San Miguel produce has grown out of seeds planted four generations ago by the Nishimori family patriarchs
Written by RICK HAZELTINE Photos by JOAN PAHOYO
Garrett Nishimori says he got in on the cutting edge of the leafy greens movement as a sous chef at a shi shi restaurant in San Francisco. Or, as he puts it, “before kale was cool.”
But a glance inside his family photo album belies a different story—farming is in Garrett’s genes.
After the San Francisco restaurant closed, Garrett, 31, came home to Camarillo. Now he’s the fourth generation of the Nishimori family to farm in California, working for the company started by his uncle, Roy Nishimori, in 1975.
Today, San Miguel Produce in Oxnard grows, harvests and packages specialty greens for markets and natural food stores.
Garrett, the company’s marketing manager and corporate chef, says the company has experienced double-digit growth year-over-year in kale. The cabbage-related green was more likely to be used as a garnish before people recognized its cooking potential and high-density nutrient content. Instead of occupying the edge, the vegetable is now front and center on many plates.
With the kale boom, the spotlight has expanded to other often ignored greens such as chard. Consumers, especially on the west and east coasts, are embracing the greens movement. In response, San Miguel Produce is leasing land and opening a processing plant in Georgia, so they can get a fresher product to consumers in the east.
“Leafy greens are finally getting their day in the sun,” says Jan Berk, Roy’s wife and company vice president, who says Tuscan kale is especially popular but she sees bright futures for other greens as well.
“Chards will evolve. They’re mild, easy to prepare—very approachable.”
As a chef, Garrett says he is very aware of ingredients, and he believes that consumers are becoming more discerning as well. That’s one reason the company is expanding its offering of organic vegetables with plans to convert all of its leased land to be pesticide free. Land has to be free from pesticide use for three years before any crops grown on it can be certified as organic.
“People decided they want to eat healthy. They started asking, ‘Where is my food coming from? Who is growing my food?’” Garrett says.
That’s where the Nishimori family story comes in.
The Nishimori farming roots go back to Japan, where founder Roy Nishimori’s grandfather worked the land near Hiroshima before immigrating to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century. Both Roy’s paternal and maternal grandparents were farmers when they came tothe United States, soon establishing themselves as prosperous farmers on leased land in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Then came December 7, 1941. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps. The Nishimori side of Roy’s family was sent to a camp in Jerome, Ark., and his mother’s family was taken to one in Gila River, Ariz.
After the war, both families returned to Southern California and restarted their farming businesses from the ground up. Roy’s parents married sometime after the war and in 1959, the young family moved to Oxnard, where Roy’s father and his brother started Nishimori Brothers.
Not that Roy planned to follow in their footsteps.
“It was a period of time when I told myself as a teenager, ‘No, I don’t want to be a farmer,’” Roy says in a video about the family.
But in his late 20s, Roy had a change of heart and asked his father if he could come back and learn how to farm. He joined the family business in 1972 and four years later started San Miguel Produce.
“I always felt comfortable on the farm, I always felt that was a good life,” Roy says. “I always felt it was very noble, it was valuable.”
A new generation
As children, Garrett and his cousins would help out on the farm. His job was boxing the greens after they had been packaged. But when he graduated from Camarillo High School, farming was not on his to-do list.
Garrett attended UC Berkeley and then culinary school in the Bay Area. After a few years as a chef, he came home to Camarillo. That was four years ago, and now Garrett is fully entrenched in the family business working as marketing manager and corporate chef. Called back to the farm, much like his uncle.
“I saw my mother and my father and their families involved with it. It was something that was dear to them,” Roy says. “I always saw them be very happy, too.
“That’s an important thing for families to stay together.”
Although those in the know about cultural trends may think of kale as a “new” food, it’s actually been around for more than 2,000 years. It was the most eaten green vegetable in Europe until cabbages took the lead during the Middle Ages. Kale is in the same family as cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. The superfood is native to the Mediterranean. Kale has become so popular worldwide that growers in some countries, such as Australia, can’t grow the vegetable fast enough to meet demand.
Bejo Seeds, one of the world’s major seed suppliers, told England’s Daily Mail newspaper that it ran out of all varieties of kale seeds. Packed with essential vitamins A, C and K, one cup of kale has only 36 calories but almost two grams of protein. It has more than four times as much vitamin C than a cup of cooked spinach. Kale is purported to provide health benefits including lowering risk of heart disease, warding off cancer and improving bone health and digestion. Also, the vitamin A and C in kale can give you healthier skin and hair.