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Tribute: Bob Sakata, a giant in the industry

Kathleen Thomas Gaspar

It’s doubtful that Colorado farmer Bob Sakata ever set out to be an icon, but that’s the status he attained through a long, productive lifetime devoted to farming and agriculture as well as advocacy and activism for the important industries in his state.

So broad was his circle of friends and colleagues made over the decades that his death on June 7 at age 96 brought much reflection and fond recollections from industry members across the country. Each individual seemed to have a single favorite impression, although a common thread connected throughout: Sakata was a man of honor and integrity who, with Joanna, his wife of 66 years, by his side most of the way, overcame huge challenges to achieve success few others do.

Bob and wife, Joanna, with their son, Robert or RT, at the Brighton offices.
Bob and wife, Joanna,  with their son, Robert or RT, at the
Brighton offices.

Robert Yoshiharu Sakata was born April 15 in San Jose, CA, the youngest of four children of Aki Nishimura and Mantaro Sakata. The children’s parents had come from Japan to the United States, and tragically their mother died of pneumonia when the youngsters were small.

Before World War II, their father was raising the young Sakatas on a small plot of farmland near Centerville, CA, the setting where Bob Sakata found his lifelong love for farming. In 1942, after war had been declared, the family was among more than 120,000 Japanese Americans relocated to internment camps and was sent to a facility in Topaz, UT.

During that period Bob Sakata’s strength galvanized, and thanks to a former high school teacher who attested to his character and behavior, the young man was released from the camp to work on a dairy farm in Brighton, CO. Thus began his long and remarkable life as a Centennial State farmer.

With a loan from the dairy farm owner Sakata bought 40 acres in that area — all while attending Brighton High School, where he studied math and science and played drums in the school band. Graduating from high school and turning to his work full-time, Sakata found a way to bring his family from the internment camp to Colorado.

Still, his life was beset by hardships with the death of his father in a car accident and his brother to cancer. Sakata himself suffered burns to more than three-fourths of his body in a farming accident, and doctors did not expect him to walk again. They just didn’t know Sakata, and his profound faith and sheer determination led him to walk the remainder of his lifetime with crutches and leg braces.

Sakata as a young farmer in Colorado. Photo courtesy of the National Onion Association
Sakata as a young farmer in
Colorado. Photo courtesy of the
National Onion Association

At age 20, through recognition from his city’s Jaycees, the motivated Colorado grower was one of 14,000 nominations for the Outstanding Young Farmers of America award and was ultimately chosen as one of four national winners honored at a ceremony held in Pittsburgh, PA.

The next year, at the First Presbyterian Church in Brighton, Sakata married the love of his life, a Colorado farmer’s daughter named Joanna Tokunaga. That 1956 ceremony united a loving and enduring farming couple that together grew Sakata Farms from its original 40 acres to more than 3,000 acres. Renowned for its fresh produce, the Brighton fields — and Sakata’s own ingenuity when it came to seed and packaging — were the 1980s birthplace of Sakata Farms Gourmet Sweet Corn. Such was the fame of the summertime favorite that his photo has long been part of the “Colorado Proud” message and is still shown prominently in participating retail stores throughout the region.

Sweet corn was not the only item grown at Sakata Farms; over the decades the enterprise also raised broccoli, cabbage, onions, and beans, moving eventually to only onions.

Sakata’s agricultural innovations brought him national acclaim. In 1973 he was appointed by then-President Richard Nixon to the Advisory Board of the Commodity Credit Corporation and was honored with an invitation to the White House for the formal appointment. Over the year he and Joanna were recognized in Colorado agriculture and participated on a national level in many causes. The couple was inducted into the Colorado Agriculture Hall of Fame in 1999, and they received the Colorado Proud Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition, the Sakatas hosted Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan, and in 2004 were given the honor of visiting the Japanese royalty in their private residence at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

Sakata’s civic duty ran strong, and among the boards and commissions on which he sat were a local school board, several banks, the Cooperative Extension Advisory Board at Colorado State University, his county’s Economic Development Board, the Colorado Food Safety Task Force, the National Federation of Beet Growers, the National Onion Association Board and the Japan American Society. Proud of his heritage, Sakata was a leader in the national campaign to build the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism located in Washington DC and attended the unveiling in 2000.

More recently he attended the grand opening of the Bob Sakata Education Campus located in Brighton in 2021.

Regardless of notoriety and acclaim, however, Sakata remained true to his humble start, and he knew the value of giving back and paying forward. In the late 1950s he and a group of Brighton visionaries started a fund to build the community’s first hospital. No federal funds were used, and Bob Sakata continued to support the facility over the years.

