Japanese Farmers in Sanpete County

John S. H. Smith
History Blazer, August 1995

Japanese began settling in Utah just before 1900. Although many chose Utah’s cities in which to make a living, they made their major contribution to the state’s development in rural areas. Box Elder, Weber, and Salt Lake counties drew the largest number of Japanese. Many of the men worked for the railroads or in mining. But Japanese communities also sprang up in the farming areas of north and south central Utah.

In Utah, as in the nation, the acceptance of “different” immigrant groups depended largely on the ability of the new arrivals to adjust to the ways of the majority and to succeed on its terms. The Japanese worked very hard and led lives of quiet dignity. Japanese family life was beyond reproach. Despite this, their acceptance by other Americans, and Utahns, was uncertain and varied widely from town to town.

One rural region of Utah that generally behaved well toward Japanese newcomers was Sanpete County during the 1920s. The first Japanese began moving to the Moroni area in 1917 under contract to the People’s Sugar Company to grow sugar beets on leased land. They were followed in 1919 by other Japanese agricultural workers who moved into Clarion and the area around Gunnison. These newcomers received a cool but proper welcome from local residents.

The times were prosperous, and there was full employment in Sanpete County because of the demand for agricultural products during World War I and the immediate postwar years. Japanese farmers did not seem to be a threat to the local economy. However, this situation was reversed during the agricultural slump of 1920 and 1921. As a result, state legislators from Sanpete County joined with others in a 1921 memorial to Congress petitioning against the immigration of Orientals and for the rights of states to bar land-holding by them.

In connection with the petition, the Ephraim Enterprise noted that “Japanese farmers in Utah have increased 250 percent during the past ten years. Japanese are working 133 farms consisting of 7,348 acres of highly cultivated land, valued at $1,950,000.”

By the following year, 1923, the mood of county residents had improved. Farmers were prospering again from income based on tariff-protected wool and sugar. Attitudes toward the Japanese changed from fear to admiration. Local newspapers carried a number of stories that dramatically illustrated the progress of the Japanese in the county. Suye Kimura, for example, had arrived in Sanpete County in 1919 with savings earned on farms in California and Idaho. He took an option on a 96-acre farm. Within four years, to the surprise and envy of his neighbors, the farm had been virtually paid for.

One reason for Japanese success in agriculture lay in their mastery of intensive agricultural and horticultural techniques that were part of their heritage. In a land-poor country like Japan, farmers were forced to develop methods of getting the most from each small plot of land. It was also the good fortune of Japanese immigrant farmers to arrive in the United States at a time when the American diet was changing from a reliance on heavy, starchy foods to experimentation with a more varied and healthful diet that included a wide variety of vegetables and fruits. Cultivation of these market items on a large scale called for exactly the sort of intensive agriculture with which most immigrant Japanese were familiar.

Sanpete County furnished one of the most interesting examples of the public admiration that could be won by immigrants through their financial success. When the Ephraim Enterprise announced, “The Japanese are experts…let us welcome them,” the newspaper was paying tribute to the introduction of cauliflower and cabbage by the Japanese as profitable new crops for Sanpete County. “Sanpete Valley” produce was eagerly sought by buyers along the Atlantic Coast from Jacksonville, Florida, to Boston Massachusetts. Both Japanese and Caucasian farmers profited from sales in distant markets.

In 1927 the Japanese Growers Association was organized in cooperation with the Salt Lake brokerage house of Smith and Hancock. In that first year, eight members of the association—with 125 acres in cauliflower—received $45,000 as a group for their labor. Japanese farmers who had bought their land for $200 an acre wiped out their indebtedness with the profits from their crop. The Japanese achieved this through their skill and long hours of work in the fields. Cauliflower and cabbage require constant care and watering and a trained and alert eye to guard against destructive pests. Local newspaper reports that Japanese farmers were making big money told only part of the story—the end result.

The good fortune of the Japanese farmers lasted only until the Great Depression sent prices tumbling and put many people out of work across the nation. This economic disaster plus a drought in Sanpete County turned the Japanese experience sour. The once-thriving Japanese community dispersed, leaving local residents with memories of “many queer and appetizing dishes” served at summer picnics hosted by the Japanese.

Although drought and depression drove them from Sanpete County, the Japanese agriculturalist elsewhere in the state was more fortunate in keeping his farming foothold. Despite World War II, relocation (which brought many West Coast Japanese to Utah and to work on farms as laborers), and postwar adjustments, the community of American farmers of Japanese descent grew. They introduced new and profitable horticultural techniques and developed improved varieties of vegetables and fruits for the nation’s dinner tables.

See John S. H. Smith, “Japanese Farmers in Utah,” Beehive History 2.