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David Mas Masumoto works a family farm, growing organic peaches, nectarines, and grapes. When Masumoto’s father has a stroke on the fields of their eighty-acre farm, Masumoto confronts life’s big questions: What do his and his father’s lives mean? What have they lived and worked for? “A fiercely tender book” (Deborah Madison), Wisdom of the Last Farmer “tells the most fascinating kind of story, reminding us that, at its best and most authentic, organic farming requires not only soul, but intimate knowledge of place, a deep grasp of subjects ranging from plant physiology to tractor repair, and unrelenting physical labor” (onEarth magazine). In the harvest of his father’s wisdom, and his own, gathered from a lifetime of farming and surviving, Mas finds the natural connections between generation and succession and life, death, and renewal. He tells how to tend and make things grow, and how to know when to let nature take over, weaving together stories of life and death to reveal age-old wisdom in what the The Oregonian called a “sweet taste of farming, family, loyalty, and dignity.” With insights full of beautiful, lyrical descriptions on how to nurture both the tangible and intangible, Masumoto’s quiet eloquence reveals how our own destinies are involved in the future of our food, the land, and the farm.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.75(d)|
About the Author
David Mas Masumoto is the award-winning author of Epitaph for a Peach and other books, popular columnist, spokesperson for organic farming, and a fellow at The Kellogg Foundation. A third-generation farmer, he grows certified organic peaches, nectarines, and grapes on his family’s eighty-acre California farm. He lives in Del Ray, California.
Read an Excerpt
I DRIVE TO OUR farmyard on a tractor, dragging a plow that broke when I hooked a vine. I had been working too fast, trying to keep pace with the warm spring days and early rains and the ensuing assault of weeds. My dad works behind the shed, wandering around his tractor.
It's February and our eighty-acre organic farm in California explodes with life. Peaches and nectarines are blooming, and grapevines are pushing out pale green buds with miniature bunches of grapes. In three months, if all goes well, we will gorge ourselves on the first peaches of the season. In six months, we can dry the bulbous grapes into raisins.
But the weeds are flourishing, too. Innocent-looking for a day or so, they keep growing, spreading thick over the landscape until, soon, a lush, tangled mass of fibers competes for water, nutrients, and sunlight, stunting the development of my crops, robbing fruits of the essentials they need to grow fat.
I am an organic farmer of peaches, nectarines, and grapes in Central Valley, California. Organic farming is not simple or easy, and the physical work breaks me. Everyone tells my father and me that it's too hard to farm organically and survive financially, to make money at it. It's easy to want to be environmentally responsible, but it's a damned hard thing to achieve. I cannot replace tedious labor with faster technology or equipment when things go wrong.
My father and I do most of the work ourselves. With our budget getting tighter and tighter every year, our farm demands more and more hard labor. It's exhausting. If we miss a few worms when they appear on leaves or on young fruit, a ruinous outbreak can ensue that we can't fix with a fast-killing chemical spray. An infestation is like catching a bad flu with no medicine readily available. I often whisper to myself, "This farm is going to kill me." So, this week, I have asked my seventy-six-year-old father to do some extra disking for me to help cultivate and plow under the weeds. For a moment, I believe I might catch up.
Dad shuffles around his tractor as the engine roars. He looks perplexed. At first I wonder if he's trying to listen for something wrong with the engine.
Dad is great at repairs. He had to be, since our family was poor. My grandparents emigrated from Japan a hundred years ago with dreams of owning a farm. Instead, they found racist alien land laws that prevented foreign-born "Orientals" from buying property. So they worked and waited, expecting that their American-born children would be able to purchase land and establish a farm, but World War II intervened and they were all relocated to internment camps, together with all Japanese Americans from the West Coast. Because they looked like the enemy, our family spent four years behind barbed wire in the Arizona desert. Afterward, with no other place to go, they wandered back to Fresno, California. In 1950, after more years of field work, Dad finally realized his own father's dream and was able to buy our farm.
Like most farms in the area, we started with grapes for drying into raisins, muscats for cheap wine, and stone fruits plums, peaches, and nectarines. Eventually we gravitated into mostly peaches and grapes because they worked well in our soil, and we loved to eat them, especially the rejects that grew too soft to sell.
