The Voyage Home

Carving Out Roots

A Scholar Goes Back to the Family Farm

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The Feminist Farmer is talking about brown rot. Blame the late July rain, she explains, tenderly holding a Le Grand nectarine as she considers the ugly, squishy spot on the heirloom fruit. She brainstorms ways to salvage the unaffected parts of the juicy nectarine. Brown rot is not a crisis. Just a new challenge, precisely the sort that drew the young farmer back to the family land.

Nikiko Masumoto — performance scholar, gender studies major, world traveler — has come home to the Central Valley to farm. The 25-year-old has moved back into her room in her grandmother’s house, abutting the 80 acres of grape vines and fruit trees in Del Rey, California (pop: 1,639), just southeast of Fresno. Nikiko has always returned home for the summer harvest. This time, she is home for good.

Like her father, the renowned author and organic farmer David Mas Masumoto, Nikiko went to Sanger High School, home of the Apaches. Like her father, she escaped as fast as she could to the University of California at Berkeley. She flourished in that rarefied academic world, and thought that she would never return to the Central Valley. But, like her father, she was drawn back as if by gravitational pull.

Her epiphany came during sophomore year in an environmental studies class. A guest lecture about pesticides prompted Nikiko, for the first time, to place her family’s organic farm in a global context. She began to think the family legacy meshed with her social justice and environmental passions, and her newfound political boldness. (Before college, she says, offering an example of her trajectory, she did not have a position on abortion. The issue simply had not come up. )

When Nikiko told her parents she wanted to apprentice and eventually take over the land her grandfather purchased in 1948, her announcement was greeted with surprise and a degree of skepticism. “I think they took me a little more seriously when I got my peach tattoos,” Nikiko says. A small peach just above her left ankle is the most visible; a spray of Elberta peach blossoms adorns her right shoulder blade, and engraved on top of her right foot is a verbal marriage of peaches and politics that reads “Radical: of or from the root(s)”.

Nikiko returned home after graduating from Berkeley in 2007, but found she needed more time away. She wanted to explore a different side of her heritage – the experience of Japanese Americans like her grandparents, who were interned during World War II. She enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin in a master’s program to study performance in relationship to history, culture and local communities. Her dissertation explored collective memory and bears witness to the anguish of Japanese Americans and their quest for redress. She composed a play based on historical archives, performed the work, and wrote about its place as performance scholarship.

Now Nikiko studies the art and anguish of harvests: When and where to pick the seven varieties of peaches. “It is the most beautiful and heart wrenching part,’’ she says. “Part knowledge, part guessing.” Each tree will be picked several times, at set intervals. Like a surfer, you must catch the wave at the perfect moment. “If you hit it right, it keeps on going. If you start at the wrong time …” she trails off. “I learned this year, if you get the first day right, you’re set.”

Nikiko revels in the state she calls “constructive exhaustion” – always in motion, arms waving, mind racing. She tweets about Masumoto peaches and blogs as the Feminist Farmer. She is writing a peach cookbook with her mother, Marcy, whom she calls her best friend. At the end of harvest, she squeezed in rehearsals for a play she brought to the nearby community of Fowler, a collaboration between a professional Los Angeles theater troupe and local volunteers. Nikiko, her parents, and her younger brother, Korio, joined the cast.

In the two months she has been “replanted” in Del Rey, Nikiko Masumoto has begun to confront issues far more complex than how to time the harvest. How to define her place among young people in the Central Valley, a world starkly separated by the Great Divide – those who leave, and those who stay behind? How best to function in a world with no separation between work and family, and with no demarcation between her roles as daughter, co-worker, employee, and manager?

“Days are so long. Tempers flare. Insecurities ripen,” she says. “There is no going home and having a beer and forgetting about it.”

And how will she carve out her own legacy while apprenticed to a man dubbed the “rock star farmer” for his success in rescuing heirloom peaches and writing eloquently about his travails? Mas Masumoto’s peaches have won raves from the chef Alice Waters. Rick Bayless is a personal friend, and Martha Stewart featured the farm in Living magazine. Nikiko has inherited her father’s values, as well as his personal flair. But how will she put her own stamp on the Masumoto legacy?

She has turned to Buddhism, the religion of her father, to ease the intellectual and emotional uncertainties as well as the physical pain of farming. Sustainability, she argues, is vital not only for the land, but for the people: “It is important to honor my limits.”

Standing in front of his trees, Mas Masumoto seeks to convey a sense of farming to a group that has gathered to harvest peaches on a recent weekend. He reads aloud from one of his books, a letter to his children in which he ponders their inheritance: “The greatest memorial to our family will be the farmland that stays behind, something you can touch and feel and smell. …As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize it’s not success I hope to leave behind. Rather, it’s significance.”

Nikiko Masumoto has her father’s gifts of poise and self-awareness. In a community and an industry desperately in need of young leaders, she has already assumed an important role – one she seems destined to shape and enhance. She is preternaturally aware of the significance of which her father speaks – inspired, a little awed, a little scared. “It’s a formidable legacy to be part of,” she says. “If something doesn’t work, I can’t just quit my job. Because, it’s my family.”

Miriam Pawel is a Los Angeles-based writer and the author of The Union of Our Dreams – Power, Hope and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement.

*Photo by Miriam Pawel.