think it just may be part education and part hard work. What we did here, we did for pride. It was before it was cool. Before it was what you were supposed to have."
In the context of America in 2017, Chino Family Farms does far more than grow exceptional produce according to Japanese-influenced farming practices. In an effort to create a secure future for their family, Junzo and Hatsuya Chino leveraged the skills they had, and it's not a stretch to say that American farming is better off as a result; they are widely acknowledged to have raised the bar. The Chino family built this institution in the face of terrible discrimination—a kind that, until recently, many of us believed was placed firmly in the past. Intertwined in the roots of this farm is a truth worth revisiting today: Just as Barack Obama said about Muslims in the US, immigrants—even those from countries we fight and even in the face of oppression—are an essential part of the fabric of our country. In this case, they were innovators. They have made our culinary landscape richer and our farming practices better.