The loyalty he demonstrated was reflected in friends, colleagues, associates and his employees. Those who worked side-by-side with him for decades were considered family by the Sakatas, and the employees were equally devoted to the Sakata family.

His praise came from all quarters. Former Colorado Governor and current Senator John Hickenlooper lauded Sakata’s willingness to fight for his beliefs: “Farmers are ruggedly individualistic, often because they have no one else to lean on. Bob Sakata understood that the ag industry in Colorado was strongest when they worked together, organized, and brought attention to the industry as a whole. His fighting spirit will be missed.”

Kate Greenberg, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture, called Sakata a legend: “Over the course of his 96 years, he embodied the values of hard work, stewardship, and leadership in community that those of us in agriculture admire. He served his community, state, and country in numerous leadership positions where he helped better the lives of people near and far. His life and legacy will live on in his beautiful family and the contributions he made to agriculture and to the state of Colorado.”

Speaking to the inestimable contributions made by his longtime friend, Wayne Mininger, retired executive vice president of the National Onion Association, said of Sakata, “Bob and I got to know each other as participants in Northern Colorado agriculture in the early 1970s. Our acquaintance grew into friendship; our friendship grew into deep appreciation and respect for each other. It continued to the very end — we chatted mere weeks ago on April 15, his 96th birthday.”

Mininger continued, “Bob was a fellow with extraordinarily forthright insights that grew from a lifetime of profound occurrences, and he was not reluctant to share them. Leadership was a gift and talent he held in spades. We are all the better off for having known him. And, for the countless opportunities to not just consider, but to adopt chapters of personal wisdom that generated from his astute observations and unparalleled experiences. You were simply not listening if you ever went away from a conversation with Bob and didn’t know where he stood on a matter.

“I am grateful to have known Mr. Sakata for decades. I humbly count it a distinct and honored privilege to have engaged with him in numerous friendly collaborations seeking to improve the challenged well-being of the U.S. onion industry.”

At the Greeley-based National Onion Association, Director of Public and Industry Relations Rene Hardwick said, “We loved Bob. Just hearing his story and his steadfast resolve to create a better life for himself and his family was so inspiring. Bob was truly a member of the American Dream club. He worked constantly to improve agriculture and farming, which meant giving tons of his time. Our industry couldn’t have had a better spokesman and advocate. Bob was an example of perseverance and humility, and he was a joy to be around. We at the NOA are sorry for the family’s loss, the industry’s loss, and we know his memory will continue to inspire our industry for years to come.”

Sakata was president of the NOA from 2002 to 2004, and Kay Riley, longtime onion sales/former GM of Snake River Produce in Ontario, OR, served as president of the NOA from 2008 to 2010. Riley reminisced, “I remember going to DC with Bob and learning from all of his great experiences. Also, I remember his great sense of humor and banter with other members.”

Onions 52 Vice President Shawn Hartley, who was NOA president from 2014 to 2016, also shared his memories of the Colorado farmer, saying, “Bob was an amazing example. I always looked forward to having an opportunity to visit and more importantly learn from him. Not only was he a successful businessman, but he was also more successful in the game of life. He was an icon wherever he was.”

Harris Fresh General Manager Doug Stanley, who served a three-year term as NOA president from 2016 to 2019, remembered Sakata’s very active role in the organization. “I had the pleasure of getting together with Bob at many National Onion Association functions,” Stanley said. “He always had a smile and something good to say. Bob wouldn’t get stuck in bad spots; he was optimistic and always working to move forward.”

Sweet corn and onions were long the mainstays of Sakata Farms, and David DeBerry of Southwest Onion Growers in McAllen, TX, talked about their common denominator: “I met Bob for the first time in 1979. I was an 18-year-old punk from south Texas who ended up for the day riding shotgun in his truck on his farm. Over the next 30-plus years our paths crossed more than a few times. Our industry will be hard-pressed to replace perhaps the most respected producer in multiple generations.”

Kathleen Thomas Gaspar

About Kathleen Thomas Gaspar  |  email

Kathleen is a Colorado native and has been writing about produce for more than three decades and has been a professional journalist for more than four decades. Over the years she’s covered a cornucopia of crops grown both in the United States and abroad, and she’s visited dozens of states – traveling by car from her home base in Colorado to the Northwest and Southeast, as far as Vancouver, BC, and Homestead, FL. Now semi-retired, Kathleen continues to write about produce and is also penning an ongoing series of fiction novels. She’s a wife, mother of two grown sons and grandmother of six, and she and her fly fisherman husband Abe reside in the Banana Belt town of Cañon City.

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