Farmer-philosopher invites readers into his orchard

There are ghosts on the farm.

You wouldn’t notice them on a summer morning, under the white heat of the Central Valley sun.

But David Mas Masumoto can read the scars they’ve left—old pruning wounds carved like graffiti on the twisted trunks of the peach trees and grapevines by the countless hands that have shaped them.

“I work with the ghosts of farmworkers. They haunt me, mostly in winter, when the tule fog hugs the earth for days,” Masumoto writes in Letters to the Valley, his latest tribute to the land where so much of the nation’s food is grown.

The book, being published in September, is the sixth on farming by Masumoto, a farmer-philosopher who has spent a lifetime thinking about his 32ha of peaches and grapes, and their place in the world.

His first book about farming, Epitaph for a Peach, won the 1995 Julia Child Cookbook Award, among other honours, and earned him a loyal audience of people hungry for a deeper connection to the land, and to an agrarian way of life that is rapidly disappearing.

Wandering along the dirt rows in his orchard, Masumoto explains in an interview that he if he can write at all, it is because of his own connection to this farm—land that didn’t come easy to the Masumoto family.

His Japanese grandparents worked other people’s land, forbidden from buying property by racist laws. During World War II, the family lost their crops when they were driven into internment camps.
The letters in his latest book are dedicated in large part to them—his grandparents, to the neighbours he grew up with, to his own children, and the children of other farming families who have moved off the land.

It’s through them that he learned to write, he said, his rough hands examining an 80-year-old Thompson grapevine that grows in front of his family’s home.

“When does an old limb have to go, to make room for new growth to come?” he asks, thinking about productivity, but also his own mortality as his father grows older and his own hair turns gray.

In Letters, Masumoto takes readers pruning in the dead of winter, when the thick valley fog makes the world small, and quiet.

People who have never called a peach by its specific name are introduced to Elberta and Nubiana in his barn, where a tin can spills out stamps bearing the names of these and other old varieties.

No one grows these anymore, he writes; they were just really good peaches, not the lipstick-red, rock-hard commodities able to withstand weeks of cold storage on the road to supermarkets.

“My greatest fear,” he writes, “is that there is a generation with no hunger for memory, that whatever they find in a typical grocery store is good enough. Who’s going to demand a peach that they’ve never had?”

These observations have earned Masumoto the respect of others who were raised according to the rhythm of the harvests.

“They can relate to the place, they recognise it, themselves, their family,” said Lee Herrick, an English professor at Fresno City College whose students often come from small rural towns.

To many outsiders, the Valley is simply an inconveniently large gap between Los Angeles and San Francisco, with bad air, bad radio and few places to stop for decent coffee. What Masumoto does best is “to recognise the beauty that’s in front of you, and write about it in a way that other people can understand,” said Jefferson Beavers, an aspiring writer in Fresno.

If Masumoto’s writing is sometimes reflective, like taking a break on the porch at the end of a long day, it also picks up with a farmer’s sense of urgency—because the rainclouds are coming, and the raisins are still out to dry, because it’s hard to find consumers for fruit that’s come in too small—and mainly, because a farmer wants to continue farming, and that gets harder every day.

“During harvest, when the peach is ripe, it dictates everything,” said Paul Buxman, a farmer who’s known Masumoto since 1986.

“It’s unrelenting. It doesn’t allow for excuses. It won’t hold on for you, and he knows that.”

Masumoto’s books reach for truths that transcend the orchard—the honesty of a really good peach that doesn’t promise more with its looks than it will deliver on that first bite; the value of a 38-year-old tree that doesn’t produce as much anymore, but bears the best-tasting fruit.

“Mas has a way of telling a story that reminds us of what’s really lasting,” said Alice Waters, chef and owner of Chez Panisse, in Berkeley. - Sapa-AP

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