The Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange has a unique and rich history here on the Central Coast of California.
In the early part of the 20th century many of the hills in the Arroyo Grande area and much of the coastal hills between Avila Beach and Pismo Beach were farmed by Japanese families who planted bush peas each spring. Some of the early farms extended to the very edge of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
In 1922 the pea growers of the Pismo Beach area banded together to form the Pismo Beach Growers Association with George Fukunaga as its’ manager. The assembly of the association provided the growers with a centralized marketing capability. Soon after the formation in 1925, the growers in the Arroyo Grande area followed suit forming the Arroyo Grande Pea Growers Association.
It was the merger of these tow organizations that Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange (P.O.V.E) as it is known today, was organized as a nonprofit cooperative. The first manager of P.O.V.E was the younger brother of George Fukunaga, Bob Fukunaga. As a Hawaiian born and educated individual, Bob was proficient in both English and Japanese. The fact that he was a U.S. citizen was important at the time because a California state law that existed titled the Alien Land Law. This law prohibited all U.S. alien of Asian origin to own or lease any land. U.S. citizens like George and Bob Fukunaga helped lease the land for the Japanese families to farm. The Alien Law was enacted in 1913 and was later declared unconstitutional in 1952.
By the late 1920′s, the lower Arroyo Grande Valley in the Oceano District was the most important vegetable farming region in San Luis Obispo County. The irrigated pole peas grown in this valley became famous throughout the country for their fine quality and unique sweet taste. Due to the great demand for the “Oceano Pea”, the members of the Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange were able to weather the Great Depression without undue hardship, unlike farmers nationwide who were experiencing sever difficulties.
The organization continued to flourish throughout the 1930′s with the shipment of diverse vegetable crops that included celery, broccoli, cauliflower, iceberg lettuce, cabbage, and brussel sprouts, as well as peas. However, the flourishing activity came to a sudden halt after the inception of WWII when all persons of Japanese ancestry, aliens as well as U.S. born, were ordered to evacuate the West Coast to the internment camps located in the interiors of California, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Arkansas, and Colorado.
During the absence of the Japanese families from the West Coast, some families outside of the Central Coast had their properties burglarized, ravaged, and burned. Luckily the Japanese families of the South County were very fortunate and their losses minimized because they had good friends in the Arroyo Grande Valley who looked after their farmland and possessions. Pete Bachino, Vard Loomis, Joh Enos, Joe Silviera, Cyril Phelan, Ed Taylor, and Ernest Vollmer were among those who stepped forward in the face of pressures from local communities to help their Japanese friends.
When the Japanese were allowed to return to the West Coast after World War II, only a few members of the Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange returned to their farmlands. Although these families had farms to come back to, they had very little capital with which to farm. Furthermore, businesses that were willing to extend them credit were almost nonexistent. Once again, it was the Loomis families along with Jack Snyder, the village blacksmith, and Earl Wilkinson of Wilkinson’s Meat Market who helped their Japanese friends by extending them credit when no one else would be of assistance. Getting their farming operations re-established under these circumstances was no easy task. Due to the lack of capital, the farmers had to do without needed equipment and supplies, while hiring only as much help as they could afford. Instead the entire family both young and old, joined hands and the families helped one another. Together they labored long and strenuous hours, many times well into the night, to get themselves back on their feet.
The Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange was reactivated once again in 1946 with Tulie Miura as its manager. Poled peas, which played such an important role in the earlier years, could no longer be grown due to soil disease. Celery took over as the most predominant crop. By the time Ken Kitasako took over as general manager, replacing Miura in 1955, the second generation of farmers, also known as the Nisei generation began their role in the postwar rebuilding process. these individuals included Stone Saruwatari; Kingo Kawaoka; Hilo Fuchiwaki; Kazuo, Seirin, and Saburo Ikeda; Mitsugi and Harry Fukuhara; Haruo and Akio Hayashi; Ken Kobara; Ben Dohi; and Noru Kawaoka. As capital became more readily available, antiquated equipment was updated and packing house facilities were expanded to meet the increased production of the farms. Ironically, it was not until the final year of Kitasako’s long and dedicated 26 years of service that the enlarged cold storage facilities, which he so frequently requested, and the hydro-vacuum cooler were finally installed.
Many changes took place in the ensuing years, much of which was dictated by the demands of buyers and consumers. Some of these included better refrigeration technology to improve shelf life, centralized buying to allow trucks to pick up all their needs at one location, palletization to reduce handling costs, and growing more salad-oriented products to meet the needs of people’s eating habits. Due to these changes, changes in technology, and improved efficiencies the volume of sales doubled making Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange one of the most important mixed-vegetable shipping companies on the Central Coast. During the course of one year, as many as 24 different vegetables are grown and shipped, including our specialty crop, Nappa Cabbage (Chinese Cabbage). A recent project completed showed that Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange is the largest grower-shipper of Nappa Cabbage in North America.
The third generation of the Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange, also known as the Sansei generation, are now active in the affairs of the cooperative. Leroy Saruwatari; Stan, Vard, Tom, and James Ikeda; John, Robert, and Alan Hayashi; Gary and Bruce Kobara; Hugh and Peter Dohi are continuing the proud traditions of their families and the cooperative.
The fourth generations of growers, also known as the Yonsei generation, have recently began graduating from high school and college and are also returning back to the farms to continue the strong history and heritage. Brycen Ikeda and Kurtis Kobara are following in their strong family traditions.
Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange is a living testimony to the dedication, commitment, and hard work of the Japanese farmers in the South County of San Luis Obispo who overcame many obstacles by working together for more than 85 years to establish a successful agricultural cooperative.