KoreAm Journal / Sept. 2005
Story by Bill Stephens
I was warned that the farm day starts early, and as I stagger to the bathroom at 5 a.m. with darkness all around, I spy my host Howard Yu sitting like a ghost in a dark corner praying. He has been up since 4 a.m.
Showered and dressed, I wander into the large kitchen which is the center of this farmhouse near the Central California town of Earlimart. There together, eyes closed, Howard and his wife of 40 years Soo, are reflecting together on their daily devotion at the dining room table.
"Ah, you caught us," Howard says cheerfully.
"Are you ready for the morning walk?"
As if on cue youngest daughter Salome
enters the room in her warm-up suit. Soon we are outside in the first light following a path from the farmhouse around the farm. The air is cool and fresh.
The road leads east past an almost-ready-to-plant Korean vegetable field, then along an almost-ready-to-harvest rice field. With one of the Yu's five dogs leading the way, I struggle to keep up with the trio of Yu fast walkers.
I had driven nearly three hours north from Los Angeles into California's agricultural Central Valley to sample the farm life with Korean farmer Howard Yu and his family. Korean Americans don't generally embrace farming and there are only a few Korean American farmers in California. But Howard Yu and his wife had been successfully embracing it for 35 years. I was curious. A hard-core city person, perhaps I was also trying to discover my inner farmer.
"I love rice!" Howard says, as we walk along the edge of the rice field. "The way it looks in the field. The way it smells and tastes."
Yu's morning walk is both exercise and field inspection. And he carries a metal pole to open and shut water valves. "I check for water leaks because don’t you want to waste a drop and your crops need just the right amount."
At 71, Howard Yu is a compact man with powerful limbs, a full head of white hair, and bronzed skin. He wears a UCLA baseball cap, sunglasses, white T-shirt, khaki pants, and tennis shoes. He doesn’t drink or smoke.
"In a few weeks we'll harvest the rice and send it off for drying, milling, and sale in the U.S. and Korea," explains Howard, who is as talkative and effusive as his wife is reserved and thoughtful. He reads farm journals, she reads novels.
After we complete a 30-minute loop and approach the Yu farmhouse, the 70 acre nascent vegetable field re-appears. Next week, astride his tractor, Howard will begin discing and furrowing the field. Then he will start planting Korean cabbages and radishes in sections over the next several weeks for a series of hand harvests starting in October.
Yu shows me the packing shed where the vegetables will be washed, dried, put in boxes, scaled, and loaded onto a truck. He ships his vegetables and melons by truck to the L.A. Produce Market where a Korean wholesaler sells them to Korean grocery markets and restaurants in Los Angeles and across the country. Yu's vegetables are "farm-fresh," that is, picked and sold the same day. A certified organic grower who uses no pesticides, Yu has two tractors, a pickup, a diesel truck, and a portable cold storage truck.
At the end of each year Yu plans next year's crop strategy and knows in advance what he'll be doing each day of the year. His strategy varies, depending on factors like rainfall. He knows well the cycles of planting, watering, harvesting, transporting, and selling. Focusing this year on rice and Korean vegetables, he's about to swing into his busy Fall-Winter season of 12 hour work days. Also this year, a dramatic new direction for Yu Farm is taking shape.
During breakfast of French toast, bacon, fruit juice, coffee, and Korean melon, Howard Yu praises farm life.
"Soo and I go to bed early, get up early. Sleep good. Eat good. Enjoy working with our hands outdoors. We feel tired in a good way. It's low stress. Many people hate to go to work. But for us, working together each day is enjoyable. Farming has made me healthier and stronger. I love this life. We don’t need lots of money."
Yu seems unruffled by the challenges plaguing California's 60,000 small farmers today, like:
--how to compete with big farms for buyers
--rising cost of water, power, fuel, land
--costly and time-consuming regulations
--getting children to carry on the business
"Farming isn't difficult, especially growing," Yu says. "Many California small farms are doing good. You don’t need to compete with the big farmers. Small farmers do direct sales to wholesalers, restaurants, farmers' markets, and customers.
"Small farmers don’t have big overhead and can develop specialty crops for niche markets. I grow Korean vegetables and melons, which the big guys don’t know how to do.
"It also helps that I'm a certified organic natural producer. Korean Americans want healthy food because they are educated and have the money for pay for it."
In addition to finding a specialty, Yu lists other reasons for his success: hard work, persistence, good timing, a healthy body, faith, family involvement, helpful neighbors, and a good education."
"Education helps me plan, come up with ideas, spot emerging markets, and be flexible."
Yu says there are few Korean American farmers in California because farming takes patience, persistence, an initial land investment, and three-five years to make a profit. He thinks Korean Americans are also influenced by the low status and economic situation of farmers in Korea.
Being a farmer in California was something Howard Yu dreamed about even as a city kid growing up in Seoul. He experienced fierce combat in the Korean War. "By surviving, I felt like the rest of my life was a bonus."
