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Sakata Farms ends sweet corn production after 74 years

When Sakata Farms owner Robert (R.T.) Sakata made the decision to drop sweet corn from the farm’s production, he did so with very mixed emotions.

Sweet corn was a cornerstone of the 74-year-old operation founded by his father, Bob Sakata, in 1944 and had been one of four major crops. In recent years cabbage and broccoli have been cut back, and the absence of sweet corn will leave storage onions as the only vegetable crop grown on the 2,400-acre farm.

bob-sakata-in-sweet-corn-field-copyBob Sakata“I had a lump in my throat when it came time to schedule an auction of our farm equipment,” the younger Sakata told The Produce News. The auction is set for Saturday, March 10, starting at 9:30 a.m. at Sakata Farms in Brighton, CO. Kreps Wiedeman Auctioneers & Real Estate is handling the event.To be auctioned off are the cooling systems, corn packing line and supporting equipment – the end of an era but a new chapter for the iconic Colorado farm.

As R.T. Sakata put it, “It was a matter of economics. Overhead costs for the sweet corn were challenging, especially the labor.”

Sakata Farms had used a farm labor contractor to secure a 70-80-person crew out of Florida. Sakata said the crew, Haitians who had come to this country to work through a hurricane-specific visa program, “were great people.” But the cost of transporting the crew to Colorado from Florida, finding housing for the six-week corn season and then providing transportation home was a financial strain.

“People don’t realize how labor intensive vegetable crops really are,” Sakata said.

R.T., who has been sole owner of Sakata Farms since 2016 and is also a founder and the president of the Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Association, made the momentous decision after much thought and also consultation with his father.

“My father taught me to make a decision and to move forward,” he said.

Bob Sakata, who in his mid-90s still comes to the office “every day,” stands firmly behind his son. RTS-shovel-offset-HRRobert (R.T.) Sakata

“I could see what he was going through,” the well-known Colorado ag figure said. “No labor! And so we’ve quit the sweet corn, the cabbage and the broccoli. Now Sakata Farms is growing onions, pinto beans, wheat and field corn.” When asked about farm labor programs, the elder Sakata said plainly, “We looked at the H2A program for foreign labor but decided not to go with that.”

No stranger to the trials and tribulations of farming and life in general, Bob Sakata, born in Colorado to Japanese immigrant parents, came to Colorado in the early 1940s. He and his family had been among the more than 110,000 Japanese-descent people held in internment camps during World War II. In 1942 Bob’s FFA teacher from the school he’d attended in California lobbied for the young man’s release from the Utah camp. He found work on a dairy farm in Brighton north of Denver, and the dairy’s owner set Sakata up with 40 acres of farmland and excellent terms.

Almost prescient in his accumulation of ground, Bob Sakata expanded the farm from its original 40 acres to its current 2,400 acres, devoting 1,500 to vegetable production. In addition – something hugely important to Colorado ag – Sakata purchased water rights, and the farm owns more than 6,000 acres of surface water. He said it took 30 years to secure that much in water rights, but “coming from California, I knew how valuable water is.”

Bob and his wife, Joanna, have been married more than six decades, and she has worked by her husband’s side. Today she, too, remains an established part of the company’s daily make-up – the two of them answer calls and handle office matters.

R.T. will continue to oversee all production, with 400 acres planned for onions and the balance in field crops.

Bob Sakata said that “times have really changed,” and his son said, “Change is always hard. But I’m excited, too. Who knows what kind of crops we’ll eventually grow. Maybe we’ll get into smaller specialty items. There’s still so much interest in fresh fruits and vegetables, and I would like to experiment with organics.”

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