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Peaches' Progress: Masumoto's Orchard

Martha Stewart Living, July 2010

David Mas Masumoto walks among the gnarled trees of his peach orchard, the California sun beating on his straw hat. He gently pokes one low-hanging peach to test its firmness and runs his fingers over the fuzzy skin of another. "These are our treasures," he says. "They're like golden globes. You want to eat them, and they want to be eaten."

An heirloom "Suncrest" peach, the flagship fruit of this Central Valley farm, is indeed irresistible. It tastes like the sun and summer. And it tastes the way peaches used to taste -- like peaches. It's the flavor Masumoto remembers from his childhood, when he'd share a peach with his grandmother, juice dribbling down their chins. "I didn't know Japanese, but we spoke through the language of food," he says. He's passionate about cultivating that nostalgic flavor. "When our peaches are right, you bite in, pause, and have a rush of memories."

Masumoto is a third-generation farmer. His parents and grandparents, after being released from an Arizona internment camp for people of Japanese ancestry, were farmworkers on this land until they purchased it in 1948. The "Suncrest" peach trees, which Masumoto planted with his dad, are 42 years old. "Older trees have better flavor," he says, smiling. "At least that's my bias as I get older myself."

Twenty years ago, however, Masumoto considered destroying the trees because they were losing money. Supermarkets wanted peaches that were redder and hard enough to withstand transportation and weeks on the shelves. But at the last moment, he stopped the bulldozer from ripping up 300 trees. "I realized these were great peaches, so there was something wrong," he says.

From that day, Masumoto committed himself to farming heirloom peaches, trusting that in time, they'd be appreciated. (He also grows nectarines and grapes.) His family -- his wife, Marcy; daughter, Nikiko, 24; and son, Korio, 19 -- spent many lean years working long hours, losing money on their fruit. They'd sell the peaches for 50 cents a box to stores, where they were discounted because of their unpopular golden color. "At least I knew that whoever bit into one would be surprised with the best-tasting peach of their lives," Masumoto says.

He persisted, working with his father to get the farm certified as organic. "So much of what my father was doing was already organic," Masumoto says. "How do you control weeds? With a shovel." His fields may be untidy, with weeds that grow shin-high, but eventually they get cut and put into the soil to nourish it. He controls worms with plastic squares that release the scent of female moth pheromones on each tree, confusing the males so they fly away. "When my daughter was 11, she asked if the males get frustrated," he says. "It was a good way to teach her about sex education."

All the activities on the farm offer such family bonding opportunities. Everyone works together, sorting, picking, and packing fruit from June to August. Marcy is in charge of making dried peaches (which are sold to restaurants) and various chutneys, jams, and pies (which the family shares with friends). Nikiko, who, like her father, attended the University of California-Berkeley, returned to the farm after an environmental-studies class made her realize the importance of organic farming. She intends to take over the family business one day. "My parents weren't happy to hear that I'd gotten a tattoo, until I showed it to them," she says, rolling up her jeans to reveal a fat golden peach on her ankle.

Masumoto has written six books about his experience farming peaches, including Wisdom of the Last Farmer (Free Press; 2009), and his business has thrived as interest in organic and heirloom food has picked up. His fruits are now on the menus of top restaurants, such as Berkeley's Chez Panisse Cafe, and they sell out at local markets. But Masumoto continues to strive for an even better peach. "We're artists, always working to improve our craft," he says. "I want my peaches to glow from within."

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