Masumoto has two lives farming, writing in Central Valley

April 18, 1999
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

David Mas Masumoto makes it seem like growing peaches and grapes in the Central Valley and writing about the process is just about the best job, the best life, in the world.

His most recent book is "Harvest Son: Planting Roots in American Soil" (Norton, 1998, $22.95) and when he spoke to a cross-campus group of students and community members last week he read passages from that book, which related to the tools he uses in his dual career.

A worn shovel, his grandmother's sun bonnet made from rice sacks, a kid-sized pair of pruning shears for a farmer's young son or daughter, these are a few of the things he talked about.

Masumoto also is the author of the 1995 book "Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm."

Masumoto, a third-generation farmer, grew up on a farm in Del Rey, south of Fresno, where he works today with his 76-year-old father on their 80-acre organic farm.

"This shovel," he said, holding up the worn tool for all to see, "becomes a triggering device for me as a farmer and a writer to get at stories my father normally wouldn't tell me."

His Japanese father and grandmother didn't talk much when Masumoto was growing up even though they all lived together. Ironically, there was a language barrier.

"I've known more dysfunctional families," he said, smiling.

"For the first 20 years of my life I did not know how to speak Japanese and my grandmother did not know how to speak English," he said. "I did not think that was odd. And although I'm sorry I missed the stories she would have told, there was another kind of language we shared."

Masumoto remembered what it was like to have his aged grandmother massage his back.

"She worked in the fields her whole life and the massage she gave me was a song of generations, a tactical sense that carried as much depth as a conversation. She was telling me how an old immigrant woman gets calloused hands."

Later, Masumoto went to Japan in search of his long-lost relatives and learned how to speak rudimentary Japanese. He graduated from UC Berkeley and then went to UC Davis where he earned a master's degree in community development.

Community is a critical element in his work. He celebrates the community of his family, his race, his country and his village. He is a product of Japan and America, of country life and city life, of the natural world and the world of ideas. He brings these interests and influences together in his writing.

"The tools help me tell these stories," he says. Neither the stories nor the writing come quickly and that's OK with Masumoto. He is all in favor of slow food, slow farming, slow walking.

"Slow food is the opposite of fast food, of course," he says. "It's a movement that began in Italy and is becoming popular. Slow farming is family farming." That is, the opposite of factory farms. And an integral part of slow farming is walking.

"It can be excruciatingly painful to walk through the fields if I'm in a hurry but that's when you discover important things," he added. "This year the peach blossoms were especially beautiful after a cold winter and it made me wonder if there is a link between the hues of peach blossoms and the quality of the peaches (which he harvests in July).

"I try to focus on the everyday and the ordinary," he said. This focus applies to his life both as a writer and a farmer.

"I have no magic soil," he said. "I'm proud to say I raise an everyday and ordinary peach developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1950s. But within the ordinary peach are extraordinary stories."

This doesn't mean his life is an easy one. On June 15, 1995, the very day that "Epitaph for a Peach" was published, a freak hail storm descended on his farm, causing a $80,000 crop loss in less than 10 minutes.

Still, even that tragedy turned into a story, an event that connected his family and community.

And finally, says Masumoto, his own senses are a vital tool.

"Senses are one way a farmer connects with the land," he says. He always carries a notebook with him so he can jot down thoughts and observations on his daily routine.

"Slow farming allows you to think and write," he said. "I don't write quickly and I'm not prolific. It took me seven years to write 'Epitaph for a Peach.' And I started to write 'Harvest Son' when I lived in Japan as an exchange student in the 1970s."

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books [ Click Here ]

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