IRVINE, Calif. – For decades, Tanaka Farms has relied on the public to help pick the fields of fruits and veggies it grows in Irvine. But when the pandemic hit during strawberry season, the farm had to go with an alternative plan and hired help. But months into the pandemic and some things being allowed to reopen, the farm has welcomed back families to pick their own produce.
Introducing families to farming is what has kept the Tanaka Family in business in the Irvine area since the late 1970s. Kenny Tanaka, or “Farmer Kenny” as he goes by on the farm, says they’ve been growing 30 acres of fruits, veggies, and more at their current location since 1998.
“We have people that come through as preschoolers, and now they’re parents bringing their kids, so it’s a great tradition to be a part of that," he said.
As the farm was getting ready for its annual strawberry tours, the pandemic hit. “We actually had to hire a couple more people to help pick the strawberries because we normally don’t have to pick it," Tanaka said. "We rely on the public to come out and pick their own strawberries.”
The unpicked strawberries would have gone to waste, but the farm pivoted and started a drive-thru produce stand. Customers can pre-order and pick up, or customers can drive thru and pick what they want from their cars. An employee will places their picks in a box and put it in the customer’s trunk.
For those who prefer to pick their own produce, Tanaka Farms has started up their U-Pick Activities again. Families have been welcomed back to pick the seasonal fruit and veggies available, but there have been a few changes.
"You need to wear a mask at all times here,” Tanaka added. Kids 2-years-old and under are not required to wear masks, per CDC guidelines.
Additional pandemic-related changes include: online reservations are required, walk-ups are no longer allowed, and temperatures will be taken on site. Wagon tour rides have also been limited. Now wagons will carry about 16 passengers, down from 65-70.
One of the biggest changes is no more sampling in the field. Tanaka said that’s one thing he’ll miss. He said his favorite part of the strawberry tours was seeing the kids clothes full of strawberry stains. Also new, families/parties will be assigned to their own row to pick from.
Rhiannon Ko visited Tanaka Farms with her family in early July, and said it was the first outing they’ve had since the stay-at-home orders were put in place. She admitted Tanaka Farms was also the last place the family visited before the pandemic started. She said with all the new safety measure in place, “It makes me feel so comfortable taking my kids here.”
The farm's U-Pick Activities are updated daily on their website. The price of each tour includes three fruits or veggies, and either coupons to the drive-thru produce stand or a free reusable bag. The current tours are offering watermelon, including Tanaka Farms' famed yellow watermelon.
Tanaka is just happy to be able to invite the community back to the farm. “We like to say we’re everybody’s family member who has a farm," he said.