Noted Author/Farmer Speaks about Food, Farming and Future
When Central Valley peach farmer David “Mas” Masumoto (63) talks about food, people listen.
This Kellogg Fellow, who has degrees from UC Berkeley and UC Davis, is renowned for eleven books including “Epitaph for a Peach” and “Harvest Son,” which described his struggle to keep his family farm alive in the 21st century and a PBS documentary “Changing Season.”
Recently, he agreed to share some thoughts with us from his farm near Del Rey, California.
Question: You’ve been a strong proponent of organic farming for many years. What are some of the biggest issues that worry you now about farming and food production in the United States?
I worry about succession on a small family farm. In our family, we are blessed. My daughter will be taking over the farm. But I do see this as an issue with my neighbors. Even my cousin just sold his farm, so we just lost another farmer. What happens when you have a loss of families on the farmland?
On a larger level, I’m also deeply worried about climate change. Even now, I think about this year’s severe hurricanes and also the devastating fires up in Napa and Sonoma. A lot of those fires had to do with five years of drought, followed by one year of heavy rainfall that grew a lot of underbrush, which is contributing to these wildfires.
These fires are vivid reminders of climate change — what will climate be like in 20 years when my daughter is 50? What will she be farming? Will peaches still work for her? Those are the concerns looming on my mind.
We forget how farming is generational. Flash forward a generation and what farm will my daughter’s kids, should she have children, grow up on? What will the agriculture look like then? And how will other forces like marketing and distribution systems alter our food production.
Think of the change that has already occurred in my lifetime on this farm and then how my dad and mom grew peaches. When my dad was young, he grew peaches with mules. And that literally shifted in only one generation.
One of the biggest questions for us is how will farm technologies change? For example, we sell to Whole Foods, which was just bought by Amazon. How will they accept our fruit? Will it be marketed differently? Or, will it actually be better, because we may have a direct linkage to the consumers and others who enjoy our fruits?
Question: That’s an interesting point. How has this technology impacted your farm?
Our little experience of the online world has actually been amazing. We’ve been selling fruit to a home-delivery system, which is a service out of San Francisco. When people buy the fruit online, it changes how they buy it. In some ways, it has worked out great.
For instance, our family farm has stumbled upon the implicit bias that people carry with them. Of course there are implicit biases on a social level, involving race, culture and religion. But I believe there is a huge implicit bias towards the way we look at produce and food.
The best example is the idea that: ‘BIGGER IS BETTER. UNIFORMITY IS RIGHT. BEAUTY IS TASTE.’
But when you buy things online, you don’t notice the size of our heirloom peaches — which tend to be smaller — because there is no comparison. You just see gorgeous peaches on a flat computer screen, or on your iPhone. When people receive these peaches, they may be surprised they aren’t as big as some other “normal” peaches. Hopefully, once they eat them, they will find these peaches taste so good, they order more. And that’s what is happening.
Uniformity is another bias. Many of our heirloom peaches have pointed tops. That’s how all peaches once looked, but breeders have worked to breed out that point. When peaches are packed and shipped, that tip could get bruised. So, that’s why breeders bred that out.
Now you’ll find peaches that are perfectly round, as opposed to older peach varieties that were often more oval in shape or had these bigger shoulders on the bottom, or a little more of a tip on top. Again, when you compare these peaches side by side, with an oval peach on one side and a perfectly round peach on the other, your hand may instinctively reach for the round one.
You think, ‘oh round must be normal, and the other one is a misfit.’ That’s an implicit bias.
Appearance matters too. People also tend to buy peaches that are redder in appearance, not yellow peaches, which they think aren’t ripe. So, they buy strictly by appearance, not by experience. Most heirloom peach varieties are not completely red. They have different colorations; mosaics of yellows, roses and pinks, golden colors. But they also have delicious tastes.
So, when you only buy by appearance, not by taste, you start to send the industry into a very different place, which is a shallow, superficial level of one’s relationship with their food.