Isolated and without capital, Dad quickly learned how to restore and repair old equipment, to tackle farmwork creatively and make the most of situations. Accept, adapt, adopt. That's how he and many Japanese Americans survived. I believe that's why he and I worked well together when I came back from college and started us at the bottom of the learning curve for organic farming. I wanted to grow crops without herbicides, fungicides, or pesticides. So, since I had inherited my father's passion for hard work and his love of heirloom fruits, we became partners. Dad allowed me to farm with alternative, unproven methods, and we made mistakes together, learned as a team how to farm differently. Dad taught me the power of recognizing problems, analyzing them, and identifying new ways to go about things.
We have finally begun to make headway in the fields and the market. Recently, we'd begun to be rewarded for our efforts by the increasing number of consumers of organic fruit who demand authentic flavors. The delicious tastes and aromas that Dad and I seek in our fruit cannot be mass-produced or manufactured. They come only from nature and authentic work. They stem from a joint effort between farmers and our living materials often more artful effort than applied science. In spite of our progress, however, we'd come to a point where the only way I knew how to meet our own and our customers' expectations was to work harder. But if we kept going as we were, we would soon reach a breaking point. Farming necessarily takes part in the cycles of life and death, but we organic farmers want to concentrate more on the former than the latter, on growing life-giving food with life-enhancing methods. We want to bring life to fruition, to be part of the creation and preservation of good things. We want to take joy in our work, not kill ourselves with it.
Yet organic farming continually challenges us: We have to weed by hand, and readjust our equipment to accommodate different scales of operation and procedures than those on automated industrial farms. We monitor our crops constantly in order to get rid of worms and insects before they proliferate and take over. Plant diseases molds, fungi, viruses demand that we experiment with simple but unreliable treatments. All our methods take vast amounts of time plus we have to anticipate the weather, react quickly to changes in temperature and wet and dry conditions, and always, always respond to nature, when she is predictable and when she is not. The rewards, though, are wonderful: we have saved from extinction distinctive heirloom peaches and nectarines whose nectar explodes on the palate, as well as grapes that make sweet, plump raisins.
Dad is a gentle, quiet father. I believe that he was happy when I took over the farm two decades ago, but he rarely expresses it. I sense that it pains him to see me work so hard. He knows too well the toll of all this physical exertion. He rarely complains; I only hear from Mom about his long, restless hours of back pain as his body ages.
I walk up and stand next to Dad by the tractor, and we lean together toward its thundering engine to listen. Then I look at his face. He is having a stroke: the right side of his face droops, his eyelid almost sealed shut, his eyes glazed. He looks lost and he doesn't recognize me.
As he begins to limp around the tractor, I hold on to him, trying to keep him from stumbling, falling. I don't know what to do, but think I should first shut off the engine and then get him inside the house. I feel responsible. In my drive to grow the perfect peach and the sweetest raisins, have I contributed to this sudden illness of my father? Could he die because of me?
I manage to turn off the engine, and as the tractor rumbles to a stop, I try to maneuver Dad inside. But he fights me, insisting on returning to his tractor. Still in shock, I give in to his will, feeling such guilt. Dad reaches for the tractor-seat cushion. At the end of the work day, we traditionally flip up the pad so that the morning dew will not collect on it and bother the next driver. With a trembling left hand, he flips it, then allows me to guide him away, his right arm his dominant hand dangling as if lifeless. Together, we limp toward the farmhouse.
A few days following Dad's stroke, I discover tracks into the farmyard from what I believe may have been his last tractor drive. The soft dirt captures his weaving and swerving as he frantically returned from the vineyards.
Dad had been working the vines with our tractor, dragging a tandem disc that plows weeds. Our yellow tandem has sixteen circular blades divided into four gangs. The two halves of this equipment mirror each other, which is why it is called a "tandem." The gangs are adjustable so we can extend them wide to cut weeds that are closer to the vines, or keep them centered down the middle of the rows. At this time of year we set the disc out wide so that it can reach into the vine berm to plow under small weeds before they grow larger and become even bigger problems in a few months.
