A Sense of Place: Randy Kiyokawa discusses farms and family

Different farming practices may have fallen in and out of favor over the years, but the importance of family is one aspect of life that hasn’t changed for the Kiyokawas.

Local orchardist Randy Kiyokawa, who owns Kiyokawa Family Orchards in Parkdale and whose family has farmed in the Hood River Valley for over a century, discussed both family and changing farm practices earlier this month in the Sense of Place lecture series. The lectures are presented by Gorge Owned and held in the theater at Columbia Center for the Arts.

Upcoming Sense of Place lectures

March 6, Jon Bell: Bell is the author of “On Mount Hood: A Biography of Oregon’s Perilous Peak.” He will discuss Mount Hood and how it has impacted life in the Pacific Northwest for centuries.

April 2, Vince Welch: Welch is a writer and river guide who boated the rivers of the Pacific Northwest for several years before heading to the Colorado River, where he guided all over the west and has written for River magazine, The Utne Reader, and Mountain Gazette, for which he is a senior correspondent. Welch will give a lecture on Oregon native and legendary boatman Amos Burg, the first to pilot a canoe down the Columbia and Snake rivers and the first to row an inflatable raft down the Green and Colorado rivers through the Grand Canyon.

Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and lectures begin at 7 p.m. Wine or beer will be available for those who arrive early to mingle at Columbia Center for the Arts.

Due to the sub-freezing temperatures that evening, Randy thought he might only have his family to rely on as an audience for the event.

“Last night when I saw the temperatures, I was like, ‘I don’t think there’s going to be anybody there but my family,’” he joked at the start of the lecture.

But the theater was packed that night with guests who braved the cold to listen to Randy discuss how the Hood River Valley has changed in the past 150 years, going from fir to fruit trees in a matter of decades after the arrival of non-native settlers in the mid-1800s. He touched on the impact that German immigrant Peter Mohr had on the valley’s budding fruit industry, who Randy said planted 880 trees in 1886, many of which were European cultivars, such as the Gravenstein, that are still around today.

“A lot of those German apples really stood the test of time before the modern-day apples came around,” Randy noted, adding that apples have been growing redder in color over the years due to selective breeding and customer demand.

Pears, he said, became the dominant fruit of the valley after the winter of 1919-20 when temperatures dropped to 27 degrees below zero, decimating apple orchards.

“The temperatures were so cold they killed a lot of trees, but what it killed mainly was the apple trees,” Randy explained. “What survived were the hardier pear trees, so when they replanted, they replanted back into pears.”

Randy estimated that “probably 65 percent of the valley’s economic revenue is based off of winter pears such as the Anjou, the Bosc, the Comice.”

Randy’s grandfather, Riichi, emigrated from Hiroshima, Japan, in 1906 when apples were still king in Hood River. He stopped first in Hawaii, which was then a U.S. territory, to work in the pineapple fields, before continuing to the U.S. mainland to look for more work.

“I tell everybody, ‘I wish he wasn’t so hard working so I could be Hawaiian,’” Randy said, which drew some chuckles from the audience.

Riichi eventually settled with his wife, Rei, in the Hood River Valley, raised a family, and worked hard enough to obtain a plot of land in Dee. Randy said his relatives “still farm the same piece of ground.”

The Kiyokawas operated their orchard until World War II — like other Japanese-American families during the war years, they too were shipped off to internment camps, including Randy’s father, the late Mamoru Kiyokawa, who met Randy’s mother, Michiko, at an internment camp. Luckily, the Kiyokawas were able to lease their land to the Stadelmans, who returned the land after the war was over.

“We really appreciate that,” Randy said.

In 1951, the Mamoru and Michiko bought their current orchard site in Parkdale off Clear Creek Road and over the years raised four daughters and one son — Randy, of course.

Growing up, Randy said he originally “wanted to be a DJ,” but was aware that as the sole male child in the family, he would likely be taking over the family farm someday.

“I knew my destiny,” he told the audience.

After attending college and working in Portland, Randy returned to the valley in 1987 to take a more active role on the farm.

Randy discussed how the late 1980s proved to be a particularly difficult time for apple growers all over the country after a report about Alar — a chemical used to regulate growth in apple trees — showed the substance had carcinogenic properties. After the report, the public shied away from buying apples and other apple products, fearing cancer risks.

“Apple sales just plummeted,” Randy remembered. “Schools nationwide wouldn’t carry apples because of the Alar scare.

“A lot of family farms went belly-up,” he added.

The Kiyokawas survived, though, and have diversified their operations over the years — participating in farmer’s markets, offering u-pick services, selling fruit directly, and dabbling in ag tourism. Today, the 100-plus-acre farm grows approximately 100 distinct varieties of fruit including apples, pears, peaches, cherries, blueberries, and others.

Farming is still a tough job, however, and Randy stressed that global competition, particularly from China, is a chief concern with American growers. Randy stated that in China, lax labor standards allow growers to “pay their guys $6 a day to do the same job we do,” which brings down the price of fruit. At the same time, Randy said regulations in the United States are growing stricter.

Despite all the difficulties associated with fruit growing in the present day, Randy said he would like to keep the farm in the family for a fourth generation and hopes his children — Cameron, 24; Catherine, 22; and Rebecca, 12 — might be interested in taking the reins of Kiyokawa Family Orchards someday.

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