2014 Grower Achievement Award Winner: Robert Sakata Of Sakata Farms

Robert Sakata (right) is also the recipient of the 2014 Grower Achievement Award.
Photo credit: Tracey Pliskin

People. They can make or break your business or organization. And with the right leaders, they can also band together for a cause, such as the proliferation of agriculture in the U.S. Robert Sakata, known to many as R.T., is one of those leaders. The current president of Sakata Farms in Colorado is recognized as someone who goes the extra mile for the good of the industry. From being the driving force in the creation of a statewide fruit and vegetable grower association, to getting involved in water issues in the state, to taking the message of immigration reform to Capitol Hill, Robert Sakata has committed his professional life to ensuring the successful future of his fellow growers.

That service is a prime example of why Robert Sakata is American Vegetable Grower’s 2014 Grower Achievement Award recipient.

The Value Of Experience Robert says much of what he learned over the years came from his father, Bob, 88, who still comes to work every day. It was his father who taught him to recognize the importance of people and what they can bring to the table.

Robert worked on the farm while growing up, learning the ropes from his father, who started the operation in 1944 with $1,200. His father’s experiences as a young man, however, were quite different from his own. After Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, marking the U.S. entrance into World War II, Bob Sakata and his family eventually found themselves living in an internment camp. The future became brighter, however, when Bob purchased farmland in Brighton, CO, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Fast forward to today and the farm currently grows more than 1,600 acres of vegetables, including sweet corn, onion, cabbage, and pinto beans. The Sakatas also produce wheat, barley, and field corn bringing the farm’s total acreage close to 2,500.

Just a few years ago, the family produced about 3,000 acres of vegetables. Robert says they cut back on vegetable acreage and added the row crops to stay in business as dealing with water, labor, and regulatory issues continue to be obstacles for his farm and others across the nation.

The Birth Of An Association
The issues plaguing the industry in Colorado were the impetus for establishing the Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association. The organization was formed in February, and Robert, who currently serves as president, says that wasn’t the first time an attempt was made to form a specialty crop grower group in the state. An effort was made about 15 years ago, but it was unsuccessful, thanks to the competitive nature of growers.

Since the late ’90s, however, times have changed. The number of farms in the state has decreased, and Robert says it is time for growers to band together so their collective voices can be heard.

“We need to be cooperative in our efforts and have a voice on things like the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and labor issues,” Robert says. “I was surprised when I was in Washington, DC, recently, visiting the office of one of my Congressmen, and learned he had never been to a vegetable farm. While I was there, he made a commitment to visit our farm. That is a great first step. Having never been to a vegetable farm, he has no idea how the decisions he makes may affect us.”

Robert also mentions that recently he had been approached to speak at an event put on by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. He jumped at the opportunity. “It doesn’t matter if I’m growing vegetables or raising livestock, we all need to talk with a unified voice,” Robert says. “If collectively agriculture is 2% of the population, then individually the percentage [of specialty crop growers] is so miniscule that we will never get anything accomplished and stay in business unless our message is heard.”

Meet The Veep
It is his willingness to get involved in industry issues that led him to be invited to have coffee with Vice President Joe Biden just a few months ago. About a week after visiting Washington, DC, with Western Growers Association to speak with members of Congress, Robert got an interesting phone call.

“It was kind of mysterious. When someone calls you and says they are from the White House, you say to yourself, ‘Yeah, right. Who is this and what are you selling?’” he says with a laugh. “But the woman on the phone assured me that it really was the White House and she asked if I would be interested in visiting with someone on immigration reform. It just so happened that immigration reform was one of major topics we had discussed when we were visiting on Capitol Hill the week before.”

To his surprise, just a handful of people were on the guest list to meet with the vice president. Robert says he was joined by a police officer, an army veteran, a teacher, a manager of a shelter, a meat packing company representative, and the mayor of Denver at a coffee shop in downtown Denver.

“We each got to explain to the vice president the challenges we face in our particular industries and why we need immigration reform,” he says. “I was impressed that he was willing to take the time to meet with us. I thought it would be a quick photo op, but he spent more than two hours with us and talked about the administration’s efforts on immigration reform.

“This goes back to why I wanted to form the Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association,” he continues. “Sometimes you need these organizations when people want to reach out. We don’t know what will come out of [the meeting with Vice President Biden] and we don’t have immigration reform yet, but if you do nothing, you know nothing will happen. You have to give it your best effort.”

Water And FSMA
It was Robert’s connections last summer and his willingness to help that led him to testify before the Water Resources Review Committee in the state regarding some of the FSMA water regulations. Because he is involved in the Colorado Agriculture Water Alliance, he was contacted for more information on the issue and to testify before the committee.

“[The Water Resources Review Committee] got word that some of the FSMA regulations were setting quality standards on water that could be used on [specialty crop irrigation] and they wanted to know a bit more about that,” he says.

Robert not only testified, he worked with the committee’s staff and drafted a comment letter that the committee signed and sent to FDA expressing concerns regarding the water quality standards.

The Future Of Farming
Robert continues to put his best foot forward, but acknowledges that each year he is presented with more challenges.

In addition to water, food safety, and regulatory issues, he says the knowledge gap between farmers and consumers needs to be dealt with, as well. In spite of the gap, he says there are many people who are interested in what happens on the farm.

Once again, it all comes back to the importance of people. Robert says his father often told him: “It isn’t how far up the ladder you get, it is who you can bring up that ladder with you.’ It is when you treat people with respect and you gain their respect, you can work as a group.”

He says it will take a collective effort — working as a group — to get the message to the masses about the critical need for agriculture in the U.S.

“When I graduated high school I had the lofty goal of winning the Nobel Peace Prize or finding a cure for cancer,” he says. “Little did I know that maybe the best cure for cancer is what we have been doing the whole time on the farm: providing consumers with fresh vegetables. It was then that I came to the realization that farming is very important.”

About The Award THE 13th annual Grower Achievement Award was presented Sept. 9 at United Fresh’s Washington Public Policy Conference in Washington, DC. The award symbolizes excellence, a common denominator among award-winning recipients. For details about the Grower Achievement Award, go to GrowingProduce.com/vegetables/ grower-achievement-award. For more information on United Fresh, visit www.unitedfresh.org.Jumping Regulatory Hurdles Robert Sakata of Sakata Farms in Brighton, CO, is in tune with what is going on in his backyard as well as in Washington, DC, and what the ramifications may be for his farm, and yours. Like most of you, he is trying to work around labor, water, and regulatory issues, all while striving to make a profit.

Regulations, in particular, he says are becoming more stringent, and they are coming from a variety of agencies. Plus there are the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rules to consider.

Today, the operation has to worry about removing its wood surfaces in the packing shed for the sweet corn overwrap packing line to be in compliance with food safety rules.

“It will be very costly to change all that, but we don’t mind changing these things if the food risk warrants it.” He adds, however, that his farm has just one season a year, so they only run the sweet corn line for six weeks.

“To make the changes to comply with FSMA may be cost prohibitive for us,” he says. “We may have to look at our sweet corn overwrap line to see if we can’t do it for a longer season and bring in product from other growers to offset the costs. There is no way we can invest that kind of money into a line that is only going to run for six weeks of the year.” Industry Involvement

Joining forces with numerous organizations, Robert Sakata of Sakata Farms in Colorado is continually working on behalf of agriculture. He is not only involved with the Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, he has a laundry list of organizations he works with, including several that focus on water issues. The list includes: