A 100-year-old farm tucked in Livingston houses Stu Nakashima, a 3rd generation farmer, his mom Caroline, and his playful pals, Mika, Momi, and Bucky. The Nakashima Farms started in the 1920’s with Stu’s grandfather Kohei sprouting a 20-acre plot after growing farming interest from the Yamato colony: A resolute community that encouraged farming for people of Japanese descent. This farming continuity seen in the Nakashima family is rooted in this colony where dozens of Japanese families settled over 100 years ago.
The Yamato Colony founded The Livingston Farmers Association – a pivotal collective for the Japanese community. Driving around Livingston through the thicket of farms, you’ll observe this sign on some corners. This local COOP originated from the initial 1914 COOP efforts by the first Japanese settlers. In anticipation of internment in WWII, many in the Japanese community formed a collective organization to reclaim their property when they got back. The community reunited after the war and in 1956, formed the COOP known as The Livingston Farmers Association. Currently, there are only a handful of Japanese families left as the generations are phasing out. Stu’s grandfather started working on the Okuye Farm (the biggest farm during that time 100 years ago) before he started his own. The Okuye Farm is well known for having employed Japanese immigrants until they got enough money to start their own farm. Stu’s dad, Tom, inherited the land in 1948 after WWII and eventually grew the farm to its present state at 200 acres.
The farm used to be the site of both Thompson Seedless grapes until 1960 and sweet potatoes until 2000; the storage relics still exist on the farm. The area of Livingston is still largely a big sweet potato producer. There used to not be as many almonds in Stu’s 1950’s childhood experience. After a tough go at raisin production in the mid-1900s, this area has switched to mostly almond orchards. The Nakashima Farm now predominately produces almonds, some peaches, and includes a 13-acre rental in tree fallow that grows sweet potatoes. Minus 25 conventional acres in Atwater, everything adds up to 175 organic acreages: 115 in almonds and 60 in peaches.
As I walked up to the almond rows, I was amazed by the crisp green grass that carpeted the aisles. The green between these rows is cover crops that have resprouted after its previous seeding four years ago; resprouts and natural vegetation made have made a career working collectively between the trees. The healthy trees can be credited to the on-site compost production, cover crop maintenance, and letting nothing go to waste.
Nakashima Farms started composting 15-20 years ago. Stu makes his own compost and spreads this on his land at 15-20 tons/acre for both the organic and conventional plots. What is admirable is that Stu takes advantage of a local opportunity by repurposing onion and garlic waste from a dehydrator factory around the corner. The factory needs to get rid of all their waste including the peels, scraps, and rotten ones. These are the perfect ingredients for a soil-making recipe: mixing onions, garlic, and organic chicken manure, add some water, and cook at up to 140F.
Image: Taking last year’s compost that they worked on all year and Antonio is moving it to a big pile to use it next winter. They are readying these rows of compost and separating by last and current years products. 2019 crop is the pile on the right.
For their organic operations, they don’t use Round Up or similar chemical weed control, so they must mow the middles (cover crop and natural vegetation between trees), and use a propane burner to kill the weeds in the strips before they get more than an inch tall, and rely on compost for nutrients. To supplement the compost, they use an organic foliar spray to directly target nutrient needs. When it comes time to harvesting and putting the nuts into uniformed windrows, mechanical weed control helps create a clean sweep.
Stu has experienced the very picky conditions that determine crop output and what makes the San Joaquin Valley particularly special: the perfect balance between winter chill hours and summer sunny days. With changing climates and normalcy phasing out, predicting those detrimental foggy days are becoming vital to a good crop. In the Livingston area, Stu has observed it used to be a lot foggier in the winter, creating cooler conditions for the chill time that creates temperatures under 45°F that the trees require (they need 200-300 hours under 45 degrees for normal growth of flower and shoot buds). The trees have yet to respond majorly, but Stu predicts in 75-100 years it might really affect them, possibly marking a centennial death of the almond orchard systems in the area.
The weather station Stu had installed last year has helped forecast these specific conditions and timing for watering. The area struggles with predicting specific weather patterns due to microclimates on different farms. Stu would previously look on the weather channel for Livingston, but in relying on their weather, he would sometimes only receive 1/3 of a typical yield because of frost. Surprisingly, he has found there is a 5-7°F difference in weather between the town center and his land. “Knowing site-specific weather is critical for knowing when to turn the sprinklers on for frost protection”, says Stu. They also use soil moisture sensors to continually detect moisture content. It helps determine soil drought conditions and determine when to irrigate.
There have been some recent challenges in the last year with pests. A 13-acre almond block grew until around its 25-year-old age and then became weak and sickly looking. And part of the reason they think is because of a nematode infestation. When they had to take out the orchard, instead of burning, the Air Pollution Control Board provided a grant to fund the chipping and spreading of the dead trees back on the now tree-fallowed land. They also worry about red-imported ants. They eat on the nuts both in the trees and in the windrows. With conventional farming, there is a lot of different ant baits you can put on the farm, but with organic, it’s been a challenging time finding something that’s certified that would be effective. The legend is that with the shipment of the bee boxes from Texas, ants came with it and established in California and have proliferated since then.
It has come full circle for Stu who now lives back on his childhood farm. He was a mechanical engineer for 35 years in San Jose before returning to the farm several years ago. He acknowledges his dad, Tom, for being sharp until his death at 93 and for creating a productive farm. Tom was an organic farming initiator in the little town of Livingston; he started during the early movements of organic farming in the mid-1990s. Stu came back to work with his dad for a few years before eventually taking on the farm himself, and he is very thankful to his dad who imparted farm knowledge to him during their years together.