Endangered Species: The Last American Carnation Grower
Written by Robert Kitayama, Kitayama Brothers, Watsonville CA.
Last week I visited Akiyama Nursery in Watsonville and talked to Isamu and Ben Akiyama, the last carnation grower in Watsonville and possibly America. Isamu has been growing carnations since 1978 after moving here from Japan.
Kitayama Brothers (KB) is their largest customer and the Kitayamas and Akiyamas go back a long way. Sam’s brother Sadatoshi worked for KB as a grower for over 14 years before retiring. Sadatoshi’s wife Nobuko will retire from KB this year after 29 years. Ben went to Watsonville High School with my cousin John Kitayama, and Ben is now a PE teacher at Watsonville High as well as a part time carnation grower.
Isamu and Ben are trying to hold on as carnation growers, Isamu who is 82 years old said, “I’m not ready to retire.” Ben said he would also like to continue growing, but they cannot get carnation plants. To watch carnations disappear from American soil is painful. I want to help keep American carnations. I believe if the Akiyamas get new plants and fix up their greenhouses, they can grow a GREAT carnation. Not a cheap carnation but a good quality, American carnation.
Can KB help to propagate carnation cuttings, so the Akiyamas and possibly a few other American carnation growers can give it a good try? We are looking into it.
Watsonville-Salinas is the cradle of the US carnation industry especially for Japanese-American farmers. A hundred years ago, Japanese immigrants started to grow flowers in the Bay Area. As one Japanese grower was able to buy some land and start growing carnations, he wrote back to Japan and encouraged more of his family or friends to come to this land of opportunity. Once upon a time there was over 10 million sq. ft. of carnations in this area and over 50 carnation growers. Old timers will remember names such as Mt Eden, Pacific Pride, Kohara, Tashiro, Yonemitsu, Haneda, etc. who were the suppliers of US carnation.
For a while, Kitayama Brothers was the largest US carnations producer, and my first jobs were planting, pinching, caging, disbudding and cutting carnations. I never became a grower but I have soft spot for this flower. We might be taking on a fruitless task, but we have to keep looking for new crops anyway, why not revisit an old favorite? We will keep you posted on our quest to save the American carnation.