Most early Japanese immigrants to the Pacific Northwest came to work in the labor-intensive industries of timber, railroad construction, fish processing, and agriculture. As they became more settled they started their own farms and eventually became prolific producers.
By the 1920s, Japanese farmers supplied a remarkable 75 percent of Seattle and King County's vegetables and half the milk supply. At this time, more than 1,000 Japanese cultivated 25,000 acres in the state, double the land farmed by Japanese in 1910.
Near Seattle, Japanese truck farmers were centered in Bellevue, east of Lake Washington, and the White River and Puyallup valleys. The first Japanese settled in the White River Valley in 1893 and in Bellevue in 1898. Others farmed land near Green Lake, north of downtown Seattle, and on Vashon and Bainbridge islands in Puget Sound.
Many Japanese got their start as seasonal laborers working on area farms for a dollar a day in the summer and 80 cents a day in winter. The winter work typically involved clearing land of marshes and huge tree stumps, which were removed by dynamiting and extracting the roots with large hooks pulled by horses. American landowners benefited greatly from the conversion to productive farmland at a minimal cost, and some rewarded Japanese workers with reduced rents, enabling them to start farms.
Life on the farm was primitive at first. Few farms had electricity or running water, and workdays were long and exhausting. Seeding, thinning, transplanting, weeding, dusting, and spraying were all done by hand. Typically the whole family pitched in to accomplish the farm work, with the woman and children picking vegetables and fruit and the man doing the heavy field work.
The family farms were small, averaging five to 15 acres, but successful because of the farmers' advanced knowledge of fertilization, irrigation, and cultivation.
More than half of all Japanese farms in Washington state were located in the White River Valley. The Valley's loamy sandy soil was ideal for growing berries and other crops such as lettuce, beans, cauliflower, peas, cabbage, celery, carrots, and radishes. Greenhouses also sprang up in the Valley and in north Seattle. Japanese truck farmers sold their produce at the Pike Place Market beginning in 1912, five years after the market was founded. By the start of World War I, they occupied 70 percent of market stalls.
In Bellevue, the Japanese cleared and settled hundreds of acres of land near the center of what is now downtown Bellevue. Where shopping malls and office buildings stand today, immigrants grew strawberries and vegetables and worked at a local sawmill.
Alien Land Law
Perhaps in response to the success of Japanese farmers, Washington state legislators passed the Alien Land Law in 1921, restricting property ownership. Washington's 1889 constitution, in fact, banned the sale of land to "aliens ineligible in citizenship" (only Asians were ineligible to become naturalized U.S. citizens); the new law extended the restrictions to cover leasing or renting land and renewing old leases.
Issei (first generation) farmers got around the law by making arrangements with white farmers, who would technically own the land and employ the Japanese as "managers." Issei also bought land in the names of their children, who were American citizens by virtue of being born in the U.S., or other older Nisei, but that loophole was closed by a 1923 amendment to the land law.
The wartime incarceration of Japanese on the West Coast decimated local Japanese truck farms. Many were forced to sell their land and equipment for a fraction of their worth. Few Japanese farmers returned to their former profession after the war.