Get Big Pivots


Robert Sakata reflects on the rewards of growing vegetables on the fringes of metro Denver – and why he decided it was time for change


by Allen Best

Fresh Water News

In September 2021, Robert Sakata was deeply discouraged. His eyes brimming with tears, he shared with fellow members of the Colorado Water Conservation Board troubles on his vegetable farm near Brighton.

Sakata and his parents, Bob and Joanna, grew broccoli, sweet corn, onions and cabbage on some 4,000 acres in the Brighton area. The name Sakata had become synonymous with local agriculture in Colorado grocery stores.

But dark realities were beginning to emerge. Sakata that day talked about a hail storm that had destroyed 130 acres of onions to which he had devoted 107 acre-feet of water. An acre-foot of water equals about 326,000 gallons.

He talked about the growing difficulty of selling vegetables through corporate food chains, and the difficulties of farming amid an expanding metropolitan area. People dumped tires, TVs and whatever else on his land. He confronted one of them. “He pulled a gun on me,” Sakata said.

“Hopeless,” said Sakata, describing his feeling that day. “A really frightening feeling.”

A hallmark of the Sakata family is its focus on the community. The younger Sakata served 15 years on the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission and in 2021 was appointed to represent the South Platte River Basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s primary water policy and planning agency.

What the younger Sakata didn’t share fully at that CWCB meeting was his father’s deteriorating health or the decision weighing on him about whether to cease growing vegetables. His father died the next year at age 96, just months after Sakata harvested the last crop of onions. Today, Sakata Farms no longer grows vegetables.

Recently, while rain poured outside, a waterfall from the adjacent packing shed cascading rhythmically outside his office window, Sakata, 66, talked about agriculture and drought, competition and community, farming and family. He laughed often.

Bob Sakata, his father, was a remarkable man. Born near San Jose, California, he and his family lost their farm and nearly all else in 1942 when forced onto a Japanese-American relocation camp in Utah. Upon recommendation of a former high school ag teacher, he was permitted to move to Colorado in 1944 to work for a dairy farmer in Brighton. The dairy farmer sold him 40 acres, permitting Bob to bring the rest of his family to Colorado. Pay when you can, the farmer said. He repaid the debt in two years. The farmer was amazed. “Did you rob a bank?” he asked.

The Sakatas eventually owned 2,500 acres of land and rented another 1,500. Bob Sakata suffered adversities along the way. He nearly died in a welding explosion, suffering burns across 80% of his body. What he never lost was faith in the future. Even the forced relocation was a blessing, he said, because it brought him to Colorado.

Robert Sakata in his office at Sakata Farms near Brighton. Photo/Allen Best

But the young Robert Sakata wanted to leave farming behind. He understood the harvest days that started at 5 a.m. and sometimes lasted past midnight. He won honors for his studies of molecular cellular development biology at the University of Colorado. Working for a private medical research company in a Boulder strip mall, he became disillusioned. Instead of big-hearted community, he saw conniving competition.

Moving to Steamboat to teach skiing for a season, he saw the world afresh through the eyes and questions of his three- to five-year-old students. Then it was off to California to tend bar and open a chain of restaurants. He thought he might earn a master’s degree in social work. Then came a wave of drive-by shootings in Los Angeles. Vegetable farming in Colorado, he decided, would be fine after all. His parents welcomed their adventuring son home with open arms.

“When I left the farm, I was looking to find the cure for cancer. But really, maybe the cure was back on the farm, growing the fresh fruit and vegetables.”

Each vegetable has special needs, even after harvest. To retain the freshness of sweet corn, the ears must be cooled quickly to prevent sugar from turning into starch. This is done by sprinkling the corn with 32 degree water to take that field heat out. Lettuce must also be cooled, but not with water. Instead, the heat was sucked out with vacuum pumps. “That doesn’t work with sweet corn,” explained Sakata, “because you would pop the kernels.”

Over time, the business of selling to grocery stores changed. Early on Bob Sakata had taken his produce to Denargo Market in Denver and eventually would begin selling to the grocery chains. Then the chains consolidated, making individual relationships more difficult.

Water use shifted. Restrictions came earlier each year, and Robert wondered if less water was flowing downstream as the upstream municipalities focused on reusing water imported from the Western Slope.

When Colorado set up public water roundtables in each of the state’s major river basins in 2005, Sakata had to choose between the South Platte and the Metro forums. He chose the latter as he thought it important to be part of the conversations with the municipalities upstream of his farm, to understand them through their eyes. When they choose a costly pipeline, they must figure out how to pay for it, just as he has had to do when buying expensive farm equipment.

He also sees parallel concerns about supply chains. Cities need dependability when it comes to water. And grocery stores and dairies need dependability when it comes to produce and feed corn.

Sakata Farms began moving out of vegetables about 15 years ago. Laborers had become hard to find. “We were leaving crops in the field because we just couldn’t find enough people to harvest them. With that realization, we started cutting back on some of the vegetables we were growing.”

Soon he could no longer rely on local laborers. In recent decades it was Haitians who arrived in July after harvesting crops in Florida and Georgia. For imported labor, the Sakatas needed to find housing. That was problematic in a fast-growing urban area. Renting motel rooms was just too expensive.

The first vegetable to go was cauliflower. Beyond weeding, the heads needed to be wrapped with the leaves to prevent the ultraviolet radiation at 5,000 feet from turning the white heads brown. Broccoli was also particularly labor intensive. Other changes followed. Finally, in 2021, the situation had become untenable. Bob Sakata counseled his son that change can be necessary and it can be good.

“We had some great conversations,” says Robert. “He totally understood. ‘If you don’t change, that’s when you’re in trouble,’ he said. ‘You always have to adapt and change.’”

Now, instead of planting vegetables in February and March, the seed-sewing begins in mid-May. Sakata Farms grows corn, both for silage and for seeds, to supply dairies near Fort Lupton and Lochbuie, along with pinto beans. Cover crops control dust during winter.

lettuce field, near Brighton, 2021/photo by Allen Best

Brighton still has a variety of farms growing lettuce and other vegetables. Photo/Allen Best

Sakata says he has also toyed with adding an oil seed crop. He is intrigued with the idea of selling vegetables directly to buyers. Last September, he was invited by Harrison Topp, an apple and peach grower from Hotchkiss, to help with a booth at a farmers’ market held at East High School in Denver.

“It was so much fun. I had never done that direct marketing to customers. My whole life I had been selling to Kroger or Safeway, and to be able to interact one-on-one with the people was so much fun.”

This was published by Fresh Water News, an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. See more here.

Allen Best
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