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Iwasaki Bros. celebrates 100 Years of growing great things

Iwasaki Brothers Inc., has produced flowers and vegetables in south Hillsboro for four generations

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - Theresa Iwaskai, left, Jim Iwasaki, and Julie Iwasaki-Tenorio are the third and fourth generation to run the 100 year old Iwasaki Brothers company in Hillsboro.When Yasukichi and Ito Iwasaki first purchased their 50-acre dairy farm in south Hillsboro a century ago, The U.S. was still a year away from entering World War I, Woodrow Wilson was running for his second term and Hillsboro was a very different place.

The area around the farm was void of the residential neighborhoods and protected wetlands that surround it now. But it was there, at 2555 S.E. Minter Bridge Road, that the Iwasakis established what would eventually become Iwasaki Bros. Inc., the Pacific Northwest’s largest wholesale grower of bedding plants, which is still going strong a century later.

“There are companies much larger than us that have gone away,” said Jim Iwasaki, the company’s manager and the third generation of the Iwasaki family to run the business. “I can think of a half-dozen nurseries that were convenient to the market, but then urban development overtook them. Part of that is location. Part of that is having another generation come behind you ... (and) part of our success is just luck.”

But it wasn’t any of those things that helped the company survive two world wars — one of which forced the family to temporarily relocate an internment camp — plus the Great Depression, Great Recession and all the racial injustices and socioeconomic challenges that befell Japanese families in the U.S. throughout the 20th century.

It was a committed, tight-knit family that kept the business alive.

“There’s an element of tenacity that my grandfather and my father’s generation maintained,” Jim said. “We owe our parents and our grandparents, who took a high risk in coming (to the U.S.). Without them, we wouldn’t be here today.”

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - A peek into one of the many greenhouses at the Iwasaki Brothers 100-year-old bedding plant nursery and wholesale growing facility on Minter Bridge Road. Breaking with old traditions

Jim’s grandfather, Yasukichi Iwasaki, abandoned his heritage when he left Japan in 1899.

Traditionally, Jim said, the eldest son in Japanese families carries the family name and business forward. But Yasukichi worked in Canada and Montana, eventually settling in Oregon, where he leased his first dairy farm in Farmington in 1915.

He moved the farm to the Minter Bridge location a year later.

In 1924, the dairy farm transitioned into a vegetable farm. The family expanded operations to Banks to raise strawberries as well — all the while still expanding their family at home.

Over time, Yasukichi and Ito welcomed sons Ike, Arthur and George, as well as daughters Kate, Taka, Aya, Dorothy and Rose.

And just when their growing business was beginning to show signs of success, World War II interrupted everything.

Ike and Arthur were called to serve in the Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an infantry regiment made up primarily by Americans of Japanese ancestry, while the rest of the family harvested sugar beets at a Farm Security Administration agricultural internment facility in southern Oregon.

When the family returned to Hillsboro after the war, the business expanded to land near Jackson Quarry, Banks, Sauvie Island and Twin Oaks in south Hillsboro, adding bedding plants to the strawberry and loganberry crops.

“(Yasukichi) was in his late 80s, and I can remember we had strawberries,” said Jim. “He was hoeing strawberries and the temperature was around 101 degrees ... It was only the two of us hoeing 6 acres of strawberries. I came over the hill after I had sent him home, and there he was hoeing on my row, coming toward me, in his 80s.

“The only way he would quit is if I quit. He had a really strong work ethic.”

Yasukichi died in 1968 at the age of 92.

Forging new paths

With roughly 150 full-time, year-round employees and another 100 seasonal workers throughout the year, the company is currently doing better than ever, Jim said, selling plants across the West Coast and Alaska.

Jim credits the company’s success to his dedicated team of growers.

“It’s the people that are working here who make a difference,” he said. “They’re part of the fabric — the foundation of the company.”

Jim didn’t always want to take over the family business. Working on the farm as a child, he grew up thinking, “I don’t want to do this,” he said. “That was far from anything that I saw myself doing.”

It wasn’t until 1984, after 15 years of work at Freightliner and with a travel agency, that Jim joined Iwasaki Bros. as the sales manager. He eventually took over the company’s operation from his father, George, who died in 2009.

In Jim’s first year, the company’s accountant gave him a challenge: to increase revenue to $2 million in sales. The company had been hovering around $1 million in annual sales.

“When we got it to $2 million in one month (roughly 21 years later in 2005), I thought, ‘OK. We’ve arrived,’” he said.

Jim celebrated by changing the company’s longstanding logo, a simply-drawn potted plant, to the family’s name written in Japanese script, or kanji.

“I explained my basis for that: We’re not the company that we once were,” he said.

For its centennial anniversary this year, Jim once again switched the logo, this time to the Iwasaki family crest: a gold cucumber flower on red backing.

“In Japan, in feudal times, the samurai would have their crest — tantamount to the state crest,” Jim said. “To me, it’s stronger than the kanji.”

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - Iwasaki Brothers started life as a dairy farm in 1916 at its Hillsboro location before transitioning to its current operation growing plants and flowers.

Continuing with old traditions

Now, both of Jim’s daughters have joined the company.

Theresa Iwasaki has assumed Jim’s old position as sales manager while her sister, Julie Iwasaki-Tenorio, has taken over as manager of Human Resources.

Like their father, neither had ever planned on taking over the family business.

“Dad didn’t put a lot of pressure on me and my sister (to join the company),” Theresa said.

“It was important to me that the girls had a life before here,” Jim added.

Julie graduated from Portland Community College as a veterinary technician, while Theresa graduated from Marylhurst University with a bachelors of arts degree.

“We had very different backgrounds when we joined the farm,” Theresa said. “When I first started, with an art degree background, I didn’t know much about flowers. But Dad gave me a stack of (books), and I had to learn annuals and perennials within eight weeks before I started.”

“It wasn’t a silver spoon for me, and it hasn’t been for the girls, either,” Jim said.

“Dad keeps joking he’s going to change the business from Iwasaki Brothers to Iwasaki Sisters,” Theresa said.

Julie said she sees her family’s company lasting another 100 years.

“Going through pictures for the centennial ... and seeing the changes within the pictures, realizing so much has happened on one property, is amazing to me,” Julie said.

“And wishing grandpa was here to see it all,” Theresa added. “A lot has happened since grandpa’s passing.”

Recalling a trip to Japan with his father in 1999, Jim said he noticed a man working in a rice paddy as their train moved along the country’s western coast, near Kyoto.

“I saw that and said, ‘Hey, pop, look at that. Look at that guy,’” Jim said. “My father said to me, ‘Do you know him?’ I said, ‘No ... but if it wasn’t for your father, that could be you or me in that field, stretching and watching the train go by.’ And it connected. He looked at me and said, ‘You’re right.’”

By Travis Loose
Reporter, Hillsboro Tribune
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