Farm to fork celebrates local farmers

October 1, 2011

With lightning flashing over the east hills in the distance, white linen tables stretched down a bright green row of Anjou trees in Randy Kiyokawa's Parkdale orchard. About 50 people chattered -- mostly about the food -- among birds, thunder and the sound of forks tanging on plates.

The occasion was Farm to Fork, described as a statewide dinner experience to showcase local food and farming communities across Oregon and to reconnect people to the source of their food. The dinners are organized on-location at farms across the state, and feature meals created from local farmers, local winemakers and local chefs.

For Sunday's dinner at Kiyokawa's farm, patrons who scored tickets to the sold-out event were welcomed with Viento wine and brightly-colored beet and goat cheese appetizers, complimented by a field of ripe strawberries to nibble from and a backdrop of Mount Hood at sunset.

Kiyokawa, an upper-valley native who grew up on the family farm, gave a tour of the orchard before the group was seated to a four-course meal among the ripening pears; prepared by Jon Moch, sous chef at Hood River's Celilo Restaurant.

"The organizers of Farm to Fork had visited the farm in the past, and I guess they thought it would be a good place to host a dinner," Kiyokawa said. "It was a lot of fun, and since we're fairly-well set up for guests already, it wasn't too much of an extension from what we have."

Kiyokawa's popular U-pick produce and fruit stand on Clear Creek Road brings in crowds this time of year, with foodies from across the northwest stopping by on their regular autumn pilgrimages for farm-fresh produce.

With a backdrop of a rows of strawberries and tomatoes and the home he has lived in since he was born, Kiyokawa gave the Farm to Fork visitors a brief history of the orchard and his family's presence in the upper valley.

"My grandfather migrated to America from Japan in 1906," he explained. "At the time, he didn't have enough money to make it all the way to the west coast, so he stopped in Hawaii and worked on sugar plantations until he had enough to come the rest of the way."

Once he made it to California, Kiyokawa's grandfather, Riichi, -- like many Japanese immigrants at the time --worked on railroads; building track, clearing land and pounding stakes.

"He worked up and down the west coast, and eventually he landed in Dee," he said. "He worked out a deal where he cleared some land in exchanged for some property in the area."

He started farming that land, which is still in the family today.

"My Dad was born there in Dee; he grew up on the farm and went to the old Dee school. During the war, the family got interned in California. They leased the land to the Stadelman family, and when they were let out of camp they got it back. It's a pretty sensitive subject; not all farmers around here got their land back."

One good thing about his family being interned, Kiyokawa explained to the group, is that his parents met in camp. His dad was a garbage man in the camp, and he met his future wife while doing the rounds.

"One way a person could get out of camp was to serve the U.S. government," he continued. "So my dad volunteered. He was shipped to Japan as an interpreter."

His dad returned to the U.S. and, in 1951, bought the land in Parkdale that is now 107 acres of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

"I grew up on the farm, then took off and went to school at O.S.U.," Kiyokawa said. "I came back in '88 and have been here ever since."

A large part of Kiyokawa's business today shifted from the conventional concept of farming. The industry has changed a lot over the years since he took over the farm; and today he's doing a whole lot more than just managing the land.

"If we didn't change, we probably wouldn't stay around," he said. "Today, we're doing a lot more than just growing stuff and sending it to the packing houses. For example, we have products at 17 farmers markets this season; we're selling stuff to several restaurants in the Portland area, we have a busy U-Pick and fruit stand at the farm and we're doing things like the Farm to Fork event. If I had the choice and could make a living just sending it off to the packing houses and being done; it would be a whole lot easier.

"When people buy straight from farms or from farmers markets, they're basically using money to vote. They're choosing to support local farmers."

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