The Farm Security Administration’s Reappropriation of Japanese American Farms
By Michelle Trujillo
Michelle Trujillo is a historian, musician, and teacher who studies how marginalized groups counter consequences of discrimination through cultural endurance, solidarity, and activism. Michelle will earn her Master of Arts degree in public history from California State University, Sacramento in spring 2020.
I would like to thank the California State Library Foundation for selecting me as one of the first Mead B. Kibbey California State Library Fellowship recipients. The award provided the opportunity for me to prioritize research and access records that I would have otherwise “someday” carved out the time to investigate. In addition, I am so appreciative of the staff at the California State Library who were always patient, helpful, and informative during my visits. The information I found in the Library’s records has provided rich sources for further investigations into the logistics and rhetoric of Japanese American exclusion that resonate sharply in 2020. My purpose in this research is to ally with other voices in illuminating California’s history of both freedom and oppression and in learning how to own and discuss our conflicted history.
Executive Order 9066…notes that the 93,000 people of Japanese descent are living in “vital military zones” and due to the war “they have got to be moved out — fast…”
My interest in World War II Japanese exclusion is personal and partially based on privileged ignorance. I grew up a stone’s throw from the Sacramento “Assembly” Center located in Walerga in the Foothill Farms area, but had no idea it existed until about 2015.(1) I felt betrayed by my public school curriculum that never told me about this important setting. Nearly 5,000 of Sacramento’s Japanese Americans were detained there for fifty-two days until June 1942, when the large permanent camps of Tule Lake and Manzanar were ready to receive detainees. People were born, died, and married at the Walerga “Assembly” Center, and this was merely the beginning of their journey of incarceration and shame.
A family story also connects me to this part of World War II history. A few semesters into my public history master’s program, my dad told me that in the early 1940s, when he was one or two years old, he and his family lived and labored on a large Japanese-operated farm in the small town of Blanca located in southern Colorado’s Costilla County. After the Japanese farmer was evacuated, my dad and his family moved to Alamosa, Colorado, where he grew up; all of his family stories take place there, and I feel a deep connection to the place. My dad’s account landed like an origin story for me, and I cannot help but feel connected, tenuous though it may be, by the reverberations of the forced removal of Japanese Americans enabled by decades of racism and culminated by Executive Order 9066. Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, the executive order authorized the forced removal of Japanese immigrants and Japanese American citizens to incarceration camps during World War II.
Researching the Walerga temporary detention center invariably led to my learning about World War II exclusion in Florin, a town located about eight miles south of Sacramento, and close to where I currently live. Florin is evocative to me for how its landscape both hides and reveals its past. The developing suburban neighborhoods bit by bit smother the terrain captured by Marielle Tsukamoto’s words:
“Visualize if you can, the entire area from Highway 99 east to Bradshaw Road, south to at least Gerber Road and north to Elder Creek. That is what was once known as Florin . . . you would have found acres and acres of strawberry fields and vineyards. That was Florin when it was known as the Strawberry Capital of California!(2)”
Seeking details about Florin and the transformations of California’s landscapes, I focused on the Farm Security Administration (FSA) records found in the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records, 1930–1974 (bulk 1942–1946) housed on microfilm at the Calif. State Library.(3) While the records include information regarding Florin properties, they reveal a broader picture of prewar data analysis geared toward supporting the removal of Japanese farming families, and a public relations campaign that leveraged the medium of radio to shape popular rhetoric justifying removal of Japanese Americans and their families. I was hunting for details to illuminate the logistics that paved the way for the reappropriation of agricultural land. Was Japanese American disenfranchisement a motivating factor? Which agency administered the transfers? What sources of data informed the government as to acreages and population statistics of Japanese communities?
But my larger question was why oust productive farm operators who the data proved to be the backbone of segments of California agriculture, indeed the pride of California exports, especially at the great risk of losing crops and disrupting valuable harvests? In her memoir, We the People: A Story of Internment in America, Mary Tsukamoto asserts that much of the bigotry aimed at Japanese American farmers came from “many of whom were associated with the state’s leading industry, agriculture.”(4) Indeed, a majority of Florin’s white farmers supported the 1913 Alien Land Act in order to keep a rein on Japanese competition nearly thirty years before internment.(5)
Lieutenant General Delos Emmons, the military commander in Hawaii, in contrast to forced removal, opted to maintain Japanese Americans as free citizens to allow for their assistance in the war effort. This, even with Hawaii being located 3,000 miles closer to Japan.(6) In addition, the June 3–6, 1942 Battle of Midway obliterated Japan’s navy and neutralized them as a threat to the West Coast and therefore rendered moot the argument of the West Coast as a military area.(7) Thus, it was clearly arguable at the time that mass removal could in fact hinder America’s war effort.
