IT’S 7 in the evening and the sun is slowly sinking but the temperature is still well over 110 degrees in the kitchen of the Masumoto farmhouse here in the Central Valley. I’m bent over a pot of peach jam, stirring with a long wooden paddle as it spurts and sputters on the stove. A fan fights valiantly to keep the air moving, even if it’s not anything approaching cool.
My face is wet, but I can’t tell whether it’s steam from the jam or sweat. The only thing I can do is remind myself: “So this is what it’s like down on the farm.”
Back in October, the heat of summer safely out of mind, my wife and I were sitting at dinner with author and farmer David Mas Masumoto and his wife, Marcy. Well into our meal (and a couple of bottles of wine), they suggested that we join them for their annual peach jam party.
Who could resist an invitation like that? Well, said Marcy slowly, it can get a little warm. A little warm? No problem.
“Mas” Masumoto, a short, square 52-year-old with a quick smile and work-hardened hands, is probably the most famous fruit farmer in America.
His peaches, which are almost entirely sold to restaurants and a few select markets, are featured by name on some of the finest menus in the country -- Chez Panisse in Berkeley, the French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in Manhattan. The peaches have been selected for the “Ark of Taste” of fruits and vegetables recognized by the international organization Slow Food.
Delicious as his fruit is, Masumoto’s renown is due as much to his writing about farming as to the actual farming itself. He is the author of four books -- memoirs and essays -- about the agricultural life. The first, the award-winning “Epitaph for a Peach,” (still in print 10 years after publication) chronicled his struggles to farm his orchard of Sun Crest peaches, an old variety thought to be outdated because of its short shelf life, and at the same time convert to organic growing.
The book, published in 1995, began as a series of laments published on the Los Angeles Times opinion page, but grew as Masumoto found his feet, both as a writer and a farmer. At times sentimental and at other times hard-nosed, “Epitaph” delivers an unvarnished view of the joys and difficulties of family farming and is regarded, along with the more recent “Four Seasons in Five Senses,” as classics in modern agricultural literature.
Over the years, Masumoto has become a charismatic public speaker, carrying his message about family farms to groups as varied as the Culinary Institute of America and conventions of dance instructors and chamber music societies.
The Masumotos live about 20 miles southeast of Fresno in a low-slung 1920s farmhouse surrounded by old grape vines with tight bunches of pale young fruit, and stone-fruit orchards laden with ripening nectarines and peaches. Masumoto is a third-generation farmer in the Central Valley. Indeed, his parents bought this place in 1964.
While Mas may represent the face of the American farmer to his readers, in person he may be somewhat different than what you’re expecting. The stereotype is for farmers to be grizzled and gruff, clad in grimy overalls. Masumoto is friendly and open. He comes to the door in shorts and a Hawaiian print shirt. But despite appearances, he is solidly in the statistical mainstream of California agriculture -- working a mid-size family farm and struggling to find his niche in a very competitive commercial world.
At 80 acres, he’s too big for farmers markets and too small to benefit from economies of scale. That’s true of many growers. More than 70% of the farms in the state are smaller than 100 acres, and more than 80% of the state’s farms are owned by individuals or families.
Tonight, Masumoto wears his role as farm icon lightly --he’s hosting a party, not presenting a lecture. But still, there’s a subtext. Though it may be relaxed and festive, the annual peach jam is part of Masumoto’s ongoing mission to introduce outsiders to the world of the family farm.
“I see this as sort of a throwback to the old days,” Masumoto says. “It’s keeping those rural ties. Oftentimes, people we invite have never made jam; it’s very new to them. They’ll ask me questions like: ‘Why is this jar redder than that jar?’ I’ll tell them it’s because the peaches that went into it had a little more color, and it’s like that never occurred to them.... They expect everything to be standardized.”
A fine-tuned operation
THROUGH the years, the Masumotos have honed their jam-making parties to an almost industrial efficiency. The recipe is nothing special: It’s the one on the box of pectin. It’s the process that’s important. The dozen willing workers -- a farm family for the night -- rotate through the stations.
The peaches are peeled and chopped at the sink. They are run through an electric food grinder into a coarse puree at the work island. The puree is combined with lemon juice, pectin and sugar and cooked at the stove. Jam jars are sterilized in an electric roaster oven filled with hot water, then they are filled and capped and taken outside to cool on a long table on the porch.
After a drenching stint at the cooking pot, most people race to the space in the hallway under the evaporative cooler to luxuriate in the downdraft.
The guests are a non-ag bunch. In addition to Mas and Marcy, there are their kids Nikiko (who is attending UC Berkeley majoring in gender studies) and Korio (who is in high school). There are a couple of writers, but most of the guests seem to come from the world of education; Marcy just earned her doctorate in education and works with an organization called Springboard Schools, which helps school districts raise achievement levels.