Disoriented from the stroke, Dad parked the tandem and tractor behind the shed at an odd angle. Big chunks of a couple of old grapevines that had been torn off are lodged in the right front gang.
The tire tracks lead from the shed down two short avenues. The twisting trail is not hard to follow but painful for me to see. Dad struggled so hard to steer straight as his brain was assaulted by the stroke.
I trace the tracks back to rows 25 and 26 in our oldest vineyard, a nine-acre block that we called the Eleven-Foot Vines. The rows there are spaced eleven feet apart, whereas in most modern vineyards the spacing is wider, typically twelve feet, in order to accommodate larger equipment. Horses and mules may have worked well in eleven-foot rows, but not tractors. Because all our other vines are spaced at twelve feet, we always have to adjust equipment like the tandem to fit these narrower rows and avoid the risk of taking out a vine.
Half of these vines are close to one hundred years old. When originally planted, there had been forty vines in each of the sixty-five rows; but these rows contained seventy-five vines each. Dad and his brother, my uncle Alan, had extended the rows in 1953, a few years after Dad had bought the farm. In fact, they were planting these new vines when my grandfather, Dad's and Uncle Alan's own father, had a stroke and died on another part of the farm.
Halfway down row 25, three vines have been ripped out of the ground along with their metal stakes. The trellis wires are snapped, the stakes bent and tossed to the side. Two of the vines lie on their sides, most of their fruit-bearing canes shattered, some of their branches still lashed to the wire. Other canes dangle lifelessly from dead vines, their early pale green shoots already dried brown and dead.
Scattered across the area are parts of vine trunks. When the disc blade crashed into the first vines, it smashed and splintered these trunks, scattering their dark black-and-gray wood; it ripped vine roots out from the soil, tearing them apart. Portions of the bodies of a third and fourth vine lie in the dirt, the rest of their gnarled trunks lodged in the tandem blades back at the shed.
The stroke hit Dad at this spot. It must have caused him to black out momentarily or at least lose control. The tractor veered to the right, hooked the first vine, then plowed into the others.
I can't tell if Dad stopped the tracks don't look like it. Instead, it appears that as soon as the stroke hit him, Dad realized something major was wrong. He didn't try to untangle the blades from the wire or rescue a vine that had only just been pushed over. He didn't stop to assess the damage or clean up the accident. He tried to steer the tractor out of the snarl of metal and plants, the dirt and dust, and get home.
He must have been desperate. The tracks weave down the row, and I see where the trailing tandem disc bounced off other vines, hooking the bark of some, careening off others. I believe he sensed an obligation to get the tractor back safely and then get some help.
At the end of the row, he yanked the tractor to the right and negotiated a wide turn down an avenue. The tires rubbed against a cement irrigation valve leaving black scuff marks. Behind him, the tandem banged against the wooden end post, slicing a chunk out of the side.
Gradually the steering became much more difficult as he drove toward the final turn, which would let him head directly to the shed. As he whipped through that last corner, the dirt shot up from the tires, the tractor sliding through the soft earth. He almost lost control. So he overcorrected after that bend, catapulting the tractor in the opposite direction. But he managed to find a middle ground and keep heading home.
As the tractor approached the shed, Dad must have lurched as he fought wildly to stay in control, because the wheels swerved. His hands locked around the steering wheel, wrestling for power, engaged in a struggle for direction. It had to have been terrifying and painful. But he willed himself to complete that journey.
His sole goal had been to go home. He had managed to get back. And that's when later I found him wandering around the tractor, trying to remember how to shut it off. The blood clot had begun to kill part of his brain.
Dad has always carried a determination, a drive to work. It is work and belief in the value of perseverance that has always defined him. These gave him the strength to make it home. Seeing this physical evidence of his enormous inner drive, I'm humbled. And I'm worried about whether he can recover from this attack on his brain, on his essential self. And I worry for us both and for the farm, about challenges we will now have to face.
In pursuing Dad's tracks, I read a silent story. I follow his footsteps even further, trying to discover who he was and who he is. Searching for my father, I question my own life and the kind of footprints that I leave behind, my own tracks forward and backward. I try to retain the imprints of his wisdom, gleaning it from his words as well as his work, from his example and from his presence. In searching for my father, I find the one I hope to become. The one I want to become. And I find something of the legacies we've harvested from the land, those that she has freely, beneficently bestowed on us and those for which we've had to die a little every day.
