Third generation strawberry farmers, Gwen and Rod Koda

Posted on Monday, September 19th, 2022 by Tessa Salzman
Picture by Tessa Salzman (CalCAN)

Gwen and Rod Koda

Gwen and Rod Koda are third-generation strawberry farmers in Watsonville where they own and operate Shinta Kawahara Company. Gwen has family roots in the business going back to the 1920s, when her grandmother, Bachan Shinta, planted her first strawberry farm in the same region. Bachan Shinta had to rebuild her farm after being released from Japanese-American internment in 1945 and ultimately passed on the business to her son to carry on the agricultural tradition. Since 1973, the family has been farming on the same piece of land where Gwen and Rod now grow a mix of organic and conventional berries.

Rod and Gwen do all of their own tractor work and pest control on 57 acres, which they plant to varying degrees each year depending on market prices and labor availability. They have successfully incorporated summer and winter cover crops into their rotation and in 2006 started experimenting with organic. This year half of the 15 acres they planted were organic production. The major difference between their production systems is that the organic production uses no fumigation. Instead of fumigation, they use a biological alternative called anaerobic soil disinfectant (ASD) to kill soil-borne pathogens using a carbon source, moisture, and solarization.

More research is needed

Rod previously served on the California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s Nonfumigant Strawberry Production Working Group and contributes to the strawberry sector by participating in grower field trials and on-farm research projects. Rod has specifically worked with USDA and UCCE researchers on biological pest management, methyl bromide alternatives, pomology, predator releases, and ASD, among other topics.

He and Gwen are both interested in experimentation and dedicated to bridging the ever-evolving science with their practices in the field. They emphasized the need for more research on organic production and additional opportunities for farmer-to-farmer information sharing to grow the community of practice in the industry. 

Adapting to change

With so much history in the region and in strawberry production, Rod and Gwen are used to adapting to unexpected challenges and changing conditions. They have seen the industry evolve and total regional strawberry acreage grow from about 10,000 acres in the 1980s to 40,000 acres today. Meanwhile, conventional strawberry prices have stayed relatively consistent for them over the decades, which is one reason organic production and its price premium has been key addition to their business. They have also received another form of support by successfully applying for CA Department of Food and Agriculture grants to enhance their farm and increase water and energy efficiency.

In 2018 they received a State Water Efficiency & Enhancement Program (SWEEP) grant to install 60 solar panels, flow meters, and a variable frequency drive (VFD). The VFD efficiently manages the pressure of their irrigation system as it pumps water uphill and into the strawberries, saving energy and water. 

In 2019, Rod and Gwen applied for a Healthy Soils Program (HSP) grant to plant 2,500 feet of hedgerow along one border to beautify the farm, attract pollinators and help with erosion. They used compost and gopher baskets to get these diverse, native varieties going, but still had some plant mortality on different portions of the farm. Gwen shared that she plans to fill in the gaps with another round of native plantings.  

Staying resilient

In the context of these grants, the implementation and reporting processes prove to be the biggest hurdles for farmers who apply for these funds. Rod and Gwen emphasized their appreciation for their colleagues and for technical assistance providers, like Sacha Lozano of Santa Cruz Resource Conservation District, who have been instrumental in their successful grant applications and installations. They also noted their gratitude for their employees who are so core to their farm operations and most of whom have worked with Rod and Gwen consistently for between 20-30 years. 

Despite the environmental and economic challenges to being resilient in farming in 2022, Rod and Gwen both had a twinkle in their eye as they graciously shared their stories, their practices, and their incredibly delicious strawberries with me. 

You can see the farm for yourself in this one-minute video by the California Strawberry Commission.

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