Wisdom of the Last Farmer Harvesting Legacies from the Land

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2010-06-01
  • Publisher: Atria Books

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It was when David Mas Masumoto's father had a stroke on the sprawling fields of their farm that the son looked with new eyes on the land where he and generations of his family have toiled for decades. Masumoto -- an organic farmer working the land in California's Central Valley -- farms stories as he farms peaches. In Wisdom of the Last Farmer, an impassioned memoir of revitalization and redemption, he finds the natural connections between generation and succession, fathers and children, booms and declines as he tells the story of his family and their farm. He brings us to the rich earth of America's Fruit Basket, under the vine trellises and canes where grapes are grown, and to the fruit orchards flush with green before harvest, where he uncovers and preserves the age-old wisdom that is fast disappearing in our modern, information-driven world -- and that is urgently needed in this time of food crises and social disruption. Masumoto sees the price the family has paid to grow complex heirloom peaches -- when the market rewards tasteless, big, and red fruits -- and the challenges of maintaining traditions and integrity while working in the modern, high-pressure agricultural marketplace. As his father's health declines along with the profitability of the family farm, Masumoto has the further hard work of nursing his father back to health -- becoming master to the teacher who once schooled him -- and is driven beyond economic concerns to even larger questions of life, death, and renewal. In his gorgeous, lyrical prose, Masumoto conjures the realities of farming life while weaving in the history of American agriculture over the past century, encapsulating universal themes of work along with wisdom that could be gleaned only from the earth. By the end of the workday, he understands the feeling of accomplishment when you've done your best...and discovers that it's when he lets go -- of both his father and control of nature -- that wisdom manifests itself. And, when Masumoto's daughter intends to return to the family farm, hope is found in the generations. In the quiet eloquence of Wisdom of the Last Farmer, you will see how your own destiny is involved in the future of your food, the land, and the farm.

Author Biography

David Mas Ma 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 thirdgeneration farmer, he grows certified organic peaches, nectarines, and grapes on his family's eighty-acre California farm. He lives in Del Rey, California.

Table of Contents

Forewordp. xi
Why Farm?
Family Heirloomp. 3
The Price of Perfectionp. 10
Second Sonsp. 18
The Last Orchardp. 29
When Things Break
Calling Your Father a Weedp. 37
Living with Insultsp. 46
Resiliencep. 54
Learning to Lean, Walking on Uneven Groundp. 66
Shoveling Sandp. 73
Back in the Saddle Againp. 81
Farm Works
Season of Dirtp. 91
Perfect Junkp. 96
The Art of Going Slow-French Plowingp. 108
Hardpan Economicsp. 115
Falling Downp. 123
Planting Memories
Weldingp. 133
Killing an Orchard to Save the Farmp. 141
The Sweat Thesisp. 148
The Hands of Caregiversp. 154
Farming with Ghostsp. 161
Missing Storiesp. 168
Fields of Goldp. 174
Places Where We Belongp. 181
How Many Harvests Left?p. 187
Coming Homep. 196
Names We Wearp. 206
Abandoning a Vineyardp. 214
Preservationp. 222
Day Is Donep. 230
Acknowledgmentsp. 237
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


Chapter One.

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

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