Copyright © 2009 by David Mas Masumoto
Table of Contents
Foreword Dan Barber xi
Part 1 Why Farm?
1 Family Heirloom 3
2 The Price of Perfection 10
3 Second Sons 18
4 The Last Orchard 29
Part 2 When Things Break
5 Calling Your Father a Weed 37
6 Living with Insults 46
7 Resilience 54
8 Learning to Lean, Walking on Uneven Ground 66
9 Shoveling Sand 73
10 Back in the Saddle Again 81
Part 3 Farm Works
11 Season of Dirt 91
12 Perfect Junk 96
13 The Art of Going Slow-French Plowing 108
14 Hardpan Economics 115
15 Falling Down 123
Part 4 Planting Memories
16 Welding 133
17 Killing an Orchard to Save the Farm 141
18 The Sweat Thesis 148
19 The Hands of Caregivers 154
20 Farming with Ghosts 161
21 Missing Stories 168
22 Fields of Gold 174
Part 5 Succession
23 Places Where We Belong 181
24 How Many Harvests Left? 187
25 Coming Home 196
26 Names We Wear 206
27 Abandoning a Vineyard 214
28 Preservation 222
29 Day Is Done 230
What People are Saying About This
"Wisdom of the Last Farmer is a fiercely tender book; it could forever change how you regard a parent and the way you eat a peach...[and] puts food and farming into a rugged perspective that both humbles and inspires." DEBORAH MADISON, author of What We Eat When We Eat Alone and Local Flavors
"An eloquent and moving memoir...a coming-of-age story for adults as well as a generous appreciation of the personal value of farming to farmers and its overall value to society. Masumoto's love for his family, their land, and the fruit they produce shines through every chapter." MARION NESTLE, Ph.D., author of What to Eat
"The only voice from within farming that sings of both its pleasures and its pains, Mas Masumoto's words are so deeply rooted in his farmwork that they sweat, sting, and shine all at the same time. America's most articulate orchard-keeper, its most earthy writer, Mas eloquently captures the everyday beauty, heartbreak, and moral complexity of a multigenerational family intent on 'bearing fruit' despite insurmountable odds." GARY PAUL NABHAN, author of Renewing America's Food Traditions
"Masumoto passionately engages every fiber of his being in both his work and his writing, bringing the land to life for his readers….A philosopher in coveralls and work boots….Read slowly and savor."
"A graceful meditation on the work of growing food and its meaning across generations. A peach of a book... worthy of placement alongside the best of Wendell Berry, Liberty Hyde Bailey and other literary farmers."
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Wisdom of the Last Farmer includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author David Mas Masumoto. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When David Mas Masumoto’s father has a stroke in the fields of their organic peach farm in California, the reality of his father’s mortality drives Masumoto to reevaluate the significance and meaning of farming in a fast-paced, modern world. As he nurses his father back to health, and becomes a teacher to the master who had once schooled him, he reclaims the practical and emotional wisdom that they and their ancestors had learned from working the land. Realizing that he himself needs to pass on a wealth of knowledge to the next generation, he writes this impassioned narrative about re-connecting to the land.
In Wisdom of the Last Farmer, Masumoto finds the natural connections between families and farming, fathers and children, booms and declines, and relates them to larger, more sweeping themes of life, death, and renewal.
Questions for Discussion
1. Growing up as the third generation in this country, David Mas Masumoto learns to embrace Japanese proverbs such as “Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight,” “The Crooked Nail Gets Hammered Down,” and “It Can’t Be Helped.” How do you think these perceptions influence his life and philosophies of farming? Can you relate these proverbs to your own life?
2. Masumoto’s father’s stroke occurs at the very beginning of the book. How does this affect your reading of the story, knowing that his father has suffered this trauma? How does this alter Masumoto’s reflections on farming?
3. Discuss Masumoto’s decision to bring his father home to die. How does he come to this decision? How did you feel when his father wakes up from the coma? During his rehabilitation? As he returns to work at the farm?
