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Carlsbad's strawberry fields – how they have lasted

U-Pick as the last defense

It’s been a Carlsbad tradition for 20 years.
It’s been a Carlsbad tradition for 20 years.

It’s the last outpost of agriculture in coastal North County, plainly visible from the freeway. A vast field of green just east of Interstate 5 and north of Cannon Road in the heart of Carlsbad, dotted, in the spring and summer with field workers stooping and rising, stooping and rising, as they pick juicy red strawberries from the rich loam that for years fueled the farms for which this area was once known. They are carrying on a tradition that dates back nearly 100 years, when the farms of North County provided steady employment for Mexican field hands, some of them partisans of Pancho Villa who migrated north to escape the turmoil.

The fields closest to Cannon are marked “U-Pick,” where families, many with young kids, may pick their own strawberries for $10 a bucket. It’s been a Carlsbad tradition for 20 years. I remember taking all three of my boys here when they were toddlers, as one of the rites of spring, along with a visit to the nearby Flower Fields and Legoland.

These are the famed strawberry fields of Carlsbad, farmed by the Ukegawa family since the 1950s on land leased from San Diego Gas & Electric Company – and preserved by the good voters of Carlsbad in November 2006 when they passed Proposition D, which zoned 208 acres of farmland on the southern shores of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon as open space and promotes agricultural uses “as long as feasible.”

Residents rejoiced when Proposition D was passed. California loses one square mile of farmland every five days, according to the state’s Department of Conservation. The orange groves that gave Orange County its name have been obliterated, paved over for mass tracts of suburbia and Disneyland. In Lemon Grove, all that’s left is the name: the last grove of lemon trees was paved over for streets and single-family homes in 1962. And here in Carlsbad, the post-World War II housing boom wiped out the avocado orchards on the west side of town, while a similar fate, decades later, awaited the tomato fields on the east side. One particularly large tomato patch is now home to Legoland.

Carlsbad Strawberry field owner Jimmy Ukegawa says that since the pandemic started business has picked up. “We’ve never been this busy, especially on the weekends. We’re even getting a lot of people who just come out to take pictures in the field. We’re getting calls from Arizona, Las Vegas. Our business has easily tripled, maybe even quadrupled.”

But Carlsbad voters who believed their November 2006 vote would mean strawberry fields forever were sadly mistaken. Only about a quarter of the 25-acre site currently used to grow strawberries by the Ukegawa family’s Carlsbad Strawberry Company sits on the protected land. “We moved west, closer to the freeway, because after years and years of growing strawberries the soil became depleted,” said Ukegawa, a tall, lanky figure who looks younger than his 60 years. As a result, strawberries are now grown mostly on land that has been zoned for commercial development. As for the remaining 25 percent, there’s that tricky little caveat in Proposition D: “as long as feasible.” And Ukegawa maintains the feasibility factor is fast eroding as land values, labor expenses and water costs climb, while crop prices don’t.

“That’s why we’ve had to be innovative,” Ukegawa says, “and figure out ways to sell our strawberries directly to the public.”

The Ukegawas used to sell strawberries to supermarkets all over the country, but they were ultimately priced out by inexpensive produce from Mexico. “There’s no way we could compete, when south of the border they can produce strawberries way cheaper than we can,” he says.

The Ukegawas used to sell strawberries to supermarkets all over the country, but they were ultimately priced out by inexpensive produce from Mexico. “There’s no way we could compete, when south of the border they can produce strawberries way cheaper than we can,” he says.

Grocers such as Albertson’s currently pay about $10 for an eight-pound box of strawberries, Ukegawa says, while his break-even cost is $14. Supermarkets prefer strawberries with a longer shelf life than the Albion strain Ukegawa grows. “You go to the grocery store and you’ll get what I call ‘red cucumbers’ — they are white on the inside,” he says. “Our strawberries taste much sweeter because they have a much higher sugar content, but that also means they don’t last as long on the shelf. Our strawberries might only last two or three days in the refrigerator, whereas store-bought berries are already three days old by the time they get put out. We’ve never sold a day-old strawberry at any of our fruit stands.”

The Carlsbad Strawberry Company maintains four fruit stands during strawberry season, which typically runs from Christmas through July. One is in front of the Flower Fields, another in Del Mar, and a third at the company’s 44,000-square-foot warehouse on Aviara Parkway. But the U-Pick stand on Cannon Road is by far the biggest money-maker – especially this year, Ukegawa says, “Because we are considered an essential business, we never shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he says. “And maybe because people want to be outside — they feel safer — we’ve never been this busy, especially on the weekends. We’re even getting a lot of people who just come out to take pictures in the field. We’re getting calls from Arizona, Las Vegas. Our business has easily tripled, maybe even quadrupled. We used to get hundreds of people through here. Now, it’s in the thousands.”

In addition to selling his own strawberries at the Aviara Parkway warehouse, Ukegawa rents out stall space on the dock to growers of citrus and other fruits and vegetables. This year visitors can also buy fresh milk from the Hollandia Dairy; eggs from the Fluegge Egg Ranch in Valley Center; avocados from Escondido, oranges, limes, and lemons from Valley Center; flower bouquets from the Carlsbad Flower Mart, El Nopalito chips and salsa from Encinitas; and even Gelato.

