Farming: “It’s in my Blood” – Steve Fukagawa
You’re not going to find Steve Fukagawa sitting on a couch, watching TV, or sitting on a couch, period! The day starts at 4:30 a.m., with work on 65 acres of peaches, plums and raisins, then progresses to an 8-10 hour day day job, of civil engineering, and finishes with a trip back to the farm until after dark. Welcome to the reality of small family farming in 2006.
His heart is in farming (and fishing!) but huge amounts of his time are spent designing highways for Caltrans, (State of California, Department of Transportation) to make ends meet.
Why? Here is his story: After attending Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where he earned his degree in mechanical engineering, Steve landed a job doing stress analysis for the space industry and machine design for Upright Harvester. Only 2 weeks before his wedding to wife, Ginnie, he was laid off. I don’t know what my in-laws thought of that! Steve’s eyes laugh at the memory. The loss of a job became a gain. Steve began doing what he loves: full-time farming, which he did for 22 years, until the year 2000.
In the beginning, Steve worked with his dad; he farmed raisin grapes, nectarines, and plums, but in 1999, life changed suddenly, after a brutal frost. We had a $100,000 cash flow crunch overnight. At that point, his mother wanted to sell the family farm. She told me, you have an engineering degree, to use it! Even though she gifted some acreage to Steve, he had to find a job to support his wife, Ginnie, and two daughters, Suzanne and Ashlyn. At that time, CALTRANS needed civil engineers to design highways, and Steve signed on. What was it like to go back into engineering after all the years of farming? “Think Rip Van Winkle! I felt like I went to sleep and woke up in an entirely new world. I had to learn new skills and my bosses were all younger than me!” he says with a chuckle. Steve’s average month is filled with 60 hours of overtime, on top of his regular hours, but the one thing he does make time for is church. I am at church on Sunday mornings. I honestly don’t know how I did all this before I was a Christian.
Steve has been farming 12 of his 65 acres organically and will be certified on 100% of it next year. I want to farm organically, and make sure my quality is the same or better than before. Organic farmers must be both smart and resourceful to successfully grow without conventional chemicals. Steve has planted a cover crop in his fields at various times. What is it? It’s a crop mix of barley, rye, and vetch that is planted after the harvest, in October. These grains do a good job of opening up the soil to air and irrigation. Then, in spring, Steve cuts it down and waits for it to decompose. Voila,he has his fertilizer! I used to listen to the guys that told me to put on purchased fertilizer; I figured they knew what they were talking about. But when I planted the cover crop, the life came back into the soil, organically. My vines and trees are much healthier!
Steve walks over to a tree that has been grafted with 5 varieties of beautifully ripe plums, inspecting it carefully. When I’m farming, I can often hear my dad’s voice saying, I never like to spray chemicals. He taught me to French Plow a long time ago, and so I’ve always done that. That’s how I keep my weeds down. We would disc the fields, as well. It’s just what we did. I tried the chemicals, but didn’t like it.
Your father farmed? My father, George Izumi Fukagawa, was a farmer before he even knew it! Grandpa, Inezo Fukagawa, came over from Kumamoto, which is on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, in about 1917. He was like a pioneer; he was a farm labor contractor who came to America and sent for my grandmother a year later. He found a ranch of 13 acres here in Kingsburg, and wanted to purchase it, but laws at that time wouldn’t allow a Japanese national to own land. He didn’t give up. In 1919, when my dad, George, was born here, his name was immediately put on the deed, since he was an American citizen! Dad’s farming career began earlier than most, you see? Steve smiles at the thought of a newborn as a farmer. His life wasn’t easy, though. He was the first of 6 children; the first to learn English! His dad, my grandfather, had tuberculosis, so by the time he was a teen, he had to farm the ranch, as well as look after his 5 siblings.
How has your dad’s example affected you? My dad was never afraid to try something new. When I was in college, I saw him as old-fashioned, but in reality he was not; when a new testing method for analyzing the soil became known, he would try it, evaluate it, and determine if it was worthwhile. He was flexible enough to do things like that. Sometimes I’d ask dad to try something, he’d say no and I would get frustrated. Later, I found out that he’d already tried that, it had failed, and he wasn’t going to make that same mistake twice. He didn’t always vocalize it, but his experience was invaluable. Steve stops for a moment to look around. Sometimes, when I’m out here, on the farm at night, I can still see my dad at the end of the rows, in his pick-up.
My dream? “My dream is to farm, just farm. I’d like that to be my regular job, my only job. The second half of that dream is fishing. I’d love to go surf fishing or just fish for blue gill in Vernon Peterson’s pond!” he laughs.
Two jobs, no free time. Why do you still farm? It’s in my blood. It’s that simple.