Tanaka Farms' story begins with Takeo Tanaka, who came to the United States by way of Hiroshima, Japan, in the early 1900s. Takeo had a son, George, born and raised in the Northern California city of Dinuba. Not wanting to fight in Pearl Harbor, George fled to Utah, where he met his future wife. They married and moved to Orange County, staying with farming the way Takeo had practiced in Dinuba, raising crops in both Huntington Beach and Westminster.
George had three children, the youngest being Glenn. Glenn stayed with the family business by getting a degree in agricultural business from Cal Poly Pomona. But after he finished school, a problem hit the Tanaka clan: Due to land development, they needed to relocate the farm.
Farmer Tanaka (Glenn's nickname) moved the farm to 30 acres in Lake Forest; it was by a driving range, near where Wild Rivers is today, and the family maintained the land for 20 years. In addition, a produce stand in Cypress helped generate revenue, right up until plans for a Cypress Costco in the same lot came about. The year was 1998, and Farmer Tanaka; his wife, Shirley; and their only son, Kenny, were forced to relocate operations again, this time to a comparable piece of land adjacent to a new golf course named Strawberry Farms. Farmer Tanaka has operated Tanaka Farms from this location ever since, with Shirley handling bookkeeping while he and Kenny tend to crops, tours and the family's CSA program.
There isn't a Tanaka Farms sign, however, from its entry on Jeffrey Road, a result of a city ordinance that only allows one commercial sign at the driveway--and that one reads, "Strawberry Farms Golf Course." But it's still easy to find the location--just follow the cars that stop near the entrance to pick up the pumpkins, watermelons and strawberries the Tanakas have farmed there for the past 12 years. And now that it's strawberry season, the stream of cars that lead to the driveway is more like a river.
The Tanakas purchase two varieties of strawberry plants from nurseries in Northern California: San Andreas and Albian. According to Kenny, they found the sweetness of these "to be the best for our plant cycles." Runners, adolescent plants that the main plant sends out to spread, are first removed to enable the primary plant to grow better. For even distribution, rollers with shanks are used to mark locations and prepare the dirt for planting. Strawberry crops are finicky, says Kenny. "Bury too deep, they flood," he explains. "Not deep enough, the roots stick out."
Watering occurs two to three times per week using reclaimed water. When it's time to control the weeds, it can take workers most of the day just to tend to the 7 acres of strawberries. In order to keep the land fertile, they plant grasses "to put nutrients back in the soil" and allow the ground to rest between seasons.
Some fruits get sweeter after they are picked, but strawberries aren't one of them, says Kenny. Attributes of a perfectly ripe one are a uniform redness and shiny appearance; dullness is a sure sign of being overly ripe. The best way to store them is to place strawberries in a plastic storage bag or container when you get home "to keep some of the air out." To retain flavor, only wash the strawberries when you are ready to consume. If you like dipping yours in brown sugar, it might not be necessary with these sweet berries. Farmer Tanaka makes a mean shortcake, while his son is most content with them served up alongside vanilla ice cream.
Growing up, Kenny spent his summers on the farm doing chores. When questioned about childhood memories, he recalls a time in fifth grade when he begged for roller blades. "I had to mark a sheet every time I swept," he remembers with a laugh. "It was maybe 15 times" before he got those blades. A finance graduate from Cal State Long Beach, Kenny is now focusing on the agricultural side of the business. It's in the early planning stages, but you can look forward to seeing Tanaka Farms produce at select farmers' markets in the future.
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The famous strawberry tours originally began back when Kenny was attending elementary school and the farm was still in Lake Forest. He recalls his mom conducting one for his fifth-grade class. Private tours are still offered, but I believe the tractor tours make perfect weekend outings for families, couples and visitors of all ages. The sections designated for growing strawberries are ready and waiting for hungry fruit pickers. Tours begin this Saturday, March 5. No reservations necessary unless you are with a large group.
Tanaka Farms, 5380 3/4 University Dr., Irvine, (949) 653-2100; www.tanakafarms.com. Opend daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.