U-Pick

It’s a hot sunny day in June — the antithesis of “June gloom” — when I visit Jimmy Ukegawa at the U-Pick patch off Cannon Road east of Interstate 5. It’s tricky to find the driveway; you have to shoot past the dirt parking lot and make a U-turn about a quarter of a mile down Cannon. Four other cars make the U-turn with me; three of them pull into the Carlsbad Strawberry Company’s parking lot.

I meet Jimmy beside the whitewashed wood fruit stand, where a line of people is waiting to buy either U-Pick tickets or harvested strawberries at $6 a basket (or $25 for a six-pack, tightly packed into a corrugated cardboard Carlsbad Strawberry Company box). He’s wearing jeans and a Dave Matthews Band t-shirt. “This is pretty much my uniform,” he says.

I follow him to the entrance — a pop-up where a friendly young man is collecting U-Pick tickets — and we start on the short trek to the U-Pick patch. Even though it’s midweek and so hot that anyone with free time on their hands should be at the beach, the patch is crawling with people. It looks like a pre-school “mommy and me” field trip: mostly camera-clutching young women and little boys and girls. Some are dressed up, others are dressed down and racing to see who can fill their buckets with strawberries the fastest.

“The idea came to me in college,” Ukegawa says. “My physics lab partner asked me what my family did, and I told him we grow tomatoes and strawberries in Carlsbad. And she asked me what a strawberry tree looked like. She was from San Francisco, and had never been to a farm before. Kids these days don’t know where their food comes from. They think it comes in a plastic container. And at first my dad thought it was a joke, but later on it really picked up.”

A mother and two little girls walk by. The mother looks a little flustered as the girls, maybe 6 and 8, tug at her sleeves. They’re anxious to get started. Jimmy directs them to a row of strawberries closer to the freeway. “There are more red ones there,” he says. “Those are the sweet ones.”

Catherine Miller, a longtime friend, says of Ukegawa, “He’s very proud not only of his Japanese heritage, but also of his family history here in Carlsbad. No one loves Carlsbad more and cares more about its future, than Jimmy.”

An increasingly popular item is a 25-pound box of assorted produce — “it changes every day,” Ukegawa says — that sells for $25.

To keep the money coming in

When the strawberry season ends, Ukegawa says, it’s time to “work the ground and get it ready for next season — it’s a year-round process.” And to keep the money coming in, he says, the Carlsbad Strawberry Company operates a pumpkin patch every September and October, something he started seven years ago to help pay the bills.

The pumpkin patch includes a corn maze and an antique tractor ride out to a field where giant pumpkins are grown and still on the vine. On the west side of the pumpkin patch is a corn maze which has become popular in recent years among teens and young adults — particularly at night, when the maze is “haunted” with scary actors through a partnership with the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation.

“It didn’t start out so well,” Ukegawa says. “The first year, I grew the wrong variety of corn, and it only came up four feet. Then a storm kicked up and the whole thing leaned over sideways.” These days, the corn maze stands an impressive 12 feet and covers five acres. I went there last October and it took me more than an hour to find the way out.

Even with the pumpkin patch, the Carlsbad Strawberry Company is having a tough time making ends meet, Ukegawa says. This year, thanks to the uptick in “U-Pick” business, is the first in many that the farmer expects to turn a profit.

Ukegawa says he plans on selling his warehouse on Aviara Parkway and buying a smaller one, “so I can invest the money and absorb the loss we take on the strawberries every year. We’re still hanging on, but most years we take a loss. It’s a slow bleed.”

So why keep doing it? “It’s tradition,” Ukegawa says. “My kids tell me all the time, when they come home from school, ‘Hey, dad, do you know we’re famous! We own the strawberry fields.’ It’s a legacy thing – our family has been doing this for generations, and I’d like to turn it around so I can pass it on to the next generation.

“We’ve got people who have been working for my family for 40 years – in some cases, two or even three generations of the same family. I can’t suddenly just shut down the business and throw them to the wolves. I need to try to make this sustainable.”

“The strawberry fields are an icon of our community,” says Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall. “I run into people all the time who tell me they are so glad the fields are still here because they remember picking strawberries with their parents when they were little kids.”

Family farm

Jimmy Ukegawa’s grandparents, Fukutaro and Tomoye Ukegawa, were first-generation immigrants who moved to Tustin (Orange County), bought some property, and began farming tomatoes for a living. His father, Hiroshi Ukegawa, was born there in 1921. As a Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-American, he was sent back to Japan to attend elementary school, as was the custom at the time. He returned to Orange County to attend Tustin High School as a Kibei, a term used at the time to describe Japanese Americans born in the United States who returned to America after receiving their education in Japan.

When World War II broke out, the Ukegawas were among the 112,000 people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast forced into internment camps by President Franklin Roosevelt shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Ukegawas were sent to a camp in Poston, Arizona, in Yuma County. Like other internees, by the time they were released they had lost everything, including their farm in Tustin, which was taken away for nonpayment of taxes.