Just as Executive Order 9066 was written carefully enough to allow for the discrimination of Japanese Americans but with the “common understanding” of its discriminatory purpose, a similar powerful weaving of connotation and denotation was at play during the U.S. government’s operations to replace Japanese American farmers with “American” ones.(8) Exclusion was not an anomaly for Japanese regarding land ownership, especially after the passage of the 1913 and 1920 Alien Land Act, because marginalization and dehumanization had existed in the everyday just as it had for decades. Japanese sacrificed, worked tirelessly, and organized for better wages enough to make forays beyond farm labor and into farm management, and this step into the capitalist class was a perceived threat to white farm operators.(9) Indeed, Tolan Committee witnesses countered the purported wide-scale support of removal. They felt it was not a national security issue but rather the “chamber of commerce, Associated Farmers, and the newspapers notorious as spokesmen for reactionary interests” who were pushing for Japanese American removal to neutralize them as competitors.(10) The arrival of World War II provided the opportunity to reappropriate Japanese farming concerns — under the guise of the exigencies of war — by methodically plucking Japanese agricultural workers and their families out of their livelihoods, much like countless precious Florin strawberries had been, right from the stem.
Farm Security Administration
The Farm Security Administration (FSA) originated in 1937 and provided similar financial assistance to corporate operations and individual farmers as did its predecessor, the Resettlement Administration (RA, 1935–1937). RA was a New Deal program that, among other functions, supplied loans to struggling farming families.(11) One FSA memo even referred to the financial aid as “rehabilitation” loans, as was the designation for Resettlement Agency loans.(12)
During World War II, the FSA worked in concert with the Wartime Civil Control Authority (WCCA) to force Japanese Americans off their land with the utmost urgency. According to FSA and WCCA memos, beginning in March 1942 the U.S. government was seeking to replace Japanese operators with “American farmers” despite the official memo’s own admissions that most of the agricultural operations were titled to Nisei citizens (see Figure 3). Laurence L. Hewes, the FSA regional director, was conferred his authority from the Secretary of Agriculture who in turn took orders from the Secretary of the Treasury.(13) Director Hewes’s charge was “fair disposal and continued productivity” in part, due to the power to freeze farm production.
But in his haste to meet the short evacuation timeline imposed by the U.S. Army, Hewes recruited large commercial operations such as Bank of America, the California State Chamber of Commerce, and other agricultural organizations to take over large swaths of acreage rather than prioritizing small, individual farmers. According to an April 5, 1942 letter titled “Tolan Committee,” Hewes’s strategy and “usual lack of judgment” was called out as an attempt to “look good in the eyes of the Army” and avoid a negative response from the military. Witnesses appearing before the Tolan Committee, including lawyers, Christian ministers, and educators, made pleas for justice on behalf of Japanese Americans. They warned about the ample opportunists exploiting these American citizens amidst the chaos of removal.(14) Apparently, Hewes’s hurried solutions countered the Tolan Committee and its many witnesses’ admonitions, including that of California Attorney General Earl Warren.(15)
Statistics the FSA culled from the 1940 U.S. Census of Agriculture provided a clear picture of Japanese and Japanese American agricultural communities, where they lived, what and how much they produced and contributed to California’s economy. Sacramento’s areas were distinguished as townships: American, Brighton, Center, Georgiana, Granite, Lee, Sacramento, San Joaquin. Florin sat on the dividing line between Brighton to the north and San Joaquin township to the south.
