Photo by Will Bucquoy- Sonoma Valley grape grower, scientist and businessman emerged as respected leader on water issues.
The walls of Tito Sasaki’s office are lined with resolutions and proclamations from elected officials recognizing – and praising – his contributions to agriculture, particularly, his leadership in navigating complex water issues. The tributes to the longtime Farm Bureau director and former president are testament to Tito’s role as agriculture’s water warrior. Over the years, Tito has led efforts to develop a blueprint to find a balance for water use by farmers, fish and urban residents. He believes it’s a crucial move for agriculture’s survival.
“Way back, 30 years ago, while on the board of the Sonoma Ecology Center I realized that water was going to be the dominant issue of the time because of the emerging competing interests for water and the continued concerns over water quality,” said Tito, a Sonoma Valley grape grower, scientist and businessman known for bringing a reasoned, scientific perspective to water issues.
Now, Tito, who is 81 and battling cancer, is stepping aside and letting others carry the plan forward while he focuses on his health and the next chapter of his life with wife Janet at their vineyard in Sonoma. He has retired from the Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s board of directors, his role as president of the Farm Bureau Foundation of Sonoma County, and as the chairman of Farm Bureau’s Water Committee, which brought stakeholders and agencies together to study a way forward. It was Tito who urged Farm Bureau to form the Water Committee when he realized that farmers needed a strong voice to maintain their fair share of water in the wake of a growing urban population and environmental demands for fish and wildlife.
“It’s time for me to slow down,” said Tito. “The groundwater management plan requires more time and energy than I can effectively contribute at this time.”
Farm Bureau leaders say Tito’s many contributions to agriculture will be honored with his induction into the Sonoma County Farm Bureau Hall of Fame. The prestigious award recognizes individuals who have made a real and lasting difference in preserving and protecting Sonoma County’s agriculture industry and the county’s 500,000 acres of farmland.
“There are not many people who know and understand the issues in agriculture as well as Tito. During his years on the Farm Bureau board he devoted countless hours to the agricultural industry, going to meeting after meeting after meeting to represent the interests of our members,” said Jeff Carlton, president of Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
Carlton said Tito is widely respected by both Farm Bureau members and elected officials who value his intelligence and grasp of complex issues. Although he has retired from the Farm Bureau board Tito continues to be an ambassador for agriculture and Farm Bureau.
Tito will be honored at Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land celebration on July 11 at Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard in Windsor.
Those who have worked with Tito over the years say his keen intelligence, analytical skills and bulls-eye business acumen were put to good use in defining the issues and defending the rights and livelihoods of farmers and landowners.
“Tito always has a sixth sense when it comes to knowing what farmers need to focus on in Sonoma County. Not only does he pay attention, but I have never seen anyone who can fill a room with the very people who are needed to address the issue at hand especially when it comes to water,” said Doug McIlroy, director of winegrowing at Rodney Strong Vineyards who has worked closely with Tito on water issues.
Jay Jasperse, chief engineer and director of groundwater management for the Sonoma County Water Agency, has worked with Tito over the last 15 years on water issues, primarily, implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
“Tito was one of the first to recognize that agriculture needed to be at the table to represent its interests in a proactive manner on the development of management programsto ensure a stable water supply,” said Jasperse.
“Tito is one of the most impressive people that I have worked with in my career. His intellect, work ethic and his optimistic vision of the future, combined with his wry sense of humor, established him as a respected statewide leader on water matters.”
Jasperse said Tito’s efforts have greatly benefited Sonoma County agriculture and will be
realized well into the future.
For his part, Tito credits Farm Bureau directors and staff as well as the effective leadership of the Sonoma County board of supervisors and state and federal elected officials in making headway on the water issues that defined his time at Farm Bureau. Most significantly, said Tito, the Sonoma County Water Agency has been a great ally in supporting the Farm Bureau and Sonoma County agriculture.
“Without the work of the Sonoma County Water Agency it would be impossible to secure a dependable supply of irrigation water in the future,” said Tito, who over the years traveled thousands of miles in his olive-green Jeep to be the voice of common sense.
Tito and Janet Sasaki became involved with Farm Bureau soon after moving to their Sonoma Valley vineyard property in 1985, realizing the organization’s crucial role in representing farmers’ interests, protecting property rights and preserving agriculture for future generations.
While Tito ran his engineering businesses, Janet took over managing and reviving the run-down vineyard and pear orchard they ended up owning as part of a real estate deal for industrial property for Tito’s businesses. Janet took viticulture classes at SRJC and developed working relationships with viticulture professionals in the area. Today, the vineyard produces pinot noir that is purchased by Gloria Ferrer for sparkling wine.
Tito and Janet have one daughter, Heather Letzring of San Diego and two granddaughters, Erica, 20, and Amanda, 16.
Tito was born in Tokyo, Japan, the son of a lawyer. Following six years of high school at a seminary run by German Jesuits, he studied mechanical engineering at a national university
in Japan. He then earned a degree in industrial design at the Royal College of Art in London followed by an advanced degree in Ekistics from the Athens Technological Institute in Greece. He did post-graduate studies at the Institute of Traffic and Transportation Engineering at U.C. Berkeley and oceanography at the Scripps Institute at UC San Diego.
Tito worked as a designer for the London County Council Architects Department, as a senior researcher in economics and engineering at the Institut Battelle in Geneva, Switzerland, a planner for the City of San Diego, project engineer for the Marin County Transit District, chief of planning and research for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District and president of Visio International Inc., a San Francisco company that did construction management of bridges and buildings in the Midwest and Middle East.
In the 1980’s Tito followed his interest in mechanical engineering by acquiring a small company Quantum Mechanics Corp., specializing in ultra-high vacuum systems. He moved the company to Sonoma and built it into the industry leader in tritium handling for nuclear fusion. Later, foreseeing the changes in technology and market, Tito steered his business to missile guidance sensors and space telescope launching equipment.
Today Tito has phased out of his businesses and is spending more time at the vineyard while reflecting on his life, good fortune and issues like agriculture’s survival in the shadows of San Francisco, a huge urban region with millions of residents.
“Sonoma County so far has managed to preserve its rural values and character- at least in the unincorporated areas – thanks largely to the leadership of the County Board of Supervisors,” said Tito.
But he said urban pressure is growing. It will take time and effort to forge a peaceful coexistence.
“Only by working positively with others, Sonoma County agriculture can continue to be the solid foundation of the county’s economy and society,” said Tito. “This is where Farm Bureau can act effectively representing our present and future members.”