Masumoto also has an advanced degree, a master’s in community development, and he studied at International University in Tokyo. In addition to his books on farming, he has written extensively about the traditions of Japanese Americans in the Central Valley.
After an hour or so of working, just as the sun is about to settle below the tree line, Mas gathers a group for a tour of the orchard. We don’t have far to go -- the house is surrounded by the farm. There are 80-year-old Thompson seedless grapevines in the frontyard; the peach orchard, much of which was planted more than 30 years ago, is just behind the barn.
The stars of the farm, of course, are the Sun Crests. In the fading sun they glow a brilliant golden orange, hanging from low branches. The trees are gnarled and bent. Some branches are propped up with wooden stakes or bound to stronger branches with rough jute twine to keep them from breaking under the weight of the fruit.
The stone-fruit industry turns over new models of fruit about as often as Detroit does cars. A variety that has been around for 10 or 15 years is considered almost antique. For the Sun Crest, introduced in the 1950s, still to be around is rare.
In truth, peach connoisseurs regard the Sun Crest variety when grown by most farmers as a very good, but not great peach. But variety is only part of the secret to great fruit; farming is not manufacturing. Grown under Masumoto’s skillful hand, the Sun Crests are firm but juicy, almost meaty and with a high-toned acid backbone that nicely balances a powerful sweetness. It’s no wonder they have such a cult reputation.
But in spite of their quality, even Masumoto will acknowledge that his affection for these peaches isn’t based just on flavor. Partly, it’s family tradition. Mas loves his Sun Crests because he and his father planted them and because they are the peaches he grew up farming.
And there’s something else. Sun Crests represent to Masumoto the balance of commercial and aesthetic qualities that demonstrate that great fruit can be grown on a scale that makes business sense.
“To me, growing Sun Crests represents maintaining a working farm as opposed to a boutique farmer with the single, perfect peach variety that can’t be commercially grown,” he says. “Part of my quest is to try to find a way that you can have the aesthetic side of a peach but still fit within the real world.
“In my writing, I try to capture what is really happening out here, not some romanticized vision of it. And part of that is that farming is a business. The Sun Crest is a peach that can be shipped, but it still keeps the pedigree of great peaches.”
This kind of loyalty to a vision is rare and it has not been without cost. Though his peaches are highly sought today, for several years Masumoto had trouble finding anyone who was willing to sell them, much less buy them, because of their short shelf life. At the same time, with two kids running around in the fields right outside the front door, he decided to switch his farming to organic.
At one point, almost his entire crop was ground up for baby food and he considered himself lucky for the sale.
“In the ‘80s, I was making so little money I was close to having this farm classified as a hobby by the IRS,” he says. “Since 1997, things have looked very, very good, but there have still been a few years where we just got nailed. I figure that in our farming life, at least half the years Marcy has made more money than me by working off the farm.”
In this way too he represents the mainstream. According to the 2002 Census of Agriculture, more than 80% of American farm family income today comes from work off of the farm.
But it’s funny how life comes full circle. It was these trials that led to the writing of “Epitaph for a Peach.” And it was “Epitaph for a Peach” that led to the demand for his Sun Crests.
And, indirectly, that is what led us to gather at the farmhouse. After a little more jamming, we take a break for dinner. The wife of one of Masumoto’s field workers is a very good Oaxacan cook, and we feast on beef braised in red chile, tamales folded in banana leaves, chicken in red mole, and stewed nopalitos.
After dinner, things loosen up. Old Motown goes on the CD player and whether it’s the food, the music or the slight cooling of the night, the time seems to fly by. A little later, the long table on the porch is almost covered with jars: big ones for the participants and little ones that Mas uses as a prop at his readings.
Fulfilling his mission
IT turns out that this jam-making exercise fits into his greater mission in another way. “I had this problem when ‘Epitaph’ came out,” he says. “I kept thinking, how am I going to show the literal flavor of this peach? I can’t go out in the middle of the harvest to do all these readings. I came up with the idea of making these little jars of jam so people can get an idea of what this flavor is all about.
“I usually get some volunteers to taste it, then sort of walk them through an exercise of eating the jam slowly, using all of their senses, and then get them to assemble the words to describe them. The answers are really great. I remember when Korio was in the fifth grade, I did it with his class and one of the kids said, ‘You know what I taste when I taste this jam? I taste summer.’ ”
We gather in the air-conditioned living room for dessert -- vanilla ice cream and (what else?) sliced peaches. Finally, about 10:30, Nikiko, the college student, yawns and stretches and reminds the family that tomorrow morning they’ve got to be up at 5:30 to pack a load of peaches to ship to their distributor.
The guests collect their jars, say their goodbyes, and file out into the night. The thermometer says it’s 103. Just another night on the farm