Report on the Effects of the Japanese War on the Japanese Aliens and Native-born Vegetable Growers of California
Between December 19–24, 1941, Agricultural Extension Specialist in Truck Crops P. A. Minges, and Crop Reporting Service representative Carl Schiller, completed a survey of farm advisers in Yolo, Fresno, Tulare, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, Imperial, Orange, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Monterey Counties and produced a related report. The report outlined advisers’ opinions on the willingness of Japanese farmers to cooperate as well as Japanese attitudes and intentions in the face of impending removal. It included projected crop values and percentages of Japanese-grown products that estimated 90 percent of strawberries at the value of over $2 million (see toward the bottom of the table in Figure 6).
Importantly, the report cited public sentiment as the main factor that would most negatively influence Japanese farmers’ ability to obtain financing for crops, hire laborers, and lease land. In providing reasons why Japanese should be removed from their production operations, Minges and Schiller observed that East Coast markets would reject food produced by Japanese farmers. While it is not clear to which competitors the report refers, Minges and Schiller worried agricultural rivals would “sieze [sic] this opportunity to cut in on California produce.”
Minges’s and Schiller’s conclusions assumed negative impacts toward Japanese business endeavors throughout the duration of the United States’ conflict with Japan. This argument fed into rhetoric fueling Japanese exclusion as if it was in their best interest due to the inevitability of harmful impacts related to negative public opinion. Their conclusions also supported the fact that white-owned agricultural operations stood to benefit from the Japanese American losses.
Schiller and Minges’s report promotes stereotypes of Japanese “deviousness” and inability to assimilate and includes the rhetoric that jobs were taken from white Americans. It also reveals the opportunistic intent to “wrest control” of Japanese assets:
“Whether the [Japanese] methods of gaining control have been devious or not does not seem to matter. Americans would like to get back into this type of business. When the federal freezing regulations went through, some people thought this was a good opportunity to wrest control from the Japanese, but they were disappointed when the assets were released. . . . Another observation is that the Japanese are pretty cocky since the release of their assets. They take the attitude that the United States can’t get along without them.(16)”
The 1940 U.S. Census of Agriculture and standard census were lynchpins in Hewes’ expeditious reappropriation of Japanese property in 1942. Both 1940 censuses provided a range of detailed data that outlined a precise picture of the Japanese population that included Japanese land ownership versus tenancy, value of farm products and machinery, and size of farms. A special report titled “Value of Farm Products by Color and Tenure of Operator” was included in the 1940 census that did not accompany the two previous or two following censuses.
A table titled “Number of Japanese in Cities of Pacific Coast States Having Japanese Populations of 500 or More: 1940” shows data synthesized from the regular census.(17) The table gives totals in different cities of “Native Born” and “Foreign Born” Japanese populations. Another table is titled “Number of Japanese Workers 14 Years of Age and Over in Pacific Coast States, Classified by Occupational Groups: 1940.” Types of employment shown are for laborers, professional workers, clerical, domestic service, and farmers and farm managers. The highest percentage labor group was 17.2%, farm laborers and foremen. Closely following behind at 14.4% was also agriculturally related as farmers and farm managers. The next two groups of comparable proportion were non-agricultural jobs including clerical, sales, and “kindred” workers as well as proprietors, managers and “officials.” This valuable census data provided the U.S. Army a framework to establish military zones, direct resources, and prioritize areas of Japanese American forced removal.
Food for Freedom
On March 17, 1942, Director Hewes announced the FSA’s Food for Freedom loan program. This scheme provided loans to corporations and individual farmers who applied to obtain the operations, machinery, and buildings (including homes) on the properties of soon-to-be detained Japanese Americans and their families. Food for Freedom was also the term that referred to the 1941 U.S. Army campaign to recruit public support of the war effort, to provide commodities the United States committed to allies, to subsistence for U.S. forces, and to assuage fears of stateside food shortages.(18)
An April 6, 1942 memo signed by Director Hewes announced the availability of a radio script to be used by field agents to disseminate data on remaining acreages to be had, while also shaping the rhetoric of Japanese removal by alluding to westward expansion and the settling of the West. Titled “Mobilization of Farmers on Evacuated Land,” the script refers to a Japanese “migration” which had created the need for land takeovers. The script does not reference Executive Order 9066, but instead only notes that the 93,000 people of Japanese descent are living in “vital military zones” and due to the war “they have got to be moved out — fast…. So it’s up to. . . Farm Security to find American farmers who will move into these farms and keep them producing.”
