Successful Generational Farming

Sakuma Brothers specializes in excellence

The H_agen-Dazs philosophy is to find the purestand finest ingredients and to craft them into thebest ice cream, sorbet and frozen yogurt in theworld. Sakuma Brothers’ strawberries may befound in H_agen-Dazs products sold throughout Europe,Asia Pacific, Latin America and South Africa. SakumaBrothers Farms earns an A+ for its vertically integratedsmall fruit corporation.

Steve Sakuma, president of Sakuma Brothers Holding Co., oversees family operations in Washington and California. “When my dad, Atsusa, needed more money, he just grew another acre of strawberries,” Sakuma said. “Today we have to decide the use of an acre, which requires maneuvering inside corporate America. Planning is a big, big issue with us. Across the United States, people want to know where their food comes from. Since family farms are competing with offshore products, it is important that companies and consumers know that we offer a safer, cleaner and more regulated product.”

Successful Generational Farming

Sakuma Brothers sells to Yoplait French holdings and Small Planet Foods, owned by General Mills. Berries are marketed throughout the U.S. and internationally with a large customer base in Japan, Europe, Mexico and Canada. Jam companies, including Kraft, are among customers who order 400-pound drums of berries. A contract with Driscoll’s of Watsonville, Calif., distributes fresh-market blueberries and blackberries. Driscoll’s is a large farming research sales industry, whose berries are grown on family farms throughout the world in growing regions carefully selected for their soil and climate.

Two operational sites

The family-owned and operated business spans four generations with over 85 years’ experience in the small fruit industry. 2011 fruit production projections are 3,586,860 pounds of blueberries, 875,800 pounds of raspberries and 2,171,750 pounds of strawberries. Seventy percent of the strawberries will be dedicated to Häagen-Dazs.

The nursery operation is headquartered in Red Bluff, Calif. Cousins Hebe Bradley and Ron and John Sakuma manage the California certified nursery named Norcal Nursery, Inc. Five hundred acres of propagated nursery stock is maintained and 1,500 acres are farmed. The nursery grows over 200 million strawberry plants of 36 varieties annually for domestic and international sales. Large commercial growing operations typically order strawberry plants in quantities greater than 10,000. Thirteen varieties of blackberries and 15 varieties of raspberries are also sold.

The Littau harvester straddles raspberry bushes and shakes them so only ripe berries fall onto catcher plates and into a series of cups. These cups carry the fruit to berry crates after being cleaned by fans that remove unwanted leaves and debris.

Successful Generational Farming

Farm, market and processing operations are located in Burlington, Wash. Cousins Richard, Bryan, Glenn and Ryan farm conventional and organic apples, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and tea in the fertile Skagit Valley.

In 1999, vertical integration was achieved by marketing and selling end products through plant propagation and small fruit research, commercial nursery operations and sales, commercial and fresh-market small fruit production, sales of all processed and fresh-market small fruit product, a farm market stand for retail, you-pick and agritourism and small fruit processing. Family members sit on the corporate board.

Generational business model

Although a third-generation farmer, Steve Sakuma joined the family business in 1996 after serving 26 years in the U.S. Army. His leadership skills have enhanced his role as the family’s corporate strategist. Vertical integration, property zoning and generational transfer are among his priorities.

The family’s strawberry business began in 1916 on Bainbridge Island. Sakuma’s father was the oldest of 10 children. The family transitioned to Skagit Valley in 1935 due to the availability of land and access to the Seattle market, including the infamous Pike Place Market. World War II caused the family to be interned in Manazanar and Tulelake, Calif. Fortunately, a kind neighbor took care of the land until the family returned in 1945. The third generation will begin retiring in 2011, and the fourth generation is being primed to share corporate responsibilities.

“Our Japanese heritage is male-dominated,” Sakuma said. “The reality is to interview females for our corporate board of directors. Our fourth generation consists of 32 people. We found higher business quality in the females, and so it made sense to place a female on the corporate board. It took about eight years to convince Hebe Bradley to join the board, as she had children to consider.”

Successful Generational Farming

The family has created a successful generational business model. Each retiree leaves 25 percent of his share of the business for the next generation to build upon, a decrease from the 50 percent left by the previous generation that basically built the business. The respected Sakuma name and business model successfully contribute to this 85-year-old business.

Having worked for 10 years on the best ways to determine generational transfer, family discussions include the passion of family heritage. As generations pass, passion decreases. Interested family members are encouraged to work outside farming for a few years as part of the decision-making process. If they decide they want to join the family business as a trainee, they must be 30 years old and have attended college or the equivalent. The board must unanimously agree to bring trainees into the fold. Trainees must prove their passion to maintain and grow the business and compete on the worldwide corporate stage.

Corporate strategy involves extending the growing season and diversifying crops to maximize profit. As Sakuma Brothers has grown, the board has made changes according to worldwide market supply and demand. For instance, the original propagated Elliott blueberry will be replaced at some point in time with a newly propagated berry that will hit the market when no other blueberries are being sold. Sakuma Brothers competes with Argentine blueberries sold in November; timing is a key profit factor.