Hiroshi Ukegawa joined the Army and served the country that had imprisoned his family as a paratrooper in Europe. Upon his discharge, his family had already been released from the camp and settled down in Oceanside, near another family with whom they had shared barracks in Poston. They began farming the fertile San Luis Rey River Valley and eventually expanded their operations into Carlsbad. In the meantime, Hiroshi had met, fallen in love with, and married a young woman named Miwako, who had been born on the island of Borneo, where her father had a black pepper plantation, and then come to the United States after the war to study cosmetology. In December 1959, a month before Jimmy Ukegawa was born, his parents moved from Oceanside to Carlsbad, into the same house on Skyline Drive where his now-93-year-old mother lives today. (His father died in 2009.)

The Ukegawa farming operation expanded significantly in the 1960s and 1970s, into Olivenhain and Del Mar. “My father prided himself on being a tomato grower,” Jimmy Ukegawa says. “He started growing strawberries on the side just to keep workers busy during the off season. Tomatoes grow from July through Christmas, so they were a natural complement.”

The Ukegawa family provided high schoolers with summer jobs, sorting and packing tomatoes. “They couldn’t pronounce my dad’s name, so they all used to say, ‘We work at Roaches.’”

At one point, Jimmy Ukegawa says, his family was farming 1500 acres of tomatoes, 10 acres of squash, and 200 acres of strawberries. They maintained smaller patches of bell peppers, beans, and cucumbers. “At one point my dad owned quite a bit of property in Oceanside and Carlsbad, but he had to sell it off over the years because farming had its ups and downs,” Ukegawa says. “When I was in high school he grew 50 acres of corn, and if you ever try to sell corn at a nickel an ear and make money, you can’t do it. So he did it either to keep the [produce] stands busy or us busy.”

By “us,” he’s referring to his siblings. Hiroshi and Miwako Ukegawa had four other children besides Jimmy. Older brother Joe, a Carlsbad High graduate and heavy smoker, died of lung cancer in 2016; younger brother Leslie, born with Down’s syndrome, passed away a year ago. A third brother, Jack, now lives in Portland. And sister Alice lives with mom on Skyline Drive.

In the 1960s and 1970s, North County growers relied largely on migrant farmworkers from Mexico to tend their fields and pick their crops. Many of them lived on the farmland, camping out in the canyons of east Carlsbad and elsewhere. In the early 1970s, Cesar Chavez began organizing California migrant laborers into the United Farmworkers Union, working his way down from the lettuce fields of Salinas to the tomato and strawberry fields of North San Diego County. The drive never really caught on, and in 2006 the Los Angeles Times said an investigation by the newspaper found that Chavez’s heirs “run a web of tax-exempt organizations that exploit his legacy and invoke the harsh lives of farmworkers to raise millions of dollars in public and private money. The money does little to improve the lives of California farmworkers, who still struggle with the most basic health and housing needs and try to get by on seasonal, minimum-wage jobs.”

These days, Ukegawa says, the Carlsbad Strawberry Company has a full-time staff of 45, of whom about 20 focus on picking fruit. A handful of seasonal workers “come back year after year after year,” he says. All either have green cards or are U.S. citizens, “and they all live here, except one who commutes from Tijuana.”

Mexican produce

Jimmy Ukegawa graduated from Carlsbad High School and attended the University of California, Berkeley, graduating in 1983. By then the Ukegawa farming operation was in trouble. Crop prices were being driven down by inexpensive produce from Mexico, and Ukegawa gave up plans to attend graduate business school — his undergraduate degree was in plant and soil biology — to help run the family business with brother Joe.

A few years later, legal trouble hit. In July 1987, 40 current and former employees of what was then known as Ukegawa Brothers Inc. filed a civil suit in Superior Court in Vista. According to a story published at the time in the Los Angeles Times, the workers accused Ukegawa officials “of shooting, beating, and threatening farm laborers, most of them illegal aliens from Mexico who said they lived in the fields near land farmed by Ukegawa.” They asked for $89 million in punitive damages, “plus undetermined amounts for general damages and other costs.” One farm worker accused Joe Ukegawa of firing a pellet gun at him, for sport.

The Ukegawas countersued for $55 million, accusing the former employees of damaging equipment, starting work slowdowns, and threatening other workers. Both lawsuits were later dropped.

Since then, making a living at farming has been a constant battle, Jimmy Ukegawa says. The ups and downs he referred to earlier became a downhill slide, as the big supermarket chains turned to cheaper produce from Mexico, where the Baja California peninsula had suddenly become a hotbed of agricultural activity. Prior to the 1980s, agriculture had never gained much of a foothold in Northern Baja, due to a lack of water. In the south, in the state of Baja California Sur, sugar cane had flourished for more than 100 years, until the early 1950s, when a severe drought combined with falling sugar prices led the sugar industry in the area to collapse. The last sugar cane processing plant was shuttered in 1974.

Agriculture in Baja California Sur was revived with the construction of the transpeninsular highway in the 1970s, coupled with the end of the long drought. Meanwhile, desalination technology made it feasible to irrigate farmland inexpensively in the north. “When I first went down there in the early 1980s, they grew mostly grains and garbanzo beans in the south,” Ukegawa said. “Fresh crops came later. But Northern Baja had already started with tomatoes and strawberries.”

For a time, the Ukegawas tried farming in Baja California as well, growing tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers in San Quintin, about 100 miles south of Ensenada, plus further south in the now-booming agricultural district of Baja California Sur, centered around Ciudad Constitución. But while labor was cheaper, the other costs remained the same. And the fact that they were viewed as outsiders didn’t help, either.

