In the moments between the ebb and flow of the market, Makoto Chino asks if anyone has a recipe to recommend. He’s planning an elaborate dinner party for nine. “What are you making?” I ask before he rapidly fires back with a list of complex dishes that I can’t conceive of making on a weeknight.
Given the collection of signatures from the notable chefs that have gathered on the farm’s kitchen wall, it’s not a surprise that his culinary interests are advanced beyond my limited practice of using olive oil, acid, salt, and pepper on everything.
Still, of all the renowned chefs that visit the farm, Makoto says, “It’s just as exciting to have someone come and recognize things like hoja santa or winged beans that they haven’t seen since they left their hometown in Thailand.”
For the 29-year-old, food defines family. “Food for me has such an emotional impact,” Makoto says. “It reminds me of home and family. When people see these things, it reminds them of home.” So much so that his parents had to ship vegetables to him when he went to college at Washington University in St. Louis, followed by law school at UCLA. “There are people who say it’s not summertime unless they have Chino Farm corn. They come from Arizona and Texas to San Diego in the summer, and it’s not their summertime until they get our corn.”
The Vegetable Shop is the farm’s retail point of operation, and it’s a sensory experience with homespun charm where tables, boxes, and shelves are rife with alluring hues and herbaceous aromas. “The only thing that we have here that we don’t grow ourselves are the oranges,” explains Makoto. “They’re from an old family friend that used to have a citrus farm who now has 10 trees for us, and they only grow for us. He leaves [the oranges] on the tree for a year so they get super sweet.”
The 45-acre working farm, which lies within eyesight of the farm stand, is intensely rustic, with hoop houses, overgrown row crops, berry bushes, and small groves of fig and apple trees. When Chino Family Farm was started by Makoto’s grandparents Junzo and Hatsuyo over 70 years ago, there was no such thing as organic certified farming practices, only doing what was right for the quality that they wished to produce. This practice is what has been handed down to four of their nine children: Makoto’s father Tom manages the farm with his brothers Fred and Frank and sister Kazumi.
Makoto, whose name means “truthfulness” in Japanese, grew up on the farm. His earliest memory is of his mom yelling at him and one of the farm’s loyal Jack Russell terriers biting her in his defense when he was three or four. He started working there when he was eight, and aside from two younger cousins that work at the farm during the summer, he’s the only member of the third generation working at the farm full-time for the foreseeable future.
With Makoto’s unofficial role being house council and assistant manager, growing practices are admittedly not his field of expertise. Still, after working primarily in the field for more than half his life, and the past few years in the Vegetable Shop, Makoto understands the challenges that lie ahead and the value of the farm’s prestige.
As is the case with many farms in the region, water is an increasing hardship. They grow, in part, with well water but pay residential water rates on supplemental sources. For this, there is no agricultural subsidy and the cost of water means they “just get destroyed,” Makoto says. “And it’s getting worse and worse because there’s salt intrusion from the ocean. Water prices are huge, and our water is sometimes four times more expensive than in other places.”
Additional concerns come with managing new state labor regulations. “Farmworkers used to be overtime-exempt in California, and that’s about to end. So they’ll get paid time and a half for overtime,” says Makoto. “A big farm can switch farmworkers between farms to work around this, but something small like this, where everyone requires specialized knowledge and it’s a year-round operation, it’s really going to hurt small farms.”
Makoto refers to the farm’s employees with respect, noting that many of the seasonal migrant farmers from Oaxaca have worked the farm for 30 years, and some of their fathers were even there before them. The specialized knowledge doesn’t end in the field, however: Some of the familiar faces at the farm stand have been answering questions and sharing recommendations on how to eat the unique heirlooms and varietals for decades.
Preserving this level of expertise is fundamental to the farm’s success as the number of fruits and vegetables cultivated every year is staggering. “I think we grow maybe 60 types of fruits and vegetables. That being said, of the types of vegetables, this year we have 150 varieties of tomatoes, five different varieties of strawberries, 30 varieties of squash, and 25 micro[green] varieties,” says Makoto.
Additionally, the farm keeps on top of culinary trends with newly developed crops. “Every year, there’s at least three new things. This year, the hot thing is hot peppers that have been bred so they have no heat. You get all the flavor of them but they are really good for aguachiles or if you are trying to control the spiciness of your salsa. They’re cool. There’s the Habanada, it’s like the habanero without the heat, and the Trinidad Perfume that’s like the Trinidad Scorpion. We also have the peach-colored raspberries that are new this year, and we brought back the Alpine berries that we haven’t had in like 15 years,” explains Makoto. The proficiency from the devoted staff is not only key to cultivation, but also in informing consumers—from acclaimed restaurants to the curious passerby.