“When you put houses on the land, it’s a one-time harvest…”

We’re proud to introduce CFT landowner, Jean Okuye. Jean’s path to living a life dedicated to agriculture is unconventional compared to most. A Santa Barbara native, Jean married into a Japanese farming family and moved to Merced County in the 1980s, following a sudden death in the family. The Okuye family agreed they did not want to see the farm dissolve, so Jean and her husband shifted directions to pursue farming 300 miles away. Uprooting her life was just the start of Jean’s lifelong commitment to environmental policy and land protection advocacy. Following her husband’s passing, Jean took it upon herself to continue Okuye Farm, an over 100-year operation. She even went a step further by permanently protecting it under an agricultural conservation easement (ACE). In 2007, the family protected 79 acres of almonds with California Farmland Trust, forever preserving the farm’s rich history. Learn more about Jean below;

Meet CFT Landowner, Jean Okuye

Q: Tell us about your agriculture background.

I moved here in 1980. A family member of my husband’s died suddenly, so we decided to move and carry on the farm. I was a piano teacher in my hometown in Santa Barbara, and I’d never been on a tractor before. I took a class from Maxwell Norton on vineyard and orchard management to try to understand what the trees needed. I thought “If I’m going to be doing this, I better know what I’m doing.” My husband died in 2001 and I farmed alone until my daughter and her family came over from Europe in 2005.

Q: How did you become involved with easements?

Before the formal establishment of California Farmland Trust, we had four county land trusts. I became involved with a committee within the Merced County Farmlands and Open Space Trust (MCFOST), so I was exposed there and then went to different meetings on land trusts in Fresno and Sacramento, where I became a little more aware of the problem. But before that, because my husband had Parkinson’s, I did a lot of farming myself. I noticed the push for development. I went to a lot of seminars and read books about development, saving our natural resources, and protecting our land.

Q: Why did you consider putting an easement on your property?

I think I was becoming more aware by seeing what was happening with my own eyes, and then realized the importance of protecting our land and our resources.

Q: What advice would you give someone who is not aware of the importance of protecting farmland?

If we’re all part of the problem, we all need to be part of the solution, and the first thing is education. We need to be educated, and putting an easement on a property is the only way to permanently protect it. Not even the Williamson Act can do that. If you’re a farmer, you need to be involved and get out of your bubble. We have to get out of our bubbles and see what is happening around us, listen to each other, and sit down at the table together.

Q: It’s rare to see female farmers, especially ones that were not raised in agriculture. Talk a little bit about what it means to you to be a part of this group.

I happened to be really involved on the farm because my husband had Parkison’s, and he was more a musician than a farmer. I really got into farming. I liked being outdoors, and I wanted to see the farm succeed. Now, there’s more support for woman farmers. We really have to look at diversity, and I think we’re going to see more of it. It’s very important for women to have the resources to know where to go.

Q: What does the future of the farm look like to you?

My family all want to keep the farm in the family. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we just have to do the best we can day by day. I’d like to see more land preserved. I’m hoping that with the statewide Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), we’ll be able to get a lot of easements on land and repurpose the ground. I’ve got a 14-year-old grandson and he’ll probably end up on the farm. I’ll be lucky because he will be the fifth generation.

We hope you enjoyed learning more about our landowners.

Each of our landowners have a unique reason for wanting to protect their farms, and their initiative to do so makes a huge impact for all. If you’re interested in learning more about some of our landowners and their stories, click here, for the story of Espinoza Farms, owned by Juan Carlos Espinoza and Rodrigo Espinoza.

Know that your contributions on Big Day of Giving go directly to making a impact, in helping landowners like Jean and her family protect farmland and generations of family farming. Make a donation today: https://www.bigdayofgiving.org/organization/cafarmtrust.