Nakagawa Ranch: An Unwavering Spirit of Resilience

BY Madison Goss

Yokichi Nakagawa immigrated to the United States from Hiroshima, Japan, in 1904 in pursuit of the American dream. He sought to acquire his own land and live out his days farming with his family.

“My grandfather had a strong interest in farming, specifically in vineyard management, and he was determined to make a living doing that in America,” Glenn Nakagawa, Yokichi’s grandson, explained.

Unfortunately, American land policies at the time prevented Asian immigrants from owning land, but this did not deter Yokichi. For 37 long years, he held on to his aspirations while starting a family and establishing himself as a prominent figure amongst the Japanese American community.

On December 5, 1941, his dream was realized when his United States-born son, Percy Nakagawa, was able to sign the deed on a 425-acre ranch in Acampo, California. But sadly, this realization was short-lived, at least temporarily.

Just two days after signing the deed, the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor took place, and the subsequent events that occured postponed the family’s chance to establish themselves on the land. This represented a dark time in American history.

Within five months of the attack, and following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order authorizing the relocation of many Japanese Americans, the family was tragically forced to leave their ranch behind and enter an internment camp. While most families that were relocated lost everything, forced to leave behind whatever they could not carry, the Nakagawas were fortunate enough to entrust their land to a friend until they could return.

Nakagawa family photo circa 1953, taken just before the tragic loss of the family patriarchs, Yokichi and Percy.

After four grueling years, the family was finally allowed to return to Acampo in 1946 and start piecing their lives back together. Unfortunately, the land they had left behind was no longer the haven it once was – most of the property had gone unmanaged during their time away. The Nakagawa family banded together to restore the ranch back to its original glory and get their business off the ground by planting Tokay grapes and a variety of squash.

For a few years, things went well. They reestablished themselves on the land and within their community. But in 1953, their serenity was cut short when both Yokichi and Percy passed away on a fishing trip. The family had to, once again, pick up the pieces and find a way to trudge on, together, after the loss of two generations of patriarchs.

Yokichi’s daughter, Miyoko, stepped up to take over the operations, and she did so successfully for 52 years. Under her leadership, the family and businesses continued to grow.

Today, the Nakagawa family legacy lives on through Glenn and his wife, Keiko. Together, they have managed the ranch since the early 2000s. Though the family dream is still the same, some of the operations have shifted. The fields that were once squash and grapes are now oat and alfalfa hay. The family has also prioritized conservation efforts to ensure that the family’s legacy will live on through the land. 

In 2007, they established the Nakagawa Preserve through a conservation easement on 280 acres of their Acampo ranch to protect the property from potential future development. Keiko explained, “Farm and ranch land is disappearing right in front of our eyes; [the easement] was just the right thing to do.”

With the funds received from the sale of the easement, the family needed to figure out how to invest the money back into their business. If not utilized properly, they would lose money.

Keiko and Glenn Nakagawa with their American Wagyu cattle.

For years, Glenn commuted to the Acampo ranch passing by acres of open space and grazing ground along the way. One day, he noticed that a 380-acre cattle ranch in Valley Springs, California, was up for sale, and he just knew that is where the money should go.

After careful consideration, the Nakagawas decided to purchase the property— executing a 1031 exchange, which allowed them to swap one real estate investment for the other to defer paying capital gains tax and reinvest their money into other projects.

With the new property being comprised of mostly grassland and oak woodlands, the family saw the opportunity to break into a new enterprise, cattle ranching.

It was only after a chance encounter with a Wagyu beef producer that Glenn and Keiko decided to pay homage to their heritage by raising their own herd of this unique Japanese-born breed. For over ten years, the Nakagawas have successfully raised high-quality American Wagyu cattle and sold their beef and cattle all over the state and across the country by marketing their product primarily by word of mouth and through their website.

Glenn proudly shared, “It is a business built on a good product and an honest sale!”

According to a recent study done by the American Farmland Trust, California is on track to lose approximately 797,000 acres of agricultural land by 2040. Due to the region’s proximity to the Stockton and Bay Areas, Glenn and Keiko started to feel development pressure as much of the open land around them was being sold off and sub-divided. Wanting to take action, they decided to conserve their Valley Springs ranch, just as they did with their Acampo ranch, and approached the California Rangeland Trust to hold the conservation easement.

Together, the Nakagawas and the Rangeland Trust, with funding from the California Strategic Growth Council’s Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation (SALC) Program in collaboration with the Department of Conservation and the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS), were able to conserve the Valley Springs ranch in its entirety in August of 2023, ensuring that the land will remain a working ranch.

“It is not about the money for us; it is more important than that,” Keiko affirmed. “Before we disappear, we want to honor who came before us and ensure there is still something for those after us.”

In the face of war, internment, and personal tragedy, the Nakagawa family has persevered. Their ranch, remaining as one of the last Japanese American-owned agricultural enterprises in the United States, stands as a symbol of their unwavering resilience. And though Yokichi has passed on, his indomitable spirit will continue to live through the land and his family’s hearts forever.

The Nakagawa Ranch is comprised of over 380 acres of grassland and oak woodlands with Youngs Creek flowing through the property.