Direct marketing

Sakuma Brothers’ attractive and professional website plays a major role in direct marketing, reducing risk and cost. Products are offered to retailers and consumers. Propagated strawberry, blackberry, raspberry and black raspberry plants are for sale, purchased as growing green plants or dormant, nine-cell plugs. Syrups and jams are made only with Sakuma Brothers’ fresh berries, including boysenberry and tayberry.

A more recent online end product grown in Burlington is tea. Sakuma Brothers is one of only two commercial tea growers in the entire U.S. More than 5 acres are planted with Camellia sinensis tea plants that are harvested by hand. The end products are green tea, oolong tea and loose-leaf white tea. In addition, fresh fruits and vegetables are sold at the fresh market stand in Burlington.

“Skagit Valley farmers are generational,” Sakuma said. “Customers know your family history and product. Being a local farmer creates trust, because you are not going anywhere. The reality is that if you do not care about the product but only the price, people will not buy locally.”

Sakuma Brothers partners with local artisans to broaden direct marketing. Mother’s Day and the seasonal opening of the fresh market stand were both celebrated at the Sakuma Market in Burlington. Cascade Glacier ice cream made in Oregon’s Willamette Valley was sold. A gift shop sold jams, jellies and syrups. No marketing opportunity is passed up.

Although Mother’s Day was too early to sell fresh berries, the market was tailored to the home gardener and a wide assortment of flower, vegetable and berry plants was for sale, including strawberry, raspberry, loganberry, bayberry, boysenberry, marionberry and blueberry varieties. During summer and fall, fresh sweet onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet corn, green beans, cauliflower, garlic, lettuce, potatoes, broccoli, squash and pumpkin fill market bins.

Processing plant

In Burlington, a processing and packing operation is located on about 9 acres, 65 percent occupied with buildings. Employees flash-freeze and package up to 100,000 pounds of berries per shift in a 15,000-square-foot, concrete tilt-up building. Fisher & Sons of Burlington designed the building with a separate facility where berries are cleaned, sorted, inspected and immersed in a nitrogen bath before being flash-frozen in an Individual Quality Frozen (IQF) tunnel.

According to Tom Cavanaugh, senior project manager, Fisher & Sons carefully coordinated the installation of the tunnel with Ed Cloudy, formerly of Cloudy Britton, to ensure that the conveyor lines from the tunnel to the main plant lined up. Cloudy now works with Coastline Equipment of Bellingham, Wash., which installed conveyors that lead to the tunnel. Fisher & Sons also constructed a 3,000-square-foot freezer on-site, eliminating the costs associated with freezing products at a remote location and transporting them back for processing. A new employee area, testing lab, boardroom, process viewing platform and multiple door systems were built to keep out dust and debris.

Farmworker housing

Two camps house 425 laborers. On a daily basis, handpicked strawberries require 350 to 400 pickers, and machine-harvested raspberries require 70 to 80 pickers. Blueberries and blackberries overlap, requiring around 350 pickers. Sakuma charges no rent and requires a damage deposit that is refunded. Thirty to 40 percent of the pickers are from Skagit County and choose to live in the camps during harvest. Sixty to 70 percent migrate from California and Texas.

Sakuma’s son, Ryan, serves on the Skagit Valley Farmworker Housing Trust Advisory Council. In Skagit County, approximately 4,220 farmworkers and their families have no access to safe, affordable housing. The council adopted an action plan to support housing stability. The plan documents assisting 1,100 farmworkers and their families by 2015 through a range of activities that will promote the creation or preservation of affordable housing. The council seeks collaboration with local government and farm preservation groups to ensure adequate developable land for farmworker housing while protecting valuable agricultural land.

Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland

Sakuma is a board member of Skagiton-ians to Preserve Farmland, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting Skagit County’s rich agricultural heritage through public and landowner education. The motto is: “Protect Skagit farmland – pavement is forever.”

“Encroachment of farmland started in the 1980s,” Sakuma said. “Skagit County has easy access to Interstate 5, which targets us for growth. We must guarantee agriculture so our grandchildren have that opportunity.”

Although Sakuma Brothers has done well, they have struggled with land use and property rights issues. In the 1960s, Interstate 5 between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada, split their property in two, making farming harder. The agricultural land was rezoned as commercial. Property taxes soared. When a freeway interchange was built nearby, the land became nonfarmable. Eventually, the Sakumas sold a portion of the property, upon which a shopping center was built. Sakuma cautioned that farming becomes unaffordable when the value of farmland grows. The cost keeps younger generations out of farming, and farmland valued at commercial prices is too great for older generations to resist.

“Farmers are now speaking to communities with one voice, “Sakuma said. “We all are forced to live together. People will not get everything they want, nor should they. We must share our resources for coming generations.”

The author is a freelance contributor based in Anacortes, Wash.