Hatano Farms – The Flower of the Peninsula

A State Historic Site. Hatano Flower Farm. Photo by Tony LaBruno

Doug Hatano recalls growing flowers with his father, James, who leased land on the Peninsula after spending three years at the WWII Poston Relocation Center in Arizona

by Elka Worner

As Doug Hatano walks the weed-covered fields that were once his father’s farm, he thinks of the rich legacy left by his father, and generations of other Japanese American farmers, whose fields of vegetables and flowers once graced the Peninsula.

His family’s five acres were the last of a once-thriving Japanese American agricultural community, which has all but disappeared. In the 1940s about 200 Japanese American families tended some 2,000 acres on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

“Our neighbors grew barley, garbanzo beans, tomatoes, but we grew flowers:  chrysanthemums, baby’s breath, delphinium,” 67-year-old Doug Hatano said. “We grew a lot of the flowers for the Rose Parade.”

Hatano Farm was one of the last continuously operating farms in the region, dating back to the 1950s when Doug’s father, James Hatano, planted the first seeds on a slope overlooking the Pacific Ocean. James turned coastal land into fertile fields that provided a living for his family and an economic boost for the region. 

To honor his life’s work, the State Historical Resources Commission voted in January to designate the farm a state historic site. 

The tractor Doug’s father once drove – a rusted remnant of that era – sits idle in their fields above Palos Verdes Drive South. Doug learned to drive the tractor when he was 11 years old and, later, how to repair it.  

“This was my father’s favorite tractor. It’s an early 1940s model,” he said. “My dad thought he had a big caterpillar, a bulldozer.”

As a child James picked row after row of flowers, and hauled them to their van. He harvested the flowers, pulled the stocks out of the soil, cut off their roots and placed them in buckets of water. As the oldest of five children, he often woke up at 2 a.m. for the pre-dawn drive to the downtown Los Angeles Flower Mart.

“I used to fall asleep on the newspapers under the counter,” he said of the family’s booth in the market, where they sold their flowers.

When they returned to the farm, it was back to work. Doug, who learned his strong work ethic from his father, said he tended to their flowers after school, and during the summers.

“Back then, in order to survive, everybody had to pitch in,” he said. “It’s not like nowadays.”

Doug Hatano stands in the field where he grew flowers on the family farm. Photo by Tony LaBruno

Doug Hatano comes from a long line of farmers. His grandparents emigrated from Japan and grew watermelons, peas, and beans on their Porterville farm, just north of Bakersfield. They had a thriving business until they were forcibly removed from their farm after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In July 1942 they were interned in the Poston Relocation Center in Arizona. They were among the 120,000 people of Japanese heritage – most of whom were American citizens – taken from their homes and forced into prison camps.

Doug’s father, James, was 15 years old when he was sent to the camps. According to the Poston Chronicle, James spent his time at Poston attending school, and playing baseball and basketball. He also joined the Future Farmers of America.

Doug said his father rarely talked about his time at Poston.

“Very little, very little. My father didn’t talk about it too much,” he said. “It was just part of life.”

While at Poston, the Hatano family met several pioneering Japanese American families from the Palos Verdes Peninsula who spoke of the farming opportunities in Southern California.

Shortly after his 18th birthday and while still at Poston, James signed a loyalty oath to the United States, and joined the Army. In 1945, he served in Germany, where Doug said, “he drove a Jeep for some general over there.”

When his family was released from Poston, James joined them and relocated to Southern California.

“Upon the release from the prison camps, Japanese Americans found themselves with no money, no social capital, nowhere to live, and no opportunity,” according to a report from the Historic Resources Group, which helped the city draft the historic status application. 

“Most had to completely start over. It was the catalyst for the great diaspora, and many families did not return to the enclaves of communities in which they had resided prior to World War II.”

The Hatano family was part of that diaspora. James and his family harvested flowers in the South Bay before he found a plot of land on the Palos Verdes Peninsula owned by the U.S. Army.

“He decided he wanted to go out on his own, so he found this property,” Doug said looking over the land that was formerly their farm.

In 1953, James leased 13 acres from the U.S. Army in what is now the Upper Point Vicente area of Rancho Palos Verdes. 

A 1973 lease agreement shows the rent was $500 annually, according to Rancho Palos Verdes Senior Analyst Megan Barnes. 

Like many Japanese American farmers in the area, Hatano employed a dry farming technique (crop production with limited irrigation). It also includes minimal tilling of the land, strict weed control and cultivation of dust mulch to reduce runoff and evaporation.

“He learned to work with what he had and not fight the elements,” Doug said of his father, who took advantage of the cool ocean breezes, sunshine, and mild winters.

“It seldom got hot out here, I’ve never seen a frost, so we were able to grow year-round,” Doug Hatano said.

After World War II, California flower cultivation was dominated by growers of Japanese heritage, who produced 65 percent of the flowers grown in California through the 1970s. 

The average value per acre of all West Coast farms in 1940 was $37.94, whereas that of Japanese farms was $279.96, according to the Historic Resources Group report.

Surveying the land his family once cultivated, Doug harkened back to a simpler time, before development, the housing tracts, Terranea Resort, and Trump National Golf Club.

“We hunted rabbits to keep them from eating the flowers,” Doug said of the family’s pest control methods.

“We caught rattlesnakes, and put them in a big culver. Every time we saw a hawk, we would take one out and throw it, and watch the hawk come down and pick it up. Where else can you do stuff like that?”

A scrub jay James Hatano trained to eat peanuts out of his hand. Photo by Tony LaBruno

In 1976, the city of Rancho Palos Verdes acquired the Hatano farmland through the Federal Lands to Parks Program. Even though the program did not allow for commercial enterprises on the land, the city allowed Hatano to keep farming until his death in 2015.

Doug, who moved to Arroyo Grande where he tended to his own vegetable farm, would often come down to help his father.

James died one day before his 88th birthday.

“It was the tenacity, good health, and love for the land that allowed James Hatano to continuously work the land until his death in 2015 at the age of 87. As such, this exceptional man preserved a historic resource of exceptional importance that speaks to the 20th century Japanese American experience, the economic development of California, and as a powerful cultural landscape for the PV Peninsula,” the Historic Resources Group report said.

Hatano’s longtime foreman Martin Martinez kept the farm going until last year.

To preserve the legacy of the Hatano family, and their farm, the city applied for historic designation to the California State Historical Resources Commission. The designation was granted in January.

“This is a public recognition of their contributions,” RPV City Councilmember David Bradley said. “Japanese American farmers were taken off their land in the 1940s, repatriated and then farmed here. We wanted to honor that legacy for current and future generations. It is an important part of our history.”

Bradley said the city, and the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy may run the property as a native plant nursery with educational tours.

“We’re exploring our options,” Bradley said.

Doug said he would have liked to retain the farm as a testament to the contributions of Japanese American farmers on the peninsula.

“I’m gonna miss it, that’s for sure,” he said. “But just like everything else, life goes by.”

He’s consoled by memories of his father who used to sit in his truck and stare at the vast open fields and endless blue waters.

“He used to sit in the truck, look out at the ocean and just take it all in,” Doug Hatano said. “This was his favorite place to be. He didn’t want to be anywhere else.” PEN


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