The Ukegawas survived mostly by paring down their North County land holdings and shrinking their farming operations. By 2010 they had pulled out of Mexico entirely. “I even left a bunch of tomato stakes and several small tractors behind,” Ukegawa said. Two years later, in 2012, they planted their last tomato crop in Carlsbad and got out of the wholesale produce business completely in favor of growing only strawberries and selling them directly to consumers.

Save the strawberry fields!

In 2015, Jimmy Ukegawa was at the center of a bitter civic debate over a shopping center Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso wanted to build on the south shores of Agua Hedionda Lagoon. Under the plan, Caruso would buy 203.4 acres of land from SDG&E, build a 27-acre shopping, dining, and entertainment complex, anchored by a Nordstrom department store, next to the freeway, and deed back the rest of the land to a conservancy with the mandate to preserve it as open space for perpetuity.

Ukegawa became one of the plan’s biggest champions, since it promised to protect the strawberry fields whose fate, then as now, was uncertain.

But there was one hitch: after a disingenuous petition drive by Team Caruso to “save the strawberry fields” was presented to the Carlsbad City Council in August 2015 with 20,000 signatures, council members opted to approve the proposal outright, without a public vote. A group of citizens, angered at not having a say in the matter — and at what they said was a deceptive campaign — promptly mounted a month-long petition drive of their own and gathered enough signatures in just four weeks to overturn the council action and put the matter on the ballot. Measure A was scheduled for a public vote in February 2016.

The contentious campaign ultimately led to voters rejecting Caruso’s mall, leaving in its wake a divided city and a split City Council. Ukegawa did not emerge unscathed. Critics brought up the old labor lawsuit as well as new accusations that chemicals from his agricultural operations were spilling into Agua Hedionda Lagoon and polluting the water. Four years later, emotions remain high among both the pro and the con factions, but Ukegawa says he has no regrets.

“Whether I was part of it or not, I would have backed that deal,” he says. “It still think it was a good deal for Carlsbad. The site of the proposed mall is zoned for development and one day something’s going to be built there, probably housing. But that’s not what sold me on the deal. He was going to gift back to Carlsbad all the open space, almost 200 acres. And that would have been something.”

Erik Staley, a longtime Carlsbad resident who did public relations for the citizens group opposed to the Caruso project, says he still harbors resentment over the “misleading” pro-mall campaign, in which Ukegawa and the strawberry fields were prominently featured.

“He was featured in a lot of advertising by Caruso in which he said he would lose his strawberry fields and his family farm if the measure got voted down,” Staley says. “And here we are, four years later, and his operation seems to be going just fine.”

Community supported agriculture

It’s another blazing hot June afternoon, a day later. Jimmy Ukegawa takes me to his warehouse, “where we turned half the dock into a farmers market,” he says. It’s on Aviara Parkway just south of Palomar Airport Road; the farmer bought it 30 years ago when his agricultural operation was still wholesaling produce to supermarkets around the country.

In addition to selling his own strawberries, Ukegawa rents out stall space on the dock to growers of citrus and other fruits and vegetables. This year visitors can buy fresh milk from the Hollandia Dairy; eggs from the Fluegge Egg Ranch in Valley Center; avocados from Escondido, oranges, limes, and lemons from Valley Center; flower bouquets from the Carlsbad Flower Mart, El Nopalito chips and salsa from Encinitas; and gelato made in Carlsbad by GelatoLove Carlsbad Village in the Carlsbad Village Faire shopping complex.

An increasingly popular item is a 25-pound box of assorted produce — “it changes every day,” Ukegawa says — that sells for $25. Ukegawa and other farmers who belong to North County Community Supported Agriculture collectives all contribute crops to the boxes, which may be ordered online and picked up, curbside, in the warehouse parking lot. Ukegawa and his team will deliver. In a typical week, customers will buy upwards of 1000 CSA boxes.

The warehouse is ground zero for Ukegawa’s charitable endeavors. Over the last couple of months, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, he’s given away thousands of pounds of produce, both his own and donated by other farmers, to three local charities: the Boys and Girls Club of Carlsbad, the city of Carlsbad Senior Center, and the Carlsbad Unified School District, which through a food drive began handing out food to needy families after the mid-March closure of schools disrupted the school lunch program.

“Every week, we support 150 seniors with multiple pieces of fruit and multiple vegetables,” he said. “Then, we gift to 90 families through the Boys and Girls Club. And for the last two and a half months, we’ve been gifting fruit and vegetables to another 90 families each week through the Carlsbad Unified School District food drive.”

The giving, like the farming, is inherited. When Ukegawa’s sister Alice was a year old, her fever shot to 113 degrees and she stopped breathing for 10 minutes. The Carlsbad Fire Department came and revived her, and though she suffered brain damage, she survived. Every year, her grateful mother loaded up the family station wagon with strawberries, which she delivered to the fire station across from city hall. As Carlsbad grew and more fire stations were built, the practice expanded, “and we continue to do it today, 58 years later,” Ukegawa says.

“Like farming, it’s a family tradition.”

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It’s been a Carlsbad tradition for 20 years.
It’s been a Carlsbad tradition for 20 years.

