Rocky Ford, CO
Member Since 2013
Hirakata Farms has a legacy in Colorado that dates back more than a century, spans five generations and has survived countless changes in its lifetime. Today, the firm continues to surmount the challenges of being commercially viable in an area that isn’t really that friendly to agricultural production.
“We have a lot to deal with in Colorado,” said Glenn Hirakata, who runs the family business along with his cousin Michael Hirakata. “We have to worry about drought and hail. We often have to contend with an early freeze in the fall and a late freeze in the spring. I can’t think of a lot of advantages. Sometimes I wish my great grandpa would have settled somewhere else,” he joked, half seriously
But in fact, Tatsunosuke Hirakata settled in Rocky Ford. Co, in 1915 after coming to the United States from Japan a bit earlier to work on the western railroads. Soon after establishing himself in Colorado, the elder Hirakata sent for his son, Keiji, who was still in Japan. The two began farming in the Rocky Ford district, no doubt involved in the production of the namesake Rocky Ford cantaloupe. That cantaloupe traces its lineage to the 1880s. Glenn says it is the warm days and cool nights in the region that give the Rocky Ford cantaloupe its great flavor and a well-deserved 130 year reputation as a superior melon. Glen does allow that the significant temperature swing from night to day is an inherent advantage to producing melons in Rocky Ford.
While the Hirakata family traces its roots and farming acumen back to the early years of the 20th Century, Glenn said the current family farming operation itself began around the early 1950s. He said while the first two Colorado generations of the Hirakata family were farmers, they did not have the financial resources to amass land holdings. Instead, those early years are a bit sketchy but the Hirakata farmers worked for others or rented land putting together a patchwork of farming operations to make a living. During those times, field corn, sugar beets and alfalfa were the main crops in the area, along with cantaloupes.
Glenn’s father, Gene, was the first Hirakata born in Rocky Ford when he came into this world in 1927. He eventually had two sisters and a brother. He and his brother, Jerre, formed Hirakata Brothers Farms, which eventually morphed into the present day Hirakata Farms. Again, Glenn said the details and the dates are a bit sketchy.
His father farmed with the elder generations through World War II and into the 1950s. With the family’s long history in Rocky Ford and being away from the coasts, the Hirakata clan was not interned during the war and went about its regular routine. In fact, Gene was in the military after the war and fought in the Korean War in the early 1950s. As the ‘50s moved into the ‘60s and ‘70s, Hirakata Brothers Farm steamed along, producing crops and continuing the farming life for the Hirakata family, now moving into its fourth generation. For the most part, the operation was a truck farm, with the melons and other items harvested and taken to the Denver produce market, which is about 150 miles north.
Glenn was born in 1963 and his cousin and future partner, Michael, came along seven years later. Glenn went to community college for a couple of years and then transferred to Colorado State University at Fort Collins and earned a degree in agriculture in the mid-1980s. He then came back to work on the family farm full-time in 1986. Michael took a similar route several years later: going to college for a few years and then coming back to join the family operation. In the 1990s, Glenn and Michael began farming their own individual farms in an effort by their dads to help them gain experience and learn by trying. The farms of the family members were run separately yet the output was marketed jointly. “This went on for a couple of years with help from our dads with equipment and tools,” said Glenn. “But eventually we put it all back together (as one operation).”
He said it was severe drought conditions that caused the four members of the operation to farm together because some of its land had water while other acres did not. In those days, Glenn said the farm consisted of about 600 acres, half of what it is today. “By California standards, we are still a small farm but we’re pretty big in Colorado,” he noted.
Today, Michael—the son of Jerre—heads the sales department, while Glenn manages the operation of the shed. Together they share in the operation of the farm. Glenn’s wife, Carmen, is involved in the administration of the company, largely working to help facilitate the firm’s H-2A program. Glenn said it remains a family farm that continues to carry on the tradition of their ancestors. In fact, two members of the fifth generation have joined the company: Michael’s son Clay and Trey Tateyama, son of one of Glenn’s sisters. There are other family members that may join in subsequent years, including Glenn’s children Kyle and Kellie, who are currently in college. But Glenn said he does not push any family member into the farming business. While he has enjoyed his career, he said, “it is hard way to make a living. If you are not fully committed, you should do something else.”
For Hirakata Farms, even the weather was easier to overcome than the cantaloupe contamination issue that upended the Colorado melon deal eight years ago. “That was very difficult,” he says. “In 2011, we basically had to start all over. We had to put in a new packing shed and build it from the ground up. Financially, it was difficult.”
Hirakata Farms, in fact, was the first cantaloupe grower-shipper to rebuild its shed benefitting from the hard lessons learned the year before by another grower-shipper (in Colorado but not in Rocky Ford) who was at the center of listeria outbreak. “The following year, we were the only packing shed operating.”
The company reworked the process to include a single use washing system. Ultimately, the multiple use of water at the shed implicated in the contamination was blamed for the outbreak. Glenn said building the shed was a leap of faith. “We had a lot of sleepless nights that year wondering if anyone would buy our cantaloupes once the season started.”
But Glenn said there was a good deal of publicity about the safety and value of Rocky Ford cantaloupes, including a valuable endorsement by the governor. Hirakata Farms sells the vast majority of its production within the state of Colorado and 2012 proved to be a successful year.
Since then, other packers have come in and out of the deal, but for the last several years, including this one, Hirakata Farms is the only melon packer in Rocky Ford. Glenn said there are some truck farmers who sell their cantaloupes in the surrounding area without having them packed at his shed, but the handful of major growers in the area all use his packing shed. So Hirakata Farms not only had the first modern packing shed, but it apparently is going to be the last as well. He reiterated that the harvest and packing season only last a few months so it is a daunting calculation to invest the resources on a modern, food-safety compliant packing facility.
Hirakata Farms joined Western Growers a half a dozen years ago, prior to the association forming an alliance with the Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, of which Hirakata is a board member. He said the association with Western Growers has been great for his operation as well as for the Colorado industry at large. “It’s been a great relationship. We use Western Growers in many ways but specifically Jason Resnick (Western Growers general counsel) has been a great help with our H-2A program. We use Western Growers to secure workers, which is a big issue in Colorado.”
In general, Glenn said the same external issues that plague West Coast agriculture impact his operation: weather, labor and regulations. He did admit that the regulations he has to deal with are not as onerous as those in California and so he can count that as another advantage as a Colorado fruit and vegetable grower.