A chronology of excerpted information mostly from FSA and WCCA official memos shows how quickly land was reappropriated as well as some of the measures taken to complete the job:
March 17, 1942. The Wartime Farm Adjustment Program, subsequently referred to as Food for Freedom, was announced. Six thousand farms were reported as available, but only one thousand parties had expressed interest shortly after the announcement of the Food for Freedom loan program.
March 27, 1942. “We’ll loan money to almost anyone who can farm the land properly.”
April 1942. Sixty-nine percent of California’s Japanese farms had been redistributed. Interested parties included corporations and land companies.
April 14, 1942. WCCA announced loans were now available to experienced Mexican and Filipino farmers (but must be naturalized or in the process of becoming so), because they are considered non-enemy aliens.
April 17, 1942. New regulations allowed the U.S. government to freeze farms and take over operations ostensibly to prevent Japanese American farmers from being financially victimized.
April 17, 1942. This example of a farm that was frozen by the WCCA served as a warning to other owners contemplating unfair dealings.
May 12, 1942. Not even half of Sacramento’s Japanese farms had yet been transferred by the time most of California’s had changed hands.
From characterizing evacuation as a “migration” to “freezing” farms, to reappropriating legitimate Japanese farming operations and describing it as “one more tough emergency job the American people have got to lick in this war,” the innocuous language of bureaucracy facilitated an abuse of power that disenfranchised Japanese Americans. The Farm Security Administration field agents registered, “supervise[d], and “referee[d]” land transfers and went on air at radio stations to market the program to the public and recruit “American” farmers.(19) Information from the 1940 U.S. Census and 1940 U.S. Census of Agriculture was used to establish population density and distribution, land values, and economic contributions of California’s Japanese Americans in preparation for mass removal.
The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records, 1930–1974 (bulk 1942- 1946) reveals a foundational fact about evacuation: removing Japanese American farmers also removed stiff competition. The records also teach how rhetoric can contort reality in order to justify illogical and unpopular government actions. Indeed, military intelligence and the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted surveillance even before the Pearl Harbor attack and concluded the absence of a threat by West Coast Japanese Americans.(20) Executive Order 9066 provided a unique and long-sought opportunity to redistribute Japanese operations en masse camouflaged among the real exigencies of war that forced Japanese immigrants and citizens to again confront the difference between the posturing of American democracy and the reality of it.
The Continuing Resonance of the Walerga Assembly Center
The fact of the Walerga Assembly Center’s existence is fading from memory. Almost five thousand people of Japanese descent lived there for fifty-two days; life carries on despite its context. Between May 6 and June 26, 1942, beloved grandparents died early deaths. Couples married, fearing permanent separation. Mothers were forced to birth their babies in the inescapable heat of summer. These events were recorded in the camp newspaper, the Walerga Wasp, along with baseball tournament updates, dance announcements, and sing-along narratives. The purpose of camp newspapers was to assure the wider public that, despite the incarceration of innocent citizens, democracy was still alive and well within the confines of barbed wire and armed guards. It is doubtful documentation about suicide attempts and sexual assaults would have made it past the WRA (War Relocation Authority) camp manager who supervised the content of every Walerga Wasp issue.
As a site of memory, the only material hint at this tragic history comes from a historical marker located at Walerga Park titled “Lest We Forget.” To remember is to actively engage with history. Let the dialogue of past and present remind us of our power as citizens to defend against racism and bigotry. Let the lessons of experience and meaning evoke our own vulnerabilities and reliance on even the most marginalized of us. Let us, please, not forget the people of the Walerga Assembly Center.
This article came from the California State Library Foundation Bulletin #127, pp. 22 to 31. See the foundation website (cslfdn.org) for more info.
1. The terminology of World War II Japanese American incarceration; “internment,” “evacuation,” and “assembly center” are beset by euphemistic softening and distortion of the fact that the U.S. government was stripping its citizens of their rights. Specific terminology was used by the government and military to sway public opinion about these actions. Beginning in the 1970s, historians and scholars studied the wartime vocabulary and concluded that updated word choice was necessary to accurately convey the exclusion and detention of people of Japanese descent from the West Coast. In 1945, the United States Supreme Court determined Japanese American detention was a violation of their constitutional rights. In 1983, the Commission for Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) published a report titled “Personal Justice Denied” that concluded it was “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” that entitled Executive Order 9066 to pass and not “military necessity.” Therefore, following the recommendations of the CWRIC report, I use the recommended language of “temporary detention center” instead of “assembly” center. When “assembly” center is used, it is placed within quotes to indicate its euphemistic nature.