Yu graduated from college in economics, but supported himself by singing. In 1964, at 30, he emigrated to Los Angeles, where he married Soo, a medical school graduate in Korea he'd known growing up. Yu worked odd jobs like cleaning up dog poop in church members' gardens. But he kept his work ethic and his sense of humor.
He took the American name Howard. Americans would ask him:
"What's your name?"
"I'm fine," they sometimes replied, thinking he'd said: 'How are you?' "But what's your name?"
Howard eventually landed an air conditioning inspector job, studying agriculture at Cal Poly Pomona on the side. In 1970, with two small children, little money, and no farming experience, the couple moved to McFarland in Central California where Howard worked at a dairy. He started a dairy farm, which soon failed. In 1974 the Yus began growing Korean vegetables and melons, learning by trial and error.
"L.A.'s Koreatown was growing, and I knew raising Korean vegetables and melons would be a good business."
Yu was right. As fast as the couple could grow Korean cabbages, radishes, and melons and drive them to L.A., a Koreatown grocery store on Olympic Blvd. bought what they had to sell.
"My wife and I drove to Los Angeles three times a week. It was exciting to find a market for our produce."
In 1977, the Yus bought a 170 acre farm in nearby Earlimart, building the farmhouse by hand. Eventually Yu's farm grew to 450 acres and his family grew to six children, who helped out in the fields after school and during summers. Yu and his wife put all six children through college.
"The whole family helped us survive," Howard says. "My wife worked with me out in the fields, kept us healthy, managed the books, and contributed ideas." Soo continues to work in the field during vegetable harvests.
Says Soo: "There were nervous times in the early days. Contract workers sometimes failed to show up. Our old tractor would break down. But we just kept going. Once Howard has a goal, he never gives up. Our children longed for city life and we encouraged them to get an education."
Howard says small Korean American vegetable farmers in the Chino area eventually began offering competition. But the market is still growing. "I encourage Korean Americans to become small farmers. They don’t know about farming and its potential, that it's still possible to start a small farm today."
One reason Howard steers people to farm careers is because he believes small farms are worth preserving. "Small farmers provide specialty crops, fresher and healthier produce, and good prices at farmers' markets. They love and protect the land and are loyal local business owners."
With the thermometer at Yu Farm nearing 100, Howard and I climb into his Korean sedan and drive to nearby Delano, where he stops at a farm machine repair shop to pick up a hydraulic pump cylinder for his tractor's scraper.
Yu chats amiably with machine shop manager Miguel. "Miguel can fix anything for the farmer," Yu tells me. "Without these repair shops, farmers have big troubles."
Miguel smiles. "Howard is a good customer. But he doesn't come here much because he takes good care of his equipment."
Ten minutes later Miguel's son hands Howard the repaired cylinder.
"Fixed?" Howard asks.
"Muchas gracias!" Howard exclaims. "You be good. Okay?"
Next door at the cashier, Yu is pleased the repair is only $85. While chatting with the owner, the subject of retirement surfaces.
"I'm never going to retire," Howard says cheerfully. "They'll just find me in the field one day."
Back at Yu Farm, Howard eases the tractor along the rice field road, scraping it smooth for the upcoming harvest. Afterwards I'm pressed into service and help Howard wrestle a jammed tractor hook-up into place.
He pats me on the back. "You would make good farmer!"
I'm not so sure.
A large pickup comes down the paved road and stops. Two men in the front seat smile broadly at Howard.
"How's your rice crop Howard?" the man in the passenger seat asks.
"Harvesting in a few weeks," Howard says. "Good harvest I think."
After some neighborly talk about family and crops, the men wave and drive off. Howard explains that the father and son own the dairy farm next door.
Late in the afternoon, Howard drives his pick-up around the north part of the farm. We stop at the canal where water from the Sierras gurgles through the farm. He measures the water level and explains how a network of pumps, sumps, and underground pipelines irrigates the fields.
"This year's rains gave us plenty of water. Water is our lifeblood and main cost. It's getting more expensive and scarce because of population growth and electricity costs."
We stop at the shady northeast corner of the farm where Yu checks his persimmon trees. We taste persimmons. "These give me energy," he says, launching into a series of stretches.
After stretching, Yu explains the new direction for Yu Farm. He plans to relocate nearby, buy a much larger farm, and focus on rice, while still growing Korean vegetables. The reasons for this dramatic move at age 71 are many.
The main reason is a new opportunity in South Korea, which Yu says is opening up to world rice imports. "There's a large emerging rice market in Korea. And I'd like to help feed South and North Korea, which have 80 million people and limited farm land."
In South Korea, rice is the main crop, but the farms are small and agriculture lags behind industry. South Korea buys $2.4 billion of ag products per year from the U.S. According to the World Trade Organization, South Korea is scheduled to increase rice imports from 4 percent of domestic consumption to almost 8 percent by 2014. Some of that rice is expected to be shipped to North Korea for food aid, and some day North Korea itself may become a buyer in the world rice market.
