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A farmer's almanac, earthy and rich

January 05, 2003|Michael Harris | Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

Four Seasons

in Five Senses

Things Worth Savoring

David Mas Masumoto

W.W. Norton: 256 pp., $24.95

*

A century and a half ago, most Americans farmed; now only a few of us produce the nation's food and fiber. So farming, once the most common of occupations, has become one of the most exotic. Books such as David Mas Masumoto's "Four Seasons in Five Senses" read like dispatches from an Old World country that our ancestors left -- even though it's still part of our own country, visible from any rural freeway, its fruits piled on our supermarket shelves.

As Masumoto described in an earlier memoir, "Harvest Son," his Japanese grandfather came to the San Joaquin Valley in 1899 to labor in vineyards, although he had never seen a grape. Masumoto's father bought land believed to be infertile because of a hardpan layer, and through tireless work made it yield. The UC Berkeley-educated Masumoto switched to organic methods on the 80-acre farm near Fresno, growing raisin grapes and succulent Sun Crest peaches.

In the book "Epitaph for a Peach," Masumoto told of the problems of being a family farmer in the age of agribusiness. His peaches may be delicious, but there is limited demand for them because they spoil after only a week in the stores. The industry prefers peaches that look good and have a long shelf life, even if they taste like cotton.

Now, in "Four Seasons in Five Senses," Masumoto enlarges on his credo: "Peaches were supposed to be both grown and eaten with care -- savored like a good story." Instead of speed and efficiency, he advocates "slow farming" with a personal touch. "My fruits are not simply a good or a service. Emotions matter, and the story of how I farm and the journey of our foods to market is the central plot ....

"Easier ways to make a living exist, but knowing my produce and sharing that knowledge with others satisfy a hunger and reward me: My family's work has meaning."

True, most farmers don't have quotations from Henry David Thoreau or Annie Dillard as ready as shovels or pruning shears. Masumoto does. His storytelling expresses his idealism in the face of agriculture's often brutal economics, but it also gives him a promotional edge; we can't read about his peaches without longing to sink our teeth into one.

And it's doubtful whether other farmers could follow Masumoto's example en masse. He points to the rise of fine microbrewery beers in America, but these haven't replaced "industrial beers"; they have merely filled a high-end niche. Sam Maloof makes a handsome living with his handcrafted furniture, but how many Maloofs can the economy support? Even if the rich-poor divide widens, there will continue to be a market for Masumoto's peaches -- and a much bigger one for the cheap, mass-produced kind.

Still, Masumoto, as with Dillard and Thoreau, has a message for us about living differently, living better, paying close attention to nature, knowing our neighbors and valuing the process as much as the product. And the down-to-earth quality of farming, literal and figurative, disarms our skepticism. Agriculture chews up dilettantes and spits them out. The mere survival of Masumoto's farm, where his 79-year-old father still works and his teenage daughter drives a tractor, argues for his seriousness.

In "Four Seasons in Five Senses," Masumoto's catalogs of all that can be seen, touched, tasted, heard and smelled on his farm include mud and sweat as well as blossoms, rot as well as ripeness. He admits that it will take a lifetime to learn the vagaries of his piece of land. He's aware that the Mexican workers he hires work even harder than he does, for less pay. He wonders whether his children will abandon farming.

There are no guarantees, Masumoto insists in a book that should permanently retire the notion that farming is a simple life or that farmers are dullards. He even includes a sly chapter on grunting -- on the infinite meanings a Midwesterner can pack into the word "wow" or a Japanese American into "yoisho" as he hacks at weeds, negotiates with fruit brokers or checks his orchard for benign gray ants that eat worms that would otherwise infest his peaches. "After all," he says, "this is 'grunt work.' "

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