There was a feeling of sadness hovering over the buckets of rusted nails, the ancient cash register, and the 1971 Coca Cola machine. After over sixty years in business, the Tom T. Ishibashi farm in Torrance, the last of a string of iconic South Bay family farms, closed its gates.
On Saturday, the family had an everything-must-go sale before shutting down for good. A throng of bargain-hunters picked through boxes of old mason jars, buckets of $1 gardening tools and wooden crates that once held grapes and peaches.
"It's truly the end of an era," said Marcia Oto, daughter of the legendary farmer, Tom Ishibashi, who died last year of congestive heart failure at the age of 82.
The Ishibashi family has a long line of farmers, going back at least through the 1800s, and through the early 1900s when Tom's parents migrated from Japan. Their original stand was located on Pacific Coast Highway, whose coastline reminded them of their native town of Okayama.
In 1949, Tom's father leased nearly 150 acres from the City of Torrance, since Japanese Americans were not permitted to own land at the time. Situated alongside the Torrance airport, one can almost imagine how the land must have looked all those years ago. But with the constant traffic on Crenshaw Boulevard and the large Kohl's building in the distance, it's obvious that the days of family farms in Southern California are long-gone.
While the residents of Torrance remember Tom as the man who lovingly doled out fresh strawberries, his sister Naomi remembers a brother who originally had no interest in farming. "He never wanted to be a farmer," she says. "My mother taught him how to farm, but everything she said, he resisted. If she said yes, he said no."
Tom eventually gave in and came to work alongside his parents on the farm. Though he'd changed his mind about raising crops, he was still adamantly opposed to his mother's great love -- flowers.
"One thing they had a fight about was flowers," Naomi remembers. "My mother loved raising flowers, but Tom didn't want anything to do with them."
But after his mother's illness, Tom had a change of heart. "It was such a joy to see him growing the flowers that she loved, like a memorial for Mom. And he grew sweet peas by the road that were so fragrant when you'd drive by. It was like all the things that Mom loved were here for her."
Longtime customer Don Sorenson remembers the land in the 1940s, when the airport was P-38 training base for pilots fighting in the war. "I used to buy strawberries here in the 1950s," Sorenson says. "Now I can buy them at the 99-cent store for much cheaper."
Indeed, this seems to be the story all over. Massive farms run like factories receive subsidies from the government, allowing them to keep their prices so low that it's impossible for small farms like Tom's to compete. It wasn't always this way.
Farmers hoping to make a living turned seriously to the open spaces of Southern California in the late 1800s, when at the same time agricultural reformer William Ellsworth Smythe was developing his concept of the "irrigated society."
Smythe strongly believed that small farms created democratic community life. The ideas outlined in his journal Irrigation Age increased the predictability of crop yields, paving the way for the small family farm to have enough water, power and means to work the land. Soon, Central and Southern California became some of the biggest agricultural centers in the world. In the South Bay alone, Carson was known for its cut flower crops, and Gardena was something of a berry capital. Ishibashi Farm had a central leadership role in the area for some time. But with increasing regulations on crop growth and distribution, the family farm is a thing of the past.
"This is not a money-maker," says Naomi. "You had to have a passion for raising crops. Everything's expensive."
Tom kept the farm afloat by decreasing the number of workers and paring down the amount of crops he grew, but after awhile the stricter farming regulations removed any hope of a profit. The family temporarily retired in 2005 when Tom's wife, Maya, grew ill and had trouble with her eyesight. To the delight of Torrance residents, he reopened the stand in 2006, but after his death last May, it was inevitable the farm would have to be closed.
Though it's a sad time for the family, daughter Marcia knows that this sale is what Tom wanted.
"He just wanted all of this cleaned up for the city," she says. "That was his biggest concern. He said, 'I'm sorry I'm leaving you with all of this mess.' He just wanted it cleaned up, and for this to be the place it was when he first came here."
"This was his life, his baby," she says. "He loved it, so he kept it open. It was a love affair that he enjoyed to the very last."
[Photos by Eric Spiegelman]