David Mas Masumoto’s lifelong obsession with farming organic peaches has lead to five books, a weekly newspaper column, and a regular spot on the menu at Chez Panisse. His latest tome, Wisdom of the Last Farmer, is about helping his father — who taught Masumoto to farm — relearn basic skills after a stroke. The book, out today,
explores their relationship with each other as well as the Fresno-area family farm. We caught up with Masumoto on the phone this morning before he went out to the orchards.
What is it about the fruits you farm, peaches in particular, that inspires you? Do you think you would be as prolific a writer if you farmed, say, potatoes?
I think the peaches have this wonderful nuanced complexity and I think that’s what makes it so fun for me. There’s a gazillion things that can go wrong, which adds to the challenge of trying to grow something perfect.
Your book is largely about teaching your father how to farm again after his stroke. What did you find you could teach him that he had never taught you?
There’s a chapter in the book called Falling Down. My dad was from that generation of men whose strength was that they never allowed themselves to fall. In the book I described, literally, my dad’s resolve was he wouldn’t fall after his stroke, so that’s how he learned to walk again and to work again. The problem was, of course, that he did fall… On the other hand, I fall all the time, so I have no problem falling down. In a way, that helped me farm organically because you’re going to have more failures than successes and you pick yourself up. There’s a Japanese saying that goes, “fall down seven times, get up eight.”
What do you think is the greatest threat to organic farming right now?
It has to do with expectations. I think some people entering into organic farming have this expectation that there are going to be extra premiums… because of the economic success of the past decade, we have more and more new farmers who are expecting a certain level of return, and they’re not always finding it.
The other expectation is, I think organic farmers have done an outstanding job of putting out a very high-quality product. The challenge, and this is where I fit in, is that we want to keep our farms authentic and not factories, meaning you’re going to have natural variations. So my buyers have to accept the fact that every year won’t be perfect. And sometimes they don’t like that.
Of the fruits you farm, which is your favorite to eat?
The sun-pressed. The one that epitaph for a peach was based on. It has that wonderful balance between sugars and acids.
What is your favorite food ever?
Other than peaches? Probably some good sashimi… The best sashimi I ever had was in the little village my parents immigrated from in Japan. I lived there for two years during college. One day at the local fish market we got this spectacular sashimi. I’m sure it wasn’t as good as the most expensive restaurants in Tokyo but because we’re in this little farming village in this 300 year old farm house, all that ambiance mixed together just made it delicious.View image