It’s the last outpost of agriculture in coastal North County, plainly visible from the freeway. A vast field of green just east of Interstate 5 and north of Cannon Road in the heart of Carlsbad, dotted, in the spring and summer with field workers stooping and rising, stooping and rising, as they pick juicy red strawberries from the rich loam that for years fueled the farms for which this area was once known. They are carrying on a tradition that dates back nearly 100 years, when the farms of North County provided steady employment for Mexican field hands, some of them partisans of Pancho Villa who migrated north to escape the turmoil.

The fields closest to Cannon are marked “U-Pick,” where families, many with young kids, may pick their own strawberries for $10 a bucket. It’s been a Carlsbad tradition for 20 years. I remember taking all three of my boys here when they were toddlers, as one of the rites of spring, along with a visit to the nearby Flower Fields and Legoland.

These are the famed strawberry fields of Carlsbad, farmed by the Ukegawa family since the 1950s on land leased from San Diego Gas & Electric Company – and preserved by the good voters of Carlsbad in November 2006 when they passed Proposition D, which zoned 208 acres of farmland on the southern shores of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon as open space and promotes agricultural uses “as long as feasible.”

Residents rejoiced when Proposition D was passed. California loses one square mile of farmland every five days, according to the state’s Department of Conservation. The orange groves that gave Orange County its name have been obliterated, paved over for mass tracts of suburbia and Disneyland. In Lemon Grove, all that’s left is the name: the last grove of lemon trees was paved over for streets and single-family homes in 1962. And here in Carlsbad, the post-World War II housing boom wiped out the avocado orchards on the west side of town, while a similar fate, decades later, awaited the tomato fields on the east side. One particularly large tomato patch is now home to Legoland.

Carlsbad Strawberry field owner Jimmy Ukegawa says that since the pandemic started business has picked up. “We’ve never been this busy, especially on the weekends. We’re even getting a lot of people who just come out to take pictures in the field. We’re getting calls from Arizona, Las Vegas. Our business has easily tripled, maybe even quadrupled.”

But Carlsbad voters who believed their November 2006 vote would mean strawberry fields forever were sadly mistaken. Only about a quarter of the 25-acre site currently used to grow strawberries by the Ukegawa family’s Carlsbad Strawberry Company sits on the protected land. “We moved west, closer to the freeway, because after years and years of growing strawberries the soil became depleted,” said Ukegawa, a tall, lanky figure who looks younger than his 60 years. As a result, strawberries are now grown mostly on land that has been zoned for commercial development. As for the remaining 25 percent, there’s that tricky little caveat in Proposition D: “as long as feasible.” And Ukegawa maintains the feasibility factor is fast eroding as land values, labor expenses and water costs climb, while crop prices don’t.

“That’s why we’ve had to be innovative,” Ukegawa says, “and figure out ways to sell our strawberries directly to the public.”

The Ukegawas used to sell strawberries to supermarkets all over the country, but they were ultimately priced out by inexpensive produce from Mexico. “There’s no way we could compete, when south of the border they can produce strawberries way cheaper than we can,” he says.

The Ukegawas used to sell strawberries to supermarkets all over the country, but they were ultimately priced out by inexpensive produce from Mexico. “There’s no way we could compete, when south of the border they can produce strawberries way cheaper than we can,” he says.

Grocers such as Albertson’s currently pay about $10 for an eight-pound box of strawberries, Ukegawa says, while his break-even cost is $14. Supermarkets prefer strawberries with a longer shelf life than the Albion strain Ukegawa grows. “You go to the grocery store and you’ll get what I call ‘red cucumbers’ — they are white on the inside,” he says. “Our strawberries taste much sweeter because they have a much higher sugar content, but that also means they don’t last as long on the shelf. Our strawberries might only last two or three days in the refrigerator, whereas store-bought berries are already three days old by the time they get put out. We’ve never sold a day-old strawberry at any of our fruit stands.”

The Carlsbad Strawberry Company maintains four fruit stands during strawberry season, which typically runs from Christmas through July. One is in front of the Flower Fields, another in Del Mar, and a third at the company’s 44,000-square-foot warehouse on Aviara Parkway. But the U-Pick stand on Cannon Road is by far the biggest money-maker – especially this year, Ukegawa says, “Because we are considered an essential business, we never shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he says. “And maybe because people want to be outside — they feel safer — we’ve never been this busy, especially on the weekends. We’re even getting a lot of people who just come out to take pictures in the field. We’re getting calls from Arizona, Las Vegas. Our business has easily tripled, maybe even quadrupled. We used to get hundreds of people through here. Now, it’s in the thousands.”

In addition to selling his own strawberries at the Aviara Parkway warehouse, Ukegawa rents out stall space on the dock to growers of citrus and other fruits and vegetables. This year visitors can also buy fresh milk from the Hollandia Dairy; eggs from the Fluegge Egg Ranch in Valley Center; avocados from Escondido, oranges, limes, and lemons from Valley Center; flower bouquets from the Carlsbad Flower Mart, El Nopalito chips and salsa from Encinitas; and even Gelato.

U-Pick

It’s a hot sunny day in June — the antithesis of “June gloom” — when I visit Jimmy Ukegawa at the U-Pick patch off Cannon Road east of Interstate 5. It’s tricky to find the driveway; you have to shoot past the dirt parking lot and make a U-turn about a quarter of a mile down Cannon. Four other cars make the U-turn with me; three of them pull into the Carlsbad Strawberry Company’s parking lot.

