Plowing Ahead: A Q&A With Kenny Tanaka of Irvine’s Tanaka Farms

Photograph by Geoffrey Ragatz

The Tanakas have planted seeds in Orange County for decades. Today, fourth-generation farmer Kenny Tanaka manages the thriving agritourism business in Irvine.

How has Tanaka Farms evolved?

My great-grandfather came from Japan and started farming in Northern California. My grandfather started farming in Fountain Valley, and then my father came down to Irvine in the late ’80s. When my dad was starting the farm, it was all wholesale. They shipped across the country. Now we’re direct retail and agritourism—we offer tours, show people how their fruits and vegetables are grown, and let them pick their own. That’s what saved us. Before the tours, there was a long period when we weren’t profitable; it was hard work for not a lot of money.

What do you grow?

We grow about 50 different kids of fruits and vegetables. The major crops are strawberries, corn, watermelon, and pumpkins. But we also grow everything from tomatoes and lettuce to beets and carrots. A little bit of everything.

What’s the busiest time of the year?

The pumpkin patch is definitely the busiest one-month period. It kind of started as a small event—now we get up to 80,000 people coming through during October.

How did your partnership with Hello Kitty come about?

One of my friends worked for Sanrio and asked me if I wanted to collaborate. Our (Sanrio-themed) pumpkin patch debuted in 2017, and it was pretty crazy the first two weeks. Parking was full, and neighbors were pissed off. It was a blessing in disguise. I knew (Sanrio) was big back in the early ’90s, but it’s amazing to see how much of a following they still have and the many collaborations they’re doing now.

Photograph by Geoffrey Ragatz

What’s the best part about being a farmer?

It’s getting to see a seed grow into a plant. It’s also fun seeing the kids eat strawberries and getting their shirts all dirty and red. They think fruits and vegetables just appear in grocery stores, but we’re teaching them about how much work it actually takes.

Did you work on the farm when you were a kid?

I used to work before school and during the summer. When I was 10, I crashed the tractor into the fence. The back implement took out the fence. Luckily my dad’s pretty mellow and he understood that stuff happens and I was just a kid.

Do you have any plans to expand?

Just doing more with tours. Right now they’re gauged toward younger kids, but the next step is getting to middle and high school kids, maybe even college kids, and doing a tour based on a more in-depth, science-based curriculum. We’re trying to do a luncheon each month and more festivals incorporating what we’re growing that month.

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