Question: Which farming issues do you wish people would talk about more?
Certain attitudes tend to dominate the discussion around food and/or farming. Consider that the average age of many farmers is in their mid-sixties, which I am almost there. It’s sad to think that as I get older, the average age of farmers keeps getting older too, so I can consider myself a young farmer.
But I wish people would talk about how the world is evolving and what’s facing this next generation of farmers. Consider the book A Brave New World, where they talk about the future. In that sense, the future wasn’t something horrible: it was a future surrounded by pleasure, joy and distractions. Everything is defined by immediate gratification, obsessive entertainment.
That’s what worries me. I’m worried about everything in our culture becoming a passive action versus active behavior. And if food becomes passive, then how are decisions made? How are products brought into the food world? It’s suddenly controlled by other factors, such as money, promotion, advertising and social structures. Other issues, like the environment and social justice, are invisible in that brave new world. And that worries me a lot.
A lot has to do with how removed people are from the food system. I think it’s a growing divide. People are becoming consumed by consumption. I worry about this dominance of modernization and capitalization of farming and food production.
I’m not saying that making money isn’t important. I think it’s essential that farmers and agriculture remain financially viable. But it’s become so focused on making a short term profit. You have decisions being made that don’t consider what’s good for the land or what’s good for the farmers. It’s about making money, and as a result, farms are becoming factories. Farmers are just another part of this big machine.
This is ironic, because it’s counter to the world of farming just a generation or two before. Farmers had a love of the land. They had this work ethic of farming as a way of life. Now I see people using a different value structure.
How did the value structure change? Well, there is disconnect between urban and rural communities, and there are challenges bridging that growing gap. Especially in this newer environment we are in now, and the rhetoric going on at the national level. Suddenly, people don’t listen to each other. There’s a lot of yelling.
Question: There’s been discussion about the urban-rural disconnect in the United States. Do you think food movement activists and conventional food producers can learn from each other and work together towards a healthy sustainable food system? What do both sides need to remember?
As a writer, I’m disappointed we’ve lost common stories we all share.
A lot of people will ask: ‘what do I have in common with a farmer?’ Well, of course, food! But we also have things in common involving climate change, immigration, environmental issues, as well as basic policy decisions that aren’t being discussed. Policy is becoming trivialized. It’s all about this new age of imagery and the latest sound bite and tweet.
It all comes down to a visceral, emotional level of responses around food. It’s not just the basic nutrients and vitamins we consume. It includes the art and joy of food. Food gives people an emotional response, because things taste a certain way.
Behind each bite you eat comes this large baggage of history. Is it native food? Was the food brought in from another country? How did other cultures prepare this food? It actually gives me hope that people are thinking about food more, and maybe thinking about farmers with every bite.
But it’s important to remember this connection on an emotional level with people, not just public policy and politics.
Look at immigration reform. We are right in the middle of it in our part of California, and literally with our workers. I’m focused on giving better wages to our workers, while there are many pressures on an economic level that drive my costs up and affect my farm’s efficiency. So, how do I balance that out?
When you put a face to these governmental policies, you add emotions and stories to the “back story” behind these policies. I think the smaller conversations affect the larger ones. And for the next few years, I’m focusing more on a local/regional level where I can have a bigger impact.
Question: As a Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy Fellow from 2006 to 2008, what have been some of the biggest benefits for you from this experience?
It has been a wonderful experience to join this network of thinkers. When you farm, there is a tendency to become isolated. But this was a real fellowship, where there were real friendships that developed. For instance, I became good friends with Paul Greenberg, who is a fisherman and successful author. Over the years, we’ve been in contact through our successes and challenges. We may run in different circles, but we have discussed everything from climate change to the publishing industry’s evolution.
The Kellogg Fellowship taught me there is this world of really bright people out there. Since then, I’ve crossed paths with several Fellows over the years, and we’ve shared ideas on panel discussions and at other events. Interacting with these intelligent people has been a huge benefit for me. These Fellows inspire me.