Yu's new rice exporting venture may extend beyond his own farm. "Several South Korean rice farming families are planning to emigrate to California soon to grow rice on small farms for export back to Korea. I've been asked to help train and organize them. It will take time and Korean government financial help."
There's another reason for Yu's dramatic move. Four of his children want to be more involved in Yu Farm if it grows big enough to provide livelihoods. "My dream is to have my children carry on the business. Growing rice on a large-scale and sending it to Korea will make that possible. We'll take the business to the next level but remain a family farm."
Yu knows large-scale rice farming requires more water, harvesting equipment, land, and investment. But he's enthusiastic about the potential, and even talks about adding chicken, milk, alfalfa hay, and kimchi making activities.
While they've been selling off their Earlimart land, Yu and his wife plan to be at their current location through 2007.
Dinner is early at Yu Farm. And this evening the Yu adult children who live at the farm, Simon and Salome, are joined by siblings Sarah, who lives in Bakersfield, and
Steve who lives in Los Angeles. At the dining room table family members greet each other warmly. Howard leads the family in prayer. There are platters of bulgogi, kimchi, rice, fruit, and vegetables.
The young Yus agree that growing up on a farm impacted their lives.
--Simon, 27, a UCLA math/economics grad who recently moved back to the farm after working in L.A. for a year, now works for a large farming company nearby. He says he didn't enjoy working on the farm growing up, and thought he was leaving the Central Valley when he went to college. "But I now realize the farm experience gave us our values and work ethic. My parents showed us the fruits of hard work and perseverance."
He doesn't miss L.A. life and wasn't into the Koreatown club scene. "I'm happy living on a farm. I want to be as healthy as my parents."
--Salome, a 24-year-old UCLA grad, recently completed a fellowship with the Great Valley Center which sent her around the Central Valley learning about its uniqueness and agricultural importance.
"I never thought I'd come back to the Central Valley," says Salome. "But seeing what my parents accomplished is inspiring and the family business will always be dear to my heart."
--Sara, 35, who's pursuing a career as a personal trainer, says growing up on a farm gave her discipline, physical strength, and a healthy lifestyle.
--Steve, 32, who has an MBA from UCLA where he works as an accountant, says working on a farm developed his work ethic and pride. He says the Yu offspring have a perspective on city and country life. "We've spent time together, value family, and work well together."
The young Yus want to contribute their business and tech training to help Yu Farm succeed in its new direction, noting agriculture is becoming more high tech and computer oriented.
Simon envisions a hands-on role for himself in Yu Farm. "I want to help realize my parents' dream." He wants to help grow Yu Farm into an ag powerhouse, while keeping its family farm identity. "I see automating and using spreadsheets and Excel to analyze and monitor costs."
Steve wants to lend his entrepreneurial flair to Yu Farm and other ventures. "Dad is innovative. We'd like to take Dad's ideas and execute them, moving from physical labor to technology and automation, from a commodity to a valued brand."
Salome also sees a role for herself in the evolving family farming business. "My career goal involves international import/export related to agriculture."
This young Yu generation is struck by how little their L.A. Korean friends know about Central California farm life.
Says Salome: "They say they'd love to visit our farm but couldn't live without entertainment, beaches, and movies."
She says because Korean Americans focus on the professions, they don’t see the potential of agriculture careers and lifestyles. "I'd like to somehow sell ag careers to Korean Americans. Many farmers these days are well educated. And food is important. My own family will be helping make sure the Korean people never starve."
By 8 pm, Howard Yu is thinking about bed. It's dark outside the Yu farmhouse, and quiet.
"Soo and I are blessed with wonderful children who want to carry on with the farm," Howard says. "Knowing how dedicated we are helps them see a future for themselves. They're smart kids and bring new ideas. We're starting to turn the business over to them. At 71, I no longer like jumping around. But I can share my experience."
Howard's undaunted about starting a new rice farming business at 71. "We have the knowledge and a special rice market in Korea. All we have to do is buy the property and get started. And if the Korean rice farmers come, we'll operate on an even bigger scale."
His family will retain the style that has served it well--hard work, persistence, family togetherness, faith, and healthy outdoor living.
Soo says city visitors often ask if we feel lonely out here. "We don’t feel lonely. Nobody bothers us. I like the quiet, unstressful, healthy lifestyle. We hope we can keep going several years because we enjoy getting out and working."
They shop in nearby Delano and Tulare, pursue church activities on Sunday, visit Korea once a year, and regularly visit the Sierras for fishing, hiking, and camping.
She observes that urban Korean couples who run a small store in the U.S. often work long hours and have lots of stress.
By comparison, Howard says a small farm can be a good business and lifestyle. "We enjoy working together. I personally look forward to every day, and farming doesn’t feel like work. But then, I'm a born farmer."
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