4. Throughout the book there are numerous references to “recycling.” For example, mementos pass down from generation to generation, and Masumoto uses parts from a “junk pile” to fix his machinery. Which aspects of David Mas Masumoto’s family background instilled this virtue of resourcefulness?
6. The book emphasizes many tensions, for example, between technology and hard labor. Think about some other dichotomies. How do these fit into a grander theme?
7. Discuss Masumoto’s changing relationship with “weeds.” Consider the different ways he uses this term, from the metaphor about his father’s comatose state to the angry letter he addresses to Mr. Johnson about Johnson grass (pg. 94.) Does he view “weeds” as helpful or hurtful? What do they represent to him? To his father?
8. How do you feel about Masumoto’s decision to dedicate his life to the family’s farm? About Nikiko’s decision? Are there any family obligations that changed the trajectory of your life?
9. How do women play a part in this book? Where and how do they fit into the Masumoto family? Into the farming community?
10. Masumoto imparts his wisdom about the economic and politics of farming. Is he optimistic or pessimistic? What did you learn about the farming culture that surprised you?
11. Masumoto describes numerous examples of the unpredictability of nature. What does he learn from situations that are out of his control? Have you had any similar experiences?
12. Are there distinctive generational differences between Issei, Nisei, and Sansei, as Masumoto describes them?
13. Discuss the title of this memoir. What are the implications of the “Last Farmer” as Masumoto sees it?
14. Describe the structure of the book. Was it successful? What did it remind you of? Would you classify the book as more memoir or life-instruction book?
Enhancing Your Book Club
1. Visit the produce aisle at your local grocery store and buy a selection of peaches you find there (organic and non-organic.) Describe the color, skin, texture and taste of the fruits. Do the pits “cling” or are they “freestone”? Consider the differences between the organic and non-organic variations.
2. Draw a family tree and share it with the members of your book group. Is there anything interesting that they might not know about you? Do you have any family histories relating to the immigration experience?
3. Densho is a nonprofit organization that collects oral histories from Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II. Visit their website to learn more about the Japanese American Legacy project: www.densho.org.
4. Learn more about organic farming and the local food movements. Visit websites such as www.slowfoodusa.com or www.organicconsumers.org.
A Conversation with David Mas Masumoto
1. Did you approach this project more as a personal history or as a life instruction book?
Wisdom began as a personal journey – for weeks following my father’s initial stroke in 1997, I kept a daily journal of the challenging situation. I believe it’s common during such a crisis to reexamine personal family histories and the connections between family members.
During my father’s recovery from the stroke, our relationship changed with a role reversal: I had to teach him how to farm again. Gradually, the lessons I had learned from my father became clearer– along with other discoveries about myself and the person I called my father.
Writing is a wonderful method through which I tackle hard questions and examine transition points. In the case of Wisdom of the Last Farmer, writing helped me understand when things will no longer be the same.
What began as a personal journey evolved into broader life lessons I wanted to share. And I have to confess, all this, as my family will attest, makes me kind of moody.
2. Who did you write this book for?
I wrote Wisdom of the Last Farmer for those interested in exploring the relationship between fathers and their children and the context of that connection: the places, the family histories, the stories.
For me, our story unfolds on a family farm and through the seemingly simple, yet complex relationship that is created when you not only work with your father but also must help him heal. The story is nuanced by the fact we farm and grow food. Life is all around us and we must live and work with the rhythms of nature.
I also wrote this for those who want to know more about the story behind their foods – the people and places and the sometimes harsh realities of farming today.
3. Much of the narrative focuses on the decline of your father’s health. Was it difficult to put these experiences into words?
Yes. It took years to sort out my feelings while watching this strong man grow older and weaker. The story is complex and does not take place in isolation. Family is always part of this narrative including my wife, children, and my mom. All the while, the farm also continued to change and evolve, along with running a small business in the real world.
A constant question was: how does this all fit together in an honest way? This is not fiction, I can’t make up something in order for it to work or make sense. Authenticity is a constant theme in my work.
4. Your passion for harvesting food is apparent in the language you use to describe the color, taste, and feel of fruits. Has writing always come naturally to you or does the subject matter inspire you to write?