I meet Jimmy beside the whitewashed wood fruit stand, where a line of people is waiting to buy either U-Pick tickets or harvested strawberries at $6 a basket (or $25 for a six-pack, tightly packed into a corrugated cardboard Carlsbad Strawberry Company box). He’s wearing jeans and a Dave Matthews Band t-shirt. “This is pretty much my uniform,” he says.

I follow him to the entrance — a pop-up where a friendly young man is collecting U-Pick tickets — and we start on the short trek to the U-Pick patch. Even though it’s midweek and so hot that anyone with free time on their hands should be at the beach, the patch is crawling with people. It looks like a pre-school “mommy and me” field trip: mostly camera-clutching young women and little boys and girls. Some are dressed up, others are dressed down and racing to see who can fill their buckets with strawberries the fastest.

“The idea came to me in college,” Ukegawa says. “My physics lab partner asked me what my family did, and I told him we grow tomatoes and strawberries in Carlsbad. And she asked me what a strawberry tree looked like. She was from San Francisco, and had never been to a farm before. Kids these days don’t know where their food comes from. They think it comes in a plastic container. And at first my dad thought it was a joke, but later on it really picked up.”

A mother and two little girls walk by. The mother looks a little flustered as the girls, maybe 6 and 8, tug at her sleeves. They’re anxious to get started. Jimmy directs them to a row of strawberries closer to the freeway. “There are more red ones there,” he says. “Those are the sweet ones.”

Catherine Miller, a longtime friend, says of Ukegawa, “He’s very proud not only of his Japanese heritage, but also of his family history here in Carlsbad. No one loves Carlsbad more and cares more about its future, than Jimmy.”

An increasingly popular item is a 25-pound box of assorted produce — “it changes every day,” Ukegawa says — that sells for $25.

To keep the money coming in

When the strawberry season ends, Ukegawa says, it’s time to “work the ground and get it ready for next season — it’s a year-round process.” And to keep the money coming in, he says, the Carlsbad Strawberry Company operates a pumpkin patch every September and October, something he started seven years ago to help pay the bills.

The pumpkin patch includes a corn maze and an antique tractor ride out to a field where giant pumpkins are grown and still on the vine. On the west side of the pumpkin patch is a corn maze which has become popular in recent years among teens and young adults — particularly at night, when the maze is “haunted” with scary actors through a partnership with the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation.

“It didn’t start out so well,” Ukegawa says. “The first year, I grew the wrong variety of corn, and it only came up four feet. Then a storm kicked up and the whole thing leaned over sideways.” These days, the corn maze stands an impressive 12 feet and covers five acres. I went there last October and it took me more than an hour to find the way out.

Even with the pumpkin patch, the Carlsbad Strawberry Company is having a tough time making ends meet, Ukegawa says. This year, thanks to the uptick in “U-Pick” business, is the first in many that the farmer expects to turn a profit.

Ukegawa says he plans on selling his warehouse on Aviara Parkway and buying a smaller one, “so I can invest the money and absorb the loss we take on the strawberries every year. We’re still hanging on, but most years we take a loss. It’s a slow bleed.”

So why keep doing it? “It’s tradition,” Ukegawa says. “My kids tell me all the time, when they come home from school, ‘Hey, dad, do you know we’re famous! We own the strawberry fields.’ It’s a legacy thing – our family has been doing this for generations, and I’d like to turn it around so I can pass it on to the next generation.

“We’ve got people who have been working for my family for 40 years – in some cases, two or even three generations of the same family. I can’t suddenly just shut down the business and throw them to the wolves. I need to try to make this sustainable.”

“The strawberry fields are an icon of our community,” says Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall. “I run into people all the time who tell me they are so glad the fields are still here because they remember picking strawberries with their parents when they were little kids.”

Family farm

Jimmy Ukegawa’s grandparents, Fukutaro and Tomoye Ukegawa, were first-generation immigrants who moved to Tustin (Orange County), bought some property, and began farming tomatoes for a living. His father, Hiroshi Ukegawa, was born there in 1921. As a Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-American, he was sent back to Japan to attend elementary school, as was the custom at the time. He returned to Orange County to attend Tustin High School as a Kibei, a term used at the time to describe Japanese Americans born in the United States who returned to America after receiving their education in Japan.

When World War II broke out, the Ukegawas were among the 112,000 people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast forced into internment camps by President Franklin Roosevelt shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Ukegawas were sent to a camp in Poston, Arizona, in Yuma County. Like other internees, by the time they were released they had lost everything, including their farm in Tustin, which was taken away for nonpayment of taxes.

Hiroshi Ukegawa joined the Army and served the country that had imprisoned his family as a paratrooper in Europe. Upon his discharge, his family had already been released from the camp and settled down in Oceanside, near another family with whom they had shared barracks in Poston. They began farming the fertile San Luis Rey River Valley and eventually expanded their operations into Carlsbad. In the meantime, Hiroshi had met, fallen in love with, and married a young woman named Miwako, who had been born on the island of Borneo, where her father had a black pepper plantation, and then come to the United States after the war to study cosmetology. In December 1959, a month before Jimmy Ukegawa was born, his parents moved from Oceanside to Carlsbad, into the same house on Skyline Drive where his now-93-year-old mother lives today. (His father died in 2009.)

