GABEL | Remembering a pair of Colorado agriculture icons | Opinion

Rachel Gabel

Bob Sakata is a legend in the agriculture industry in Colorado. He passed away on June 7 at the age of 96.

His family farmed in California but when the attack on Pearl Harbor precipitated the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans, the Sakatas were sent to a camp in Topaz, Utah.

It was agriculture that allowed Sakata to earn an early release from the camp and that led him to a Brighton dairy farm owned by Bill Schluter. In 1944, Schluter loaned Sakata $6,000 to purchase 40 acres of nearby farmland. That purchase allowed the rest of his family — his father and three older siblings — to relocate to Colorado. Sakata wasn’t familiar with Colorado, but he did know that former Gov. Ralph Carr was the nation’s only governor to defend the constitutional rights of Japanese Americans and welcome them to Colorado. In his book, The Principled Politician, Adam Schrager said Carr was no stranger to negative press and impeachment threats. Carr was considered a potential presidential candidate despite the anti Japanese sentiment at the time, though, and Carr’s willingness to stand against popular opinion

Sakata and a farmer’s daughter named Joanna Tokunaga wed and grew a life and a business together. Sakata Farms began as 40 acres and grew to several thousand. The Sakata name and sweet corn was, and still is for people who know what’s good, synonymous with the Sakata name. They grew several types of produce, but they changed the sweet corn industry in the 1980s with superior seed quality and distinctive, smart packaging. In 2015, Sakata Farms owned and farmed 3,200 acres of produce in Weld and Adams Counties and harvested 25 million ears of sweet corn.

Sakata’s father, Mantaro, born in 1884, farmed two-and-a-half acres of fruit trees in Japan and became an expert at grafting branches onto fruit trees. Sakata once told The Fence Post Magazine that his father grafted a branch from a dying plum tree onto a walnut tree, so the grafted branch produced plums and the remainder of the tree, walnuts. Mantaro eventually came to California at the request of an American farmer who wanted his expertise on rice production. It was agriculture at the family’s foundation, agriculture that took them out of hell and agriculture that they built the rest of their lives upon.

Sakata was the subject of a children’s book that he only agreed to when he discovered that it was about overcoming obstacles and finding success, something he often said he believed wholeheartedly.

The agriculture industry is also mourning the passing of Baxter Black, who passed away on June 10 at the age of 77. A cowboy poet and former large animal veterinarian, Black had extensive ties to Colorado. His father was the Dean of Agriculture at New Mexico State University but died unexpectedly at just 40 when Black was 14. He studied agriculture at NMSU and made his way to the well respected school of veterinary medicine at Colorado State University.

To support himself in vet school, Black brewed and sold coffee to classmates, took the smocks the students used during practical work to be laundered, played in a band, created custom leather work and gave haircuts.

Dr. Woody Smith, who graduated a year behind Black in 1970, said the haircuts weren’t all that great, but the stories certainly were.

In 1976, Black was invited to speak about his work as a large animal veterinarian on a large feedlot in Idaho. The group was the Denver Red Meat Club, which still hosts annual meetings just before the National Western Stock Show begins. It’s an exclusive group and the night he spoke to the group was the night Chuck Sylvester said Black’s career began. Sylvester was the longtime general manager of the NWSS and he and Black became friends that night. Harry Green also noticed Black’s storytelling talent and worked long and hard to convince Black to pen a column for his magazine, The Record Stockman. He finally agreed and the column, On the Edge of Common Sense, was eventually syndicated and appeared in more than 100 publications. Green’s company also published the first five of Black’s more than 30 books.

Coincidentally, Green’s father, HE put the first radio station, 560 KLZ, in Colorado on the air and used to ride the train to Denver each day, pick up the market reports, and ride the train back to his office to bring the reports to the farmers and ranchers who depended upon the information.

Cecil Hellbusch, who was known as Mr. Safeway, was one of the Red Meat Club members who invited Black to speak. Hellbusch was the livestock and agriculture public relations director for the grocery chain. I can’t help but think Hellbusch was responsible for securing Black’s appearance in a number of Safeway ads that you might recall if you watched Denver television when Family Ties was airing.

Black’s talent also led him to appear on the Johnny Carson Show, where in one of the most notable appearances, he recited The Vegetarian’s Nightmare: A Dissertation on Plant’s Rights. Lee Pitts, whose syndicated column “It’s the Pitts,” began about the same time as Black’s, said he hosted Black when he came to California for appearances on Carson’s show. He said the appearances were excellent, but the banter between Carson and Black off the air was legendary.

Of all of the things I’ve ever been told about Baxter Black, two things stand out. The first, is that his talent ran so deep that he never resorted to using foul language. Second, he never forgot who his audience was and reached them on the farms and ranches where they lived and worked.

I had the opportunity to meet Black several times and I have a stack of books he signed for me. A lefty, he signed upside down and backward, in part not to smear the ink and in part, I believe, because he could. I learned to write and tell a good story by reading Black’s columns and books and I’m grateful to his family for sharing him with us.

Only an industry as incredible as agriculture could produce men like Bob Sakata and Baxter Black and I’m grateful to have the chance to tell the stories.

Rachel Gabel writes about agriculture and rural issues. She is assistant editor of The Fence Post Magazine, the region’s preeminent agriculture publication. Gabel is a daughter of the state’s oil and gas industry and a member of one of the state’s 12,000 cattle-raising families, and she has authored children’s books used in hundreds of classrooms to teach students about agriculture.


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