A mountain of veggies

Tom Chino thinks hard when asked if he worries about the future of his family's famous California farm, then plucks a word from his ancestral Japanese to answer.

by: Mary Milliken | 17 Oct 2007

"Shouganai," he says, a common expression in Japan to convey resignation. "It can't be helped."

Chino, 58, does not know if a third generation of Chinos, including his 18-year-old son, will take over what some regard as the finest vegetable and fruit farm in the United States.

But he is not wasting time thinking about what he cannot control. He'd rather keep experimenting in the fields and producing the bounty that has inspired the nation's top chefs, including Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck.

Like a big kid, Chino emerges from the green tangle of vegetation carrying a long, neon-orange object that bears no resemblance to anything usually served on an American table.

Even in these days of ubiquitous farmers' markets replete with heirloom crops and ethnic treats, the Chino stand offers a mind-boggling array of crops, organically farmed and picked fresh that morning.

On a recent warm October day, there were pineapple guava, French mara des bois strawberries, wing beans, Brazilian moranga pumpkin, five types of sweet potato, a dozen varieties of tomatoes and corn so sweet it can be eaten raw.

The art of farming
The Chinos are the ultimate hold-outs. The site acquired by their Japanese parents is the only working farm in these parts, the neighbouring lima bean, alfalfa and sugar beet fields long gone to development.

Tom is the youngest of nine children, born and raised on the farm after the family was released from a World War II internment camp for Japanese Americans. Four of them run the farm today, working with a crew of farm hands all from the same village in Oaxaca, southern Mexico.

Asked where they ship to, Tom says: "Muhammad comes to the mountain."

Only one restaurant, Alice Waters' Chez Panisse in Berkeley, receives shipments. All others must go to the stand. The dusty parking lot is full of Mercedes, Jaguars and BMWs.

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