2. Marielle Tsukamoto is Mary Tsukamoto’s daughter and was four years old when her family was evacuated from Florin in 1942. They were first taken to the Fresno Assembly Center and then to Jerome Relocation Camp in Arkansas. Mary Tsukamoto, the namesake of Mary Tsukamoto Elementary School in Elk Grove, was a teacher and activist who was instrumental in preserving Florin’s history and in creating the Japanese American Archival Collection (JAAC) housed at CSU Sacramento’s (CSUS) Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA). Mary Tsukamoto also worked to win redress for all Japanese Americans who suffered through the experience of unjust incarceration during World War II. Elizabeth Pinkerton, ed. History Happened Here: Stories of Sloughhouse, Sheldon, Franklin, Florin, Wilton, Laguna Creek, and Other Places in South Sacramento County, California, 1850–1900, (Elk Grove, 2002), 265–66.
3. Early on, the Farm Security Administration entitled its program the Wartime Farm Adjustment Program. It soon discarded this name but retained the symbol WFA to identify certain activities, functions, and documents. mac.cdlib.org, accessed February 22, 2020, https://oac. cdlib.org/view?docId=hb009n99p1;N AAN=13030&doc.view=frames&chunk. id=div00005&toc.depth=1&toc. id=div00005&brand=oac4.
4. 4. Mary Tsukamoto, Elizabeth Pinkerton, We the People: A Story of Internment in America, (United States, 1987), 52–53.
5. “Florin Tells How it Feels,” Sacramento Union, March 28, 1913, cdnc.ucr.edu, accessed February 18, 2020, https:// cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SU19130328.2.23 &srpos=74&e= — — — -en — 20–61 — txt-txIN- florin — — — -1.
6. Raymond Y. Okamura, “Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II,” in Five Views: An Ethnic Sites Survey for California, (Oakland, 1998), 176.
7. Okamura, “Japanese Americans,” 177.
8. Okamura, “Japanese Americans,” 174.
9. Robert F. Heizer and Alan F. Almquist, The Other Californians: Prejudice and Discrimination Under Spain, Mexico, and the United States to 1920, (Berkeley, 1971), 180.
10. Page Smith, Democracy on Trial: The Japanese American Evacuation and Relocation in World War II, (New York, 1995), 135.
11. “Resettlement Administration (RA) 1935,” accessed January 18, 2020, https://liv- ingnewdeal.org/glossary/resettlement- administration-ra-1935/.
12. “Russell Lee: The Farm Security Administration,” accessed January 18, 2020, https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Rus- sell%20Lee/#The_Farm_Security_ Administration.
13. Farm Security Administration, official memo, April 16, 1942.
14. The Tolan Committee, led by California congressman John Tolan, began hearings on February 22, 1942, three days after Executive Order 9066 was signed. An important role of the Tolan Committee at the time was its emphasis on protecting evacuee property and elevating this concern in the minds of the public. Page Smith, Democracy on Trial: The Japanese American Evacuation and Relocation in World War II, (New York, 1995), 133, 142.
15. Page Smith, Democracy on Trial: The Japanese American Evacuation and Relocation in World War II, (New York, 1995), 135.
16. On March 18, 1942, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco issued Special Regulation №1 which allowed for the “freezing” of Japanese American property. In situations where evacuees felt threatened by predatory creditors or unsatisfactory provisions, the bank’s representatives were allowed to take over the property for the purpose of negotiating fair terms. Page Smith, Democracy on Trial, 140–141.
17. “1940 Census Publications,” accessed January 22, 2020, http://agcensus.mann- lib.cornell.edu/AgCensus/censusParts. do?year=1940. See also Census Publications from 1930, 1935, 1945, 1950.
18. E.L. Stanley, “Agriculture’s War Plans Have Been Under Way for Year,” Sacramento Bee, March 28, 1942.
19. See Figure 2.
20. Okamura, “Japanese Americans,” 174.