For the Sakata family, farming is as familiar as a field of sweet corn, as old as the Rockies, and as inspiring as the plum, apricot and cherry trees that once threaded the family farm in Japan. The father of 91-year-old Bob Sakata left his homeland of Japan in 1902 to grow rice on a California tenant farm, and hopefully a better life in America.
As it turns out, that life wasn’t always better – California-born Bob was only six when his mother died. Then as a teenager, he, his father and siblings had to leave the California farm and endure the dark American period of American-Japanese internment camps, in which they and 111,000 other American-Japanese men, women and children were imprisoned on U.S. soil. Through it all, farming and faith kept him afloat, just as it does today.
“I just had faith in America as a free nation,” he says. “I truly believe that if you worked harder, you obeyed the laws and you thought smarter, you could get ahead. And that’s what I did.”
Indeed, Sakata Farms is one of Colorado’s prized agricultural achievements, a 2,400-acre Weld County success story rich with sweet corn, onions, cabbage, pinto beans, wheat, barley, field corn and more. The farm employs 200 people during peak production times, and around 70 year round.
Bob learned farming from his family, who had generations of experience in Japan. Those skills proved invaluable when Bob’s former FFA teacher moved from California to Colorado and sponsored young Bob’s release from a Topaz, Utah, internment camp. Colorado’s then-Governor Ralph Carr was a well-known supporter of Japanese-American rights.
It was 1942 when Bob moved into the little milk house of Brighton dairyman Bill Schluter and worked chores through high school.
When the internment camps closed in 1945, Schluter encouraged Bob to invite his family to Colorado to join him. In turn, Schluter provided him 40 acres with generous terms, and Sakata Farms was born. Bob lost his father and brother early on, but his wife of 60 years, Joanna, raised on a farm near Granby, has helped him create the farming dynasty that his son helms today.
“Sakata Farms could have never reached this success without Joanna and I working as a team,” Bob says.
Bob Sakata still comes to work every day, but his son, Robert – better known as R.T. – is the owner and leader of Sakata Farms and has made a name for himself in his own right. R.T., who received the American Vegetable Grower’s 2014 Grower Achievement Award, is widely known as someone who works hard for the good of the agricultural industry and builds coalitions among producers. He co-founded the Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, and as its president, he leads the organization in facing challenges ranging from water resources to food safety.
Sakata Farms sells its sweet corn and onions at retailers such as Safeway and other outlets in the state, and demand continues to grow.
“One of the important things my dad taught me was to focus on the product,” R.T. says. “He definitely got that right. There are a lot of competitors out there, but if you have a good product, it can sell itself.”