Lessons in life from Brighton’s big farmer, Bob Sakata
October 12, 2009
Bob Sakata was a little hesitant when a former school teacher approached him about writing a book about his life.
Sakata is, most of the time, humble and soft spoken. But that demeanor can change in a hurry when something upsets him or when he gets going on the importance of what America offers and the role agriculture plays in that. And don’t even get him started on water – unless you want a quick education on why the state should preserve as much of it as possible for use by the state and its residents, including those in agriculture, or more specific, especially agriculture. That comes from his more than 65 years farming in the arid area known as northern Colorado.
But the author of “Bob Sakata American Farmer,” Daniel Blegen, was a Brighton school teacher that Sakata knew while serving on the school board. Blegen, who now lives in Longmont, Colo., explained that he had written one “A Now You Know Bio” book aimed at elementary school-aged children and the book on Sakata would be the next in that series.
“When I learned it would for elementary kids as a motivation for them, that they can succeed in this country at something, then I agreed,” Sakata said.
It’s a fascinating book even for those well beyond elementary school age and makes Sakata’s point – one can succeed in America if they are willing to overcome obstacles. And he did, despite an impoverished childhood and growing up in a hurry when, at 16, he and his family were sent to an internment camp following the outbreak of World War II.
Sakata’s story begins in Japan where his father, Mantaro, was a farmer. Born in 1884, Mantaro’s family farm had about 2.5 acres of fruit trees. If one of the plum, apricot or cherry trees showed signs of dying, Mantaro grafted a branch from it on to a healthy tree. Sakata said his father became an expert at grafting and once grafted a shoot from a plum tree on a walnut tree. The shoot produced plums, the rest of the tree walnuts.
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In between the trees, the Sakata family grew vegetables. It was Mantaro’s job to pull weeds that threatened the vegetable crops and scare off birds that were attracted to the fruit trees. He irrigated the crops by carrying buckets of water to the crops when rain was scarce, and he harvested the fruit and vegetables each fall.
In 1902, Mantaro immigrated to the United States thanks to an entrepreneur who needed farmers to grow rice in the San Francisco area. He was 18 at the time and had $30 in his pocket.
It’s unclear what happened over the next four years, but Mantaro was among those Japanese and Chinese recruited to clean up following the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. He got another break and went to work for a man who owned an orchard, and soon became a sharecropper on that orchard.
In true Japanese tradition, he then wrote the elders of his village in Japan, asking them to find a wife. He paid for her trip to the U.S. and met her for the first time when her ship docked in San Francisco. He and Aki Nishimura were married soon after, in 1920.
Over the next six years, they had four children, Harry, twin girls Mitsuko and Fusako, and Bob, who was born April 25, 1926 in San Jose. He spent his early years working on leased land east of San Francisco.
But when he was 6, Bob’s mother died. His rearing fell to his twin sisters, but his father made certain the four Sakata children got an education.
Then came Dec. 7, 1941. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. The Sakata family, along with several hundred other Japanese-Americans, were taken to a race track near San Bruno, Calif. They were allowed to take one suitcase of personal belongings. The family spent the next five months living in a horse stall at the race track before being moved to an internment camp in Utah.
Bob was the first to leave the camp, getting help from a former FFA teacher in California who had moved to Fort Collins, and the fact he had an uncle in Brighton. And, as the book notes, then Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr was a huge supporter of the rights of Japanese-Americans.
The rest, as the story goes, is history. Bob began doing farm chores for Bill Schluter, a Brighton dairyman, and, at the same time, finished high school, playing the drums in a band at the school in his spare time. In 1944, Schluter told Bob to bring his family to Brighton where he sold them 40 acres of farmland at $650 an acre, telling Bob the family could pay him when they could.
Now, some 65 years later, Sakata Farms stretches across some 3,000 acres of Adams and Weld counties, and the farm’s sweet corn is a big seller through Safeway and King Soopers every summer.
Several years ago, Sakata said he was asked to address the honor society at Brighton High School and was asked for his philosophy in life. He gave them 10 simple “don’ts:”
• Don’t just look, observe.
• Don’t just hear, listen.
• Don’t just talk, say something.
• Don’t just work, be productive.
• Don’t just set goals, achieve them.
• Don’t just live on a title, continue to prove you are worthy of it.
• Don’t just tell the truth, live it.
• Don’t just love, have respect and honor with it.
• Don’t just make a promise, follow through with it.
• And don’t just pray, have faith.