When Sam Asai walks through his orchard, he is treading in the footsteps of two generations that came before him. His family has been farming the same land for more than a century, and some of the fruit trees that he showed to me on my recent visit to A&J Orchards are over four decades old.
A neighbor offered to take over the farm and pay the bills during the war, so the Asais were able to maintain their land and livelihood once the war ended. Many others were not so lucky.
Sam’s grandparents purchased land in Hood River, OR, in the early 1900s and raised their family there for 40 years. But in the 1940s, they could have lost their farm forever. Like many Japanese immigrants, the Asai family was sent to an internment camp during World War II. A neighbor offered to take over the farm and pay the bills during the war, so the Asais were able to maintain their land and livelihood once the war ended. Many others were not so lucky.
Sam, who was born just a few years after his family’s internment ended, is a jack-of-all-trades — before returning to the farm, he earned his M.B.A. from Oregon State University and became a Certified Public Accountant. He’s been working on the farm since 1981 and now grows eight varieties of cherries (a risky crop, Sam says, but a very profitable one in a good year), 18 kinds of apples, and eight kinds of pears. The farm’s business has grown from 30 cases per week from September through February to as many as 500.
A&J has been selling fruit to Bon Appétit since 2004, when Sam met a chef from Lewis & Clark College at the Portland farmers’ market. The chef was a fan of Sam’s Asian pears, and selling to Bon Appétit provided a market for undersized pears that would otherwise have gone to waste. Reducing food waste is a focus on the farm: A&J also sells undersized and cosmetically imperfect fruit to cideries.
At this point in Sam’s farming career, he is focused on giving back to his community. He is a member of Oregon’s Farm Service Agency State Committee, which aims to provide economic opportunity and resources for small farms across the state.
Sam hopes to eventually pass the farm down to his son Aron, who currently works at A&J alongside his father. Aron will be the fourth generation of the Asai family to cultivate this land. Sam’s great-grandson could someday be a sixth-generation Asai farmer, though it’s a little early to tell if farming is in his future—he was just born a few months ago.