Keeping traditions – and starting new ones – at Otow Orchard

Farm donates cream of its crop to food bank
By: Laura O’Brien Gold Country News Service Correspondent
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The slanting sun of late fall means it’s time for hoshigaki at Otow Orchard in Granite Bay. The Japanese delicacy begins as a persimmon that farmers transform into a sweet and supple dried treat.

Sales from the seasonal product and the farm’s other produce, including chocolate (maru), vodka, and apple (fuyu) persimmons, late Asian pears, and satsuma mandarins, allow Otow’s year-round donations to the Placer County Food Bank.

“We’ve got this vision that our main focus should be to grow for the food bank,” said farm operator Tosh Kuratomi. “We’re trying to figure out how to connect with the resources to make it happen.”

Placer County Food Bank CEO Dave Martinez said Otow Orchard has been supplying the food bank for many years. While other producers donate their seconds, Otow Orchard gives its best product to the food bank.

“The produce that (Kuratomi) gives us, because it is his first 10 percent, typically has a better shelf life. It is a much higher end product,” Martinez said. “He’s really set the bar at giving.”

Kuratomi said his inspiration for donating produce came from Bayside Church’s annual Serve Day, when church members help in the community.

“If we were doctors or dentists we probably could donate our services,” he said. “We do grow food.”

Martinez said California food banks increasingly are looking to farms to make up for a drop in non-perishable donations.

“The relationship with Otow Orchard is really the beginning of what we foresee the future in food banking to look like,” he said. “It will be working with local farmers or farmers throughout California and moving produce.”

Staying on the map

Kuratomi and his wife Chris Otow Kuratomi began operating the farm in 1997 after retiring from state work, for him as a teacher and for Chris as a speech pathologist. Chris’s mother, Helen Otow, 96, works at the farm stand daily. Her father Kitchitaro Kawano emigrated from Japan and purchased the farm, originally named Rosedale, in 1911. He planted grapes, persimmons, pears, peaches, and later plums.

“I was born here and raised here,” Helen said, as she hung peeled persimmons, the first step in the creation of hoshigaki. At one time Rosedale Farm expanded to 70 acres. After her father died, Helen inherited 25 acres bordering the intersection of Barton and Eureka roads. She married Seiichi Otow. Today, colorful hand-painted signs greet visitors to Otow Orchard.

The peeled and hung persimmons begin oxidizing within a day and softening within a week. Wrinkles form and the fruit turns white with natural sugar during a four to six-week drying process when workers hand-massage the fruit. Shortcuts in the process toughen the result.

“Even though it’s an old tradition, this is what’s keeping us on the map,” Kuratomi said. Several other farms in the area produce hoshigaki, but the process at Otow Orchard sets its version apart.

“If we continue to make it with care we’ll probably always have a market,” he said. “We do tend to have a more moist product than tradition.”

He added that hoshigaki should be eaten quickly or stored in the freezer to retain quality. The first batches will be ready around Thanksgiving. The farm ships produce across the United States.

Envisioning the future

Otow Orchard does not sell produce at farmers markets because of other farms that need that outlet, Kuratomi said. He buys produce from other farmers then donates their food to the food bank.

“With an operation like this, more money goes out than comes in,” he said. “If our goal is to keep the farm active or keep it in the family, then it’s worth it.”

Last month, at an open house for the Placer County Farm and Barn Tour, Otow Orchard hosted Placer Food Bank, Placer Land Trust, 4-H and the Girl Scouts. Kuratomi has invited a bee keeper and wood splitter, among others, to use acreage at the farm.

“We’re trying to generate some kind of community attachment to the farm,” he said. “We hope in the long run that it’s more about community than just making a living or being successful as farmers.”