The Ukegawa farming operation expanded significantly in the 1960s and 1970s, into Olivenhain and Del Mar. “My father prided himself on being a tomato grower,” Jimmy Ukegawa says. “He started growing strawberries on the side just to keep workers busy during the off season. Tomatoes grow from July through Christmas, so they were a natural complement.”

The Ukegawa family provided high schoolers with summer jobs, sorting and packing tomatoes. “They couldn’t pronounce my dad’s name, so they all used to say, ‘We work at Roaches.’”

At one point, Jimmy Ukegawa says, his family was farming 1500 acres of tomatoes, 10 acres of squash, and 200 acres of strawberries. They maintained smaller patches of bell peppers, beans, and cucumbers. “At one point my dad owned quite a bit of property in Oceanside and Carlsbad, but he had to sell it off over the years because farming had its ups and downs,” Ukegawa says. “When I was in high school he grew 50 acres of corn, and if you ever try to sell corn at a nickel an ear and make money, you can’t do it. So he did it either to keep the [produce] stands busy or us busy.”

By “us,” he’s referring to his siblings. Hiroshi and Miwako Ukegawa had four other children besides Jimmy. Older brother Joe, a Carlsbad High graduate and heavy smoker, died of lung cancer in 2016; younger brother Leslie, born with Down’s syndrome, passed away a year ago. A third brother, Jack, now lives in Portland. And sister Alice lives with mom on Skyline Drive.

In the 1960s and 1970s, North County growers relied largely on migrant farmworkers from Mexico to tend their fields and pick their crops. Many of them lived on the farmland, camping out in the canyons of east Carlsbad and elsewhere. In the early 1970s, Cesar Chavez began organizing California migrant laborers into the United Farmworkers Union, working his way down from the lettuce fields of Salinas to the tomato and strawberry fields of North San Diego County. The drive never really caught on, and in 2006 the Los Angeles Times said an investigation by the newspaper found that Chavez’s heirs “run a web of tax-exempt organizations that exploit his legacy and invoke the harsh lives of farmworkers to raise millions of dollars in public and private money. The money does little to improve the lives of California farmworkers, who still struggle with the most basic health and housing needs and try to get by on seasonal, minimum-wage jobs.”

These days, Ukegawa says, the Carlsbad Strawberry Company has a full-time staff of 45, of whom about 20 focus on picking fruit. A handful of seasonal workers “come back year after year after year,” he says. All either have green cards or are U.S. citizens, “and they all live here, except one who commutes from Tijuana.”

Mexican produce

Jimmy Ukegawa graduated from Carlsbad High School and attended the University of California, Berkeley, graduating in 1983. By then the Ukegawa farming operation was in trouble. Crop prices were being driven down by inexpensive produce from Mexico, and Ukegawa gave up plans to attend graduate business school — his undergraduate degree was in plant and soil biology — to help run the family business with brother Joe.

A few years later, legal trouble hit. In July 1987, 40 current and former employees of what was then known as Ukegawa Brothers Inc. filed a civil suit in Superior Court in Vista. According to a story published at the time in the Los Angeles Times, the workers accused Ukegawa officials “of shooting, beating, and threatening farm laborers, most of them illegal aliens from Mexico who said they lived in the fields near land farmed by Ukegawa.” They asked for $89 million in punitive damages, “plus undetermined amounts for general damages and other costs.” One farm worker accused Joe Ukegawa of firing a pellet gun at him, for sport.

The Ukegawas countersued for $55 million, accusing the former employees of damaging equipment, starting work slowdowns, and threatening other workers. Both lawsuits were later dropped.

Since then, making a living at farming has been a constant battle, Jimmy Ukegawa says. The ups and downs he referred to earlier became a downhill slide, as the big supermarket chains turned to cheaper produce from Mexico, where the Baja California peninsula had suddenly become a hotbed of agricultural activity. Prior to the 1980s, agriculture had never gained much of a foothold in Northern Baja, due to a lack of water. In the south, in the state of Baja California Sur, sugar cane had flourished for more than 100 years, until the early 1950s, when a severe drought combined with falling sugar prices led the sugar industry in the area to collapse. The last sugar cane processing plant was shuttered in 1974.

Agriculture in Baja California Sur was revived with the construction of the transpeninsular highway in the 1970s, coupled with the end of the long drought. Meanwhile, desalination technology made it feasible to irrigate farmland inexpensively in the north. “When I first went down there in the early 1980s, they grew mostly grains and garbanzo beans in the south,” Ukegawa said. “Fresh crops came later. But Northern Baja had already started with tomatoes and strawberries.”

For a time, the Ukegawas tried farming in Baja California as well, growing tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers in San Quintin, about 100 miles south of Ensenada, plus further south in the now-booming agricultural district of Baja California Sur, centered around Ciudad Constitución. But while labor was cheaper, the other costs remained the same. And the fact that they were viewed as outsiders didn’t help, either.

The Ukegawas survived mostly by paring down their North County land holdings and shrinking their farming operations. By 2010 they had pulled out of Mexico entirely. “I even left a bunch of tomato stakes and several small tractors behind,” Ukegawa said. Two years later, in 2012, they planted their last tomato crop in Carlsbad and got out of the wholesale produce business completely in favor of growing only strawberries and selling them directly to consumers.

