A Growing Legacy: Kitazawa Seed Company
Maya Shiroyama never suspected that something so tiny could make such a powerful impact on strangers half a continent away.
“So happy, so happy!” her Japanese customer exclaimed, in broken English, having just received a shipment of small seeds from Shiroyama’s company, the Oakland-based Kitazawa Seed Co.
Like many others living in distant parts of the United States where access to Japanese foods is limited, this customer—an immigrant living in the Midwest—had been searching for seeds to grow Asian vegetables and was delighted to finally find them.
Started in 1917 by Gijiu Kitazawa, an Issei pioneer, Kitazawa Seed Co. has occupied a unique niche in the seed business for over eight decades, offering one of the most comprehensive selections of Asian vegetable seeds of any company in the nation. In recent years, the company was run by Helen Komatsu, Kitazawa’s youngest daughter, until her retirement.
When Shiroyama and her husband, Jim Ryugo, took over ownership of the company in 2000, she knew she was continuing a meaningful agricultural legacy of not only the Kitazawa family, but her own family as well. As a child, Shiroyama had planted Kitazawa seeds with her grandparents and parents—all experienced farmers.
“I always used to buy seeds from Kitazawa, and I knew Helen Komatsu,” she says. “When she said she was selling the company, I just couldn’t imagine not having it around. I thought it had lots of potential, and would be a fun and really interesting business.”
Like a good seed itself, the company has grown rapidly under Shiroyama’s care. A mass-mailing to the customer database produced a tidal wave of responses, initially catching Shiroyama completely by surprise.
“We didn’t think anybody would order!” she says, looking back with a laugh. “Instead, we had people working late every night to fill all the requests. The busy time of year is the spring. January 1 opens the floodgates, and it continues until June. I don’t think there’s a state in the country that I haven’t sent orders to.”
She notes that Kitazawa’s clientele is extremely diverse; the majority of customers are non-Asian.
“There’s a strong interest in Asian cuisine and a diversity of Asian ethnicity here on the West Coast. Many Japanese vegetables here are available at the supermarket and we tend to take it for granted. But that’s not the case everywhere,” she explains. “One woman from the Midwest had read a lot about kabocha (winter squash) and had clipped articles about it, but didn’t know where to get it. She was very excited to find that we carry the seeds for it. It’s great feeling to know that we can do that for somebody.”
“I’m really proud of what we’ve done and where seeds are going,” Shiroyama says. “I feel like we’re really touching people. The joy is the contact with home gardeners who discover Asian vegetables.”