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Kiwi-growing family has deep roots

LIVINGSTON -- After slicing a kiwi in half, Michael Ohki licked the fruit's neon green pulp still a month shy of ripeness.

Scrunching his face like Mr. Magoo, he whooped and exclaimed, "That's tart!"

For more than 30 years, he and his father have been carefully tending and testing the fruit from their 15-acre vineyard along Sultana Drive, the oldest and largest stand of kiwis in Merced County.

Native to China, the egg-shaped berry is rich in vitamin C and other nutrients, though it's often seen as a luxury fruit and not a staple of most Americans' diet. Yet kiwis are gaining popularity in Mexico and South Korea because of a booming middle-class that likes the sweet taste, Ohki explained.

The harvest season begins in a few weeks, and a phalanx of workers will descend on the vineyard to gently, but quickly, pick about 250 bins of kiwis, each bin weighing a thousand pounds -- a small fraction of the 1.1 million tons grown worldwide. The pickers wear white cotton gloves so their fingernails don't pierce or bruise the soft flesh.

Frost damage earlier in the season stunted the crop, so the Ohkis are expecting to reap a smaller harvest. This is just one year in a rich farming history with as many ups and downs as an elevator.

Growing this special fruit is just one page out of the Ohki family's American scrapbook that began at the turn of the century and continues today with a rare, fourth generation ready to take over the farm.

Between those bookends, they've worked 155 acres, been interned during the Second World War and had one of their own die in Italy while fighting in the United States' all-Japanese-American "Go for Broke" regiment, which included the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service.

Bob Ohki, a Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-American, reminisced recently with his son about the family helping to settle the Yamato Colony, about growing kiwis and on being an American.

Seeking a sweeter life

Bob Ohki's father, Zenjiro, immigrated to the United States in 1905 on the heels of his uncles to find a better life working in the fields.

As a second son, he wouldn't inherit the family's business back in Japan, so he decided to try his luck in the United States. After surviving the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, he moved to the Central Valley.

Through irrigation and using drought-resistant crops like grapes, the Ohkis helped to turn the loam of what became known as the Yamato Colony into fertile soil.

After a stint as a migrant worker, Ohki's father bought the family farm in the 1930s and continued to grow sweet potatoes and almonds.

In May 1943, the Ohkis were forced to leave their homestead and move into an internment camp at the Merced County Fairgrounds.

About 5,000 Japanese-Americans were crammed into a few square blocks because of Executive Order 9066 authorizing their internment. When asked about the experience, Ohki shrugged and kept smiling. "It was something you couldn't help," he explained. "Wartime, you know."

Instead, he mentioned the fond memories, such as how many of them brought their mitts and uniforms to play baseball.

Like many Japanese-American residents in the Valley, Ohki hired businessman Gus Momberg to run his farm while he was sent to another camp in Colorado. "We were fortunate, really," he recalled. "He really saved our necks."

In 1944 Ohki took a job growing corn in Iowa. He contracted with a gentleman farmer, who left the hard labor to Ohki and took half the profit.

Despite the internment, three of his brothers volunteered to join the all-Japanese-American outfit because their mother had always taught them that, above all, they were Americans. One was killed and the other wounded in Italy. "It was her sacrifice, you might say," he said.

Ohki returned to the farm in 1945 to raise crops and a family. In the early 1970s, a friend on the peach commission mentioned that he was starting to grow kiwis, a fruit native to China.

Intrigued, Ohki researched the vine-grown fruit and decided to experiment with expanding his operation. Back then, it cost about $10,000 to plant each acre because the plant was scarce and because of the work to build the trellising for the heavy vines.

Today, the cost -- up to $20,000 -- is even more prohibitive because it takes three years before the plant even bears fruit.

Neighbors, unfamiliar with the fruit, thought the first five acres were some sort of graveyard because the naked trellising looked like a field of crosses, Ohki recalled with a laugh.

The kiwis require more attention than their almonds and sweet potatoes, and Michael Ohki, who now runs the operation, is constantly giving the plants more nutrients because he believes that leads to better fruit.

The vines tend to rotate between strong yields and weak ones, so the younger Ohki tries to get a robust harvest when the statewide crop is lower. There's good money in farming once in a while, he allowed.

James, the youngest in the Ohki lineage, is at Cal Poly studying agriculture business. Someday he intends to take over the farm -- a trend his father noted is becoming increasingly rare. "It's sort of sad because the Japanese community is dissipating, and that's what's founded this area," Michael Ohki said.

He expects the chain to break within the next couple generations because they'll see better fruit to harvest in the fields of business and technology, not kiwis.

Meanwhile, he waits for kiwis to turn from tart to sweet to sales. There's good money in farming once in awhile.

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at 209-385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com">.

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