Save the strawberry fields!

In 2015, Jimmy Ukegawa was at the center of a bitter civic debate over a shopping center Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso wanted to build on the south shores of Agua Hedionda Lagoon. Under the plan, Caruso would buy 203.4 acres of land from SDG&E, build a 27-acre shopping, dining, and entertainment complex, anchored by a Nordstrom department store, next to the freeway, and deed back the rest of the land to a conservancy with the mandate to preserve it as open space for perpetuity.

Ukegawa became one of the plan’s biggest champions, since it promised to protect the strawberry fields whose fate, then as now, was uncertain.

But there was one hitch: after a disingenuous petition drive by Team Caruso to “save the strawberry fields” was presented to the Carlsbad City Council in August 2015 with 20,000 signatures, council members opted to approve the proposal outright, without a public vote. A group of citizens, angered at not having a say in the matter — and at what they said was a deceptive campaign — promptly mounted a month-long petition drive of their own and gathered enough signatures in just four weeks to overturn the council action and put the matter on the ballot. Measure A was scheduled for a public vote in February 2016.

The contentious campaign ultimately led to voters rejecting Caruso’s mall, leaving in its wake a divided city and a split City Council. Ukegawa did not emerge unscathed. Critics brought up the old labor lawsuit as well as new accusations that chemicals from his agricultural operations were spilling into Agua Hedionda Lagoon and polluting the water. Four years later, emotions remain high among both the pro and the con factions, but Ukegawa says he has no regrets.

“Whether I was part of it or not, I would have backed that deal,” he says. “It still think it was a good deal for Carlsbad. The site of the proposed mall is zoned for development and one day something’s going to be built there, probably housing. But that’s not what sold me on the deal. He was going to gift back to Carlsbad all the open space, almost 200 acres. And that would have been something.”

Erik Staley, a longtime Carlsbad resident who did public relations for the citizens group opposed to the Caruso project, says he still harbors resentment over the “misleading” pro-mall campaign, in which Ukegawa and the strawberry fields were prominently featured.

“He was featured in a lot of advertising by Caruso in which he said he would lose his strawberry fields and his family farm if the measure got voted down,” Staley says. “And here we are, four years later, and his operation seems to be going just fine.”

Community supported agriculture

It’s another blazing hot June afternoon, a day later. Jimmy Ukegawa takes me to his warehouse, “where we turned half the dock into a farmers market,” he says. It’s on Aviara Parkway just south of Palomar Airport Road; the farmer bought it 30 years ago when his agricultural operation was still wholesaling produce to supermarkets around the country.

In addition to selling his own strawberries, Ukegawa rents out stall space on the dock to growers of citrus and other fruits and vegetables. This year visitors can buy fresh milk from the Hollandia Dairy; eggs from the Fluegge Egg Ranch in Valley Center; avocados from Escondido, oranges, limes, and lemons from Valley Center; flower bouquets from the Carlsbad Flower Mart, El Nopalito chips and salsa from Encinitas; and gelato made in Carlsbad by GelatoLove Carlsbad Village in the Carlsbad Village Faire shopping complex.

An increasingly popular item is a 25-pound box of assorted produce — “it changes every day,” Ukegawa says — that sells for $25. Ukegawa and other farmers who belong to North County Community Supported Agriculture collectives all contribute crops to the boxes, which may be ordered online and picked up, curbside, in the warehouse parking lot. Ukegawa and his team will deliver. In a typical week, customers will buy upwards of 1000 CSA boxes.

The warehouse is ground zero for Ukegawa’s charitable endeavors. Over the last couple of months, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, he’s given away thousands of pounds of produce, both his own and donated by other farmers, to three local charities: the Boys and Girls Club of Carlsbad, the city of Carlsbad Senior Center, and the Carlsbad Unified School District, which through a food drive began handing out food to needy families after the mid-March closure of schools disrupted the school lunch program.

“Every week, we support 150 seniors with multiple pieces of fruit and multiple vegetables,” he said. “Then, we gift to 90 families through the Boys and Girls Club. And for the last two and a half months, we’ve been gifting fruit and vegetables to another 90 families each week through the Carlsbad Unified School District food drive.”

The giving, like the farming, is inherited. When Ukegawa’s sister Alice was a year old, her fever shot to 113 degrees and she stopped breathing for 10 minutes. The Carlsbad Fire Department came and revived her, and though she suffered brain damage, she survived. Every year, her grateful mother loaded up the family station wagon with strawberries, which she delivered to the fire station across from city hall. As Carlsbad grew and more fire stations were built, the practice expanded, “and we continue to do it today, 58 years later,” Ukegawa says.

“Like farming, it’s a family tradition.”

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Comments
5

Pick-your-own strawberries were pioneered in the UK by Ted Moult in 1961.

July 16, 2020

There's always been the over-population of strawberries. What we need is the incoming more about raspberries. What nationality will result from them?

July 16, 2020
This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.
July 17, 2020
This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.
July 17, 2020

But wasn't the picking of advocados raised higher in the 1970s -- by those south of the U.S. border? There's a big difference in the sizing of strawberries vs advocados. ADD the difference in elevation of placement. Add how many are placed per distance.

Females, and with more tending fingers, would be interesting to see of challenging males at this.

July 17, 2020

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