Our Heritage, Our Roots
Founder of present day Koda Farms, Keisaburo Koda was born in 1882 with roots in the town of Ogawa in the Fukushima prefecture of Japan. His father was a samurai of the Taira Clan, but later became an established miller and broker of rice and rice flour. As a young man, Keisaburo attained a university degree and became a school principal at the age of twenty. Familiar with stories of fellow Japanese, who had journeyed to America to seek their fortunes, Keisaburo eventually resigned from his position to pursue his dreams.
Following his arrival in California in 1908, Keisaburo undertook numerous ventures. Early on, he wildcatted for oil in the Coalinga hills and opened a chain of laundry shops. With a handful of partners, Keisaburo established North America Tuna Canning Company near San Pedro to process the catch of 39 Japanese American commercial vessels. After selling the tuna cannery he founded Golden West Canning Company in Los Angeles to process vegetables. Keisaburo eventually sold this business to pursue farming in Sutter County and revisit his familial roots in rice, leasing land in the Knight’s Landing area in the late 1910s.
In the late 1920s, Keisaburo and his family moved to the San Joaquin Valley town of Dos Palos to start a new farming venture. Keisaburo formed State Farming Co., Inc. with his American-born children as stockholders to comply with the Alien Land Law of 1913. This law denied “aliens ineligible to citizenship” the right to own land in California. (As part of a general anti-Asian trend spreading along the West Coast, Asians immigrants were the only racial group defined as “aliens ineligible to citizenship.”)
An innovator in the rice industry, Keisaburo helped pioneer rice growing techniques such as sowing seed with airplanes. By the early 1940s, his integrated farming operation included a modern rice dryer and mill that allowed complete quality control from seed to store shelf. Due to his success, Keisaburo became widely known amongst Japanese Americans as the “Rice King.”
Executive Order 9066
Outbreak of war with Japan in 1941 led to passage of Executive Order 9066 which relocated Americans of Japanese descent to internment centers away from the West Coast. After receiving notification of their relocation to Amache, Colorado, the Koda family planned to close their operation until they could return. The United States government, however, mandated that their business be kept running to produce food and fiber. This forced Keisaburo to entrust management to strangers since his friends on neighboring farms were too busy overseeing their own operations during the wartime agricultural boom.
When Japanese Americans were freed from the internment camps, the Koda family immediately headed back to Dos Palos to see what had become of their beloved farm. They returned to find it stripped bare. Land, dryer, mill, mechanized equipment and planes had been liquidated, along with their homes and livestock (a thriving hog farm).
The Post War Challenge
Reconstruction of the business was assigned to Keisaburo’s sons. Edward (Ed was enrolled at UC Berkeley, but never returned to complete his undergraduate degree) and William (Bill completed his undergraduate at UC Davis before the internment) built another processing facility a quarter mile from their original homestead and gradually repurchased landholdings.
In the late 1940s, the Koda brothers took note of an unfulfilled market niche for “sweet rice.” They became the first commercial growers of sweet rice in California and developed the American market for this rice and its flour. Sho-Chiku-Bai® Sweet Rice garnered an unmatched reputation for purity amongst discerning Japanese and Chinese clientele who would not tolerate intermingling of other rice varieties. Mochiko Blue Star® brand Sweet Rice Flour was introduced as an innovative thickening agent with superior freezing properties valued by the food industry.
Approximately ten years later, a rice-breeding program was established at the farm that resulted in a unique variety of rice that Keisaburo named Kokuho Rose®. In 1963, Kokuho Rose was introduced to the domestic market as the first premium “medium” grain rice. Unique in appearance as well as flavor, Kokuho Rose quickly became established as the favorite of Japanese Americans throughout the country.
Lifelong Interests and Pursuits
While his sons orchestrated State Farming’s rebirth as Bill and Ed Koda Farms, Keisaburo focused his time and energy on improving the welfare of Japanese Americans.
Before and after the war, he was a major financial supporter and active member of the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League), the nation’s oldest and largest Asian American civil rights group. He launched the People’s Rights Protection Association in 1945 specifically to lobby against the notorious Alien Land Law (declared unconstitutional in 1948). In 1947, he organized the Naturalization Rights League and served as president. Also in the late 1940s, he helped start a Japanese American owned and operated insurance company to provide full coverage to Americans of Japanese descent. Recognizing the need for equal treatment in banking, Keisaburo was instrumental in opening California’s first Bank of Tokyo branch of which he became a founding director in 1952.
In the early 1950s, to promote better relations between the United States and Japan, Keisaburo established the California Farming Trainees and the Japanese Farming Youth programs that brought Japanese trainees to the United States to study American agriculture.
Keisaburo received numerous citations and awards including the Order of the Sacred Treasure, 4th Degree in 1960, and Order of the Sacred Treasure, 3rd Degree, from Emperor Hirohito of Japan. These distinctions acknowledged his tireless efforts in promoting better understanding between the United States and Japan and his pioneering work as a role model for other immigrants. While he was grateful to be recognized for his civic contributions, Keisaburo felt equally proud of becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1954.
The 21st Century
Today, Koda Farms is still owned and operated by the grandchildren of Keisaburo. As third-generation farmers and millers, siblings Ross and Robin Koda look forward to the farm’s approaching centennial.