Califonia Bountiful

Cultivating connections

May/June 2022 California Bountiful magazine

Once-struggling farm thrives by offering tours and tastes to visitors




Visitors Alex Lee and Angela Park pick strawberries at Tanaka Farms. Photo: © 2022 Rob Andrew

On their one-year anniversary together, Alex Lee of Orange took his girlfriend, Angela Park of Rowland Heights, on a wagon ride to pick strawberries, pet farm animals and roam the fields of a working farm.

Their trip to Tanaka Farms in Irvine was a departure from their typical date, which Lee described as usually hitting the mall and getting something to eat. Friends who have been to the diversified fruit and vegetable farm, he said, consider it "the go-to place" for farm tours and for "getting to do something hands-on."

"I thought it would be fun for me and my girlfriend," Lee said of the outing. "We really enjoy outdoor stuff. I just thought it would be a cool, unique experience."

Being his first time on a farm, Lee said learning about some of Tanaka Farms' history and the crops it grows "gave me a good perspective of how much work goes into everything."

"With how modern everything has become, it's easy to overlook something like where our food comes from," Lee said.


Visitors to Tanaka Farms take a wagon ride through the Orange County farm. Photo: © 2022 Rob Andrew

An urban oasis

Considering the secluded feel of Tanaka Farms—next to golf courses, nature trails and open fields—it could be easy to forget the property sits within Orange County's dense metropolis, which has swallowed most of the region's agricultural landscape through the years.

Trying to eke out a living on a small family farm against increasing urban pressures and changing market dynamics has not exactly been a walk in the park for the Tanakas. Until they found their niche opening their farm to the public, third-generation farmer Glenn Tanaka said he did not want his son, Kenny, to follow in his footsteps.

"When my son was growing up, times were so tough," he said. "My wife and I had sleepless nights and wondered how we were going to pay the bills. Without the agritourism, we wouldn't survive."

After two bad crop years in a row during the mid- to late 1980s, Tanaka said he couldn't get an operating loan from the bank, forcing him to downsize and sell whatever assets he had. They struggled through the 1990s and early 2000s.

What kept the family business going, he said, was the farm's roadside stand, which also provided a direct connection to the people who were buying their produce. This sparked an idea and set the stage for what would become the farm's main source of income: agritourism.

"Having conversations with customers, it was really evident that kids lost touch with where their food comes from," Tanaka said. "My son being in preschool, I thought having his class come out to the farm would be a great experience for them. That's kind of how it started."


The Tanaka family are, from left, Glenn and his wife, Shirley, holding grandson Kenji, and Kenny and his wife, Christine, with daughter Kaylee and son Landon. Photo: © 2022 Rob Andrew

Not just for kids

At the time, Tanaka said he thought they were providing more of a community service than embarking on a new business venture. They charged a buck or two per student. His wife, Shirley, would show the children around the farm, after which they would pick vegetables—or during Halloween season, pumpkins. This led to more schools coming to the farm. By the late 1990s, the farm was hosting more than 100 schools.

"We thought, gosh, we have a large following. There's got to be a way to monetize this," Glenn Tanaka said.

They added farm animals and a wagon ride. They also grew more varieties of vegetables—everything from carrots and radishes to onions and green beans. To extend their agritourism season so that it's not concentrated around the pumpkin patch in the fall, they invited schools in the spring to pick strawberries and added weekends, so entire families could visit.

Because many parents also came along on the school tours, Shirley Tanaka said their hope was that the adults would come back on their own time to buy produce from the farm, thereby bringing "more customers and possibly repeat customers." The tours allowed parents to see how the farm's crops are grown, and they got to sample the produce. This helped them to inspire their children to eat healthy, she said, which was "our main goal."

"The parents were surprised how their children enjoyed eating the fresh fruits and vegetables, so that was really encouraging," she said.

By 2005, as their agritourism business took off and as their son was graduating from college, Glenn Tanaka said he began to entertain the idea that "there might be something here on the farm" for his son.

Today, Kenny Tanaka maintains the business side of the farm, especially the tours. Shirley Tanaka describes her son as "a big inspiration and a big idea man," taking after her husband. The younger Tanaka acknowledged he's not well versed in farming, which the family leaves to Jimmy Otsuka, Glenn Tanaka's best friend. Otsuka retired from his own farm and now focuses on "doing the thing that he enjoys without worrying about the finances," Glenn Tanaka said.


Tour guide Samara Herrera tells visitors about the farm's crops. Photo: © 2022 Rob Andrew

Educating and entertaining

Even though the farm remains small by today's standards—at about 90 leased acres total—Glenn Tanaka said it maintains a large staff because of agritourism. Besides the family, the farm is run by 28 full-time employees, plus 20 part-timers that expand to 100 during pumpkin season, when the farm sees 300 to 350 schools come through. During the spring, some 15,000 schoolchildren visit the farm to pick strawberries.

"It's fun seeing the kids come out, getting their hands dirty, picking produce, eating it right out of the ground," Kenny Tanaka said. "It's harder in the middle of the city to get that experience."

He said he still gets "a good kick" out of hearing parents tell him how their children won't eat vegetables unless they're from the farm or that they picked the vegetables themselves.

As a longtime customer who grew up knowing the Tanakas, Remy Carl of Fountain Valley said her children—ages 5, 8 and 10—are fortunate to have been exposed to Tanaka Farms from an early age. Being able to explore the fields and "feeling as though they're active participants" in harvesting some of the crops "instilled in them a love of fruits and vegetables," she said.

Going to the farm has become a family tradition, Carl said. Not only do they visit during strawberry, watermelon and pumpkin seasons, she said, but it's where her children ask to go on their birthdays.


Tanaka Farms' strawberry production includes 6 acres planted in a semi-hydroponic system set up on troughs that use a coconut substrate instead of soil to grow the berries. Although costly, the off-the-ground system allows for easier picking and the berries to be grown organically. Photo: © 2022 Rob Andrew

Family traditions

During the first year of the pandemic, "when so many things in our lives were being flipped upside down," she said "it was so refreshing" to be able to tell her kids that they could continue that tradition of going to Tanaka Farms.

"I didn't realize how impactful and powerful that was until after we went," Carl said. "It was just a sense of normalcy for them during a time of such chaos."

Having visited Tanaka Farms as part of a field trip with her daughter's kindergarten class, Melinda Lawless of Cypress said she and Mila, now in third grade, had been wanting to return. She said they "had a great time" earlier this year participating in the Chicks and Sprouts Workshop, in which her daughter picked onions and learned how chickens and plants grow.

"She planted a sunflower that we brought home, and it's been exciting for her as we watch it sprout," Lawless said. "My daughter is on the shy and quiet side, and halfway through the event, she whispered to me, 'I love this so much!' That's when I knew we had a winning event."

Lawless said she has been telling friends about the event and is "looking forward to going again for strawberry picking."

Ching Lee


A repository at Tanaka Farms highlights first- and second-generation Japanese-American farmers and farm history. Photo: © 2022 Rob Andrew

Walking for a cause

Since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, thousands of people have gathered at Tanaka Farms in Irvine every year to take a 1 1/2-mile walk around the farm to raise money for farmers locally and abroad suffering from natural disasters. This year's Walk the Farm event is scheduled for June 18.

"We raised over a million dollars and sent that to farmers in Japan to help them rebuild and survive," said Glenn Tanaka, a third-generation Japanese-American farmer.

In addition to sampling fresh fruits and vegetables from the farm, walkers may view a repository that highlights first- and second-generation Japanese-American farmers and farm history. For more information, go to walkthefarm.org.


Follow us on: Facebook Twitter YouTube Pinterest Pinterest