At 97 years old, George Tanimura admits he is an old-timer, a “horse and buggy guy” in his words. But the humble farmer resists praise for his legendary accomplishments during a lifetime of growing vegetables in California.
Tanimura, co-chairman of the board for Salinas, Calif.-based Tanimura & Antle Inc., can easily recall the days when a box of lettuce was topped with 100 pounds of ice before it was put on a railcar bound for Chicago or the East Coast.
Tanimura says he still finds enjoyment seeing crops grow.
“I still have to go outside and see the lettuce grow,” he said. “I love to see a healthy-looking crop.”
Though many Salinas-area companies have come and gone in his time, Tanimura’s longevity is perhaps the least of his many accomplishments in the Salinas Valley.
A descendant of Japanese immigrants, the second-generation Japanese American was born July 2, 1915. In the 1920s, Tanimura thinned iceberg lettuce on his father’s small farm. After just one year of high school his mother died. George had to quit school to farm with his father.
“Farming is all I knew,” he said.
Tanimura’s father was growing near San Juan, Calif., but George’s father felt that region was a little too hot to grow summer lettuce. At the time, Salinas farm ground was dominated by sugar beets to serve the Spreckels Sugar Co.
In 1923, the Tanimura family, with 12 siblings, moved to the cooler Salinas region and began farming lettuce.
During the Great Depression, when George was only 16, his father died.
With George running the operation near Aromas, Calif., in Monterey County, the Tanimura family farm thrived. That happy time ended in December 1941, when Americans of Japanese ancestry were put in interment camps because of the U.S. conflict in World War II with Japan. The Tanimura family, minus two brothers who joined the U.S. war effort, were shipped off to a camp in Arizona. One of the good things that came out of that time was that George met and married his wife Masaye Yamauchi in September 1944. At the end of the war, George and his brothers went back to farming in the Salinas region, leasing small patches of ground.
“I didn’t have 1 acre when the war ended,” Tanimura said.
With the profits from growing, George’s farm started to purchase land in the Salinas Valley.
In the 1950s, Tanimura developed an exclusive business partnership with Bud Antle, who at the time was in Watsonville, Calif.
“Some of the (produce) guys didn’t want to handle Japanese-grown lettuce, but he did,” he said. Tanimura said. “He was an amazing man.”
Tanimura said Bud Antle absorbed red ink if the markets were poor so growers wouldn’t suffer. Antle’s cutting edge adoption of vacuum cooling technology and other advances served the partnership well and changed the industry in the process.
Antle was so impressed with Tanimura’s prowess as a grower that Antle asked Tanimura to farm some of his land to produce lettuce.
Aided by drip irrigation and other innovations, Tanimura said lettuce yields have increased from perhaps 300 boxes an acre decades ago to close to 1,200 boxes an acre or more today,
Bud Antle died in the late 1970s, but Tanimura retains an enduring partnership with the Antle family, Bud Antle’s son Bob Antle is co-chairman of the Tanimura & Antle board, serving with George.
Recovering fully from open heart surgery in 2004, Tanimura said he wants to still see Salinas lettuce fields when he is 100 years old. He goes to the rehab gym three times per week, determined to stay fit.
“You don’t want to be pushed around the field in a wheelchair,” he said.