Writing is not natural for me. I was a late bloomer in becoming a writer (and hope the best is saved for last!). But I am inspired daily when I head out to work in the fields. I’m always humbled by the joy, beauty, and power of laboring in the earth, growing things and witnessing nature at work. If I can come close to capturing in words some of the drama of our family work, I will consider it a good harvest.
5. You wrote this book as an experienced farmer reflecting on your trials and tribulations. Do you think it would be different to be a young farmer like Nikiko? Are there different challenges today?
Absolutely. Our daughter Nikiko speaks of returning to the farm and taking over. While I will try to pass on my own wisdom, I know the world she faces is changing.
Today, people are renewing their relationship with food – it’s no longer just a commodity but something more. While some of our work is eternal – peaches need to be irrigated, pruned, and harvested – farming continues to become more complicated from new regulations and labor issues to marketing challenges and a demand for transparency about agriculture.
Nikiko will also bring her own talents, skills, and perspective to the farm. I expect our farm to change. For example, she had major input in the redesign of our web page and framing our farm with a new public face. (See www.masumoto.com). She claims I can’t hide on the farm anymore!
6. Have you had a positive response to your writing from the farming community?
The farming community has been wonderful. I view it as a compliment when many see me as a farmer first and writer second. I remain their neighbor,
part of the farm community, and not the voice of an outsider or someone with no intention of staying put. I hope this reflects my honesty in telling not just my story
but part of the story of all farm families.
7. Organic food has gained significant attention in recent years. Do you think this increase in awareness has fostered greater appreciation for the work that goes into the products? Does this resonate with the general American public?
Part of the organic agriculture revolution continues to be the relationship people want with their food. They demand to know more. Organic farming and sustainable agriculture strives to reduce the distance between the farm story and consumer interest. It’s all part of putting the public frame back into food and agriculture
and I think this is great. People who enjoy our peaches, nectarines, and raisins are not just consumers – I like to think of them as partners. They do have a role in determining how foods are grown.
8. You make references to George Orwell twice in this book. Is there some connection you have with his work? Has he influenced you? To what extent?
I have long admired Orwell and his ability to tell stories and contextualize meaning,
often with a social and political perspective. He was a storyteller and his
greatness has made his perspectives universal. I have often reread some of his stories, like Shooting an Elephant and of course, was attracted to Animal Farm in my youth, believing it was about agriculture. After reading it, I was happy we did not raise pigs on our farm.
9. Have you been inspired by life-instruction books? Which stories or memoirs have had a great impact on you?
Though not a memoir, I felt Grapes of Wrath was a great story about our valley, our history, and the people that I continue to call my neighbors. The story of struggle and hope bless and haunt me daily when I’m out in the fields.
I also feel many oral histories work like life-instruction books. The many collections by Studs Terkel have influenced my writing as I constantly struggle to find my voice and the collective voice of the places I write about.
I enjoy placed-based books such as Kathleen Norris’s Dakota and Richard Hugo’s 31 Letters and 13 Dreams who anchored their work in real people and places.
Finally, I read Zen Buddhist stories and reflect upon their significance for hours while in the fields. These words linger with me for hours as I work.
10. Do you have any plans for another book? If so, what will it be about?
I’m still living with Wisdom of the Last Farmer and feel part of “writing a book” is also meeting readers and sharing my voice through readings and presentations. (I list my schedule on our webpage www.masumoto.com)
Everyday stories continue to intrigue me the most. I’m certain that I’m in the middle of a new book but not exactly sure what the story is – I allow it to grow naturally, sometimes it turns into a weed, other times a flower. As I begin to write, I often find that I’m attracted to the weeds as the most powerful story.
11. Readers might not be familiar with organic farming except for what they read in the pages of your book. Can you suggest any resources for readers who would like to know more?
Read works by Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan.
Explore organizations like Slow Food and the many organic farming groups (such as California Certified Organic Farmers) and sustainable agriculture organizations and their websites (such as the food section of Grist.com).
And the best resource: talking to a farmer at a farmers market, engaging someone in the produce section of a market, or discovering a friend who loves food and exploring the joy of flavor and taste. Perhaps then my stories will have even greater meaning!
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