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Preserving the fruits of a season's labors

Organic farmer David Mas Masumoto ponders preservation -- and self-preservation.

August 26, 2009|David Mas Masumoto

My harvest season always begins with worry about weather, prices and accidents. If I'm fortunate, it ends with a hope for preservation -- both the preserving of foods and the sustaining of farms and family farmers.

As this summer started, the last thing I wanted to think about was extending it. Recent failures have outweighed gains. A string of 100-degree days stung my nectarines; they ripened unevenly and were easily bruised. Johnson grass, a truly evil weed, had taken over a vineyard, stealing sunlight and water, dwarfing the struggling grapes. A neighbor commented that there was more weed than vine, and he was right. I bent a tractor disk after hitting an end post while trying to cut a path down one row.

Now, as the end of the harvest draws near, the reality of unfulfilled "what ifs" burdens my rhythms. What if we had had more spring rains and the fruit could have had consistent water? What if I had a better tractor with more horsepower to pull the disk deeper? What if buyers had been more accepting of funny-looking peaches with extra-pointy tips, a character nuance of this 2009 season in our old Sun Crests?

But as August draws to a close, I find I am missing no longer having the next fruit variety to look forward to, the hope that finally something might work right and the farm will forgive my mistakes.

Desperate, I turn my thoughts to self-preservation: preserving my own produce. I am adding value to my farm by curing, canning or pickling my best fruits and vegetables. Other farmers are doing the same.


Time for 'jamfest'

On our farm, we host an annual "jamfest," bringing together friends and community to make peach jam. We peel, cook and sweat, and by the end of the evening, everyone takes home a piece of our farm in their jam jars. We sun-dry some more of our best fruits -- hoping to capture the magic of their flavor so it can be shared later.

By extending the season, I'm offered a reprieve, a second and third chance to do right. It's like planting and harvesting a "winter crop" in August. Preserves seize the season -- time in a bottle -- and inspire creativity and poetry. During a school visit, I once asked sixth-graders to tell me what they saw as they examined small jars of peach jam. Most described the color and anticipated the aroma, but one bright boy, holding the jar up in the light, said, "I see summer."

I want to see summer throughout the year and be reminded of both the joys and the challenges of this work. Farmers who live on their farms can't hide from their mistakes, we live with them daily. Farming organically poses greater challenges -- pest control treatments often are slow to act and require acute timing. Grape mealy bug, an invasive creature that leaves sticky residues on our raisins, has evaded most of my efforts; I now realize it will take years to contain it.

And looming in my future is another challenge: water. All through the spring and summer, I studied the lack of snow in the Sierra and worried about future water supplies. Water is not only a scarce resource that will be allocated by price, it is also sacred and must be shared by many. The solution won't be easy; I anticipate some of my fields will become fallow, if not next season, then soon.

But I also want to enjoy my successes, things I want to preserve. I call for a new definition of fresh, a new "seasonality" of food by exploring the old traditions of food preservation. We can have wonderful peaches in January with new twists on old methods like drying fruit so that during the cold and wet winter months we can revisit summer with each bite. A straight-from-the-farm flavor can be still had with the proper preservation techniques.

My parents understood this, my mom freezing our best peaches and my dad saving the most plump raisins for the ultimate domestic market: our home. They sometimes felt a little guilty, believing their actions were selfish. Yet why not reserve the best produce for those who best appreciate the quality and best understand what it took to bring a crop to harvest?

Perhaps for a farmer, the greatest benefit of preservation may involve our spirit. During the sprint of harvest, we often don't have the time to savor our own produce. The worry element of farming can overwhelm us -- I often lose sight of priorities, trying to predict the weather and respond to the pressures of growing, of pests and plant diseases, and of course, to the occasionally bright but mostly dark skies of prices, input costs, labor and profits or losses.

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