Nikiko Masumoto is a yonsei (fourth generation) farmer at Masumoto Family Farm, an artist, and co-author of The Perfect Peach: Recipes and Stories from the Masumoto Family Farm and Changing Season: A Father, A Daughter, A Family Farm. Before taking part in a Zócalo/The California Wellness Foundation streamed event titled “How Can We Make Farm Work Healthier,” she called into the virtual green room to chat about growing up on her family’s farm, why she insisted on getting a magnetic refrigerator, and how she makes a favorite comfort food, loaded grilled cheese.
When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was a kid, I didn’t envision coming back to the farm at all. I think I wanted to be a history professor.
What do you think it was about history that grabbed you?
I grew up in a family that took to heart the idea of history being part of our everyday lives. I grew up as a mixed-race kid, in a multicultural, multi-religious family, learning about the histories of my ancestors. That left a really big impression on me. And on top of that, I got to live out really intimate relationships with my family history. I grew up on the farm, and on one end of the farm one set of my grandparents lived and then on the other side of the farm was where our house was. So I’d get to bike over and spend a lot of time with my grandparents, who were incarcerated during World War II. That’s my Japanese American side of the family. So, history wasn’t kind of some distant secret. It was talked about a lot.
What is hanging on your refrigerator?
Hanging on my refrigerator I have tons of photos of family and friends. Let’s see. What else was up there? There’s probably a recipe or two that I haven’t yet made yet, but I want to make. What else is up there? I love snail mail, so there’s cards. I’m not in front of my fridge right now, so I can’t remember what else, but there’s tons of photos. It’s covered with photos. My wife and I, we remodeled our house a couple of years ago and so we got new appliances, and this was one of my requirements—that the refrigerator had to be magnetic.
What is the best gift you’ve ever received?
The top three that just jumped to my mind was when I went away for college, my father gifted me four Raku pottery tea cups, and on them is a Japanese proverb that says, “Seven times fall down. Eight times get up.” And so that was one of the best gifts ever.
Another gift, I think this was the first gift my wife ever made for me, while we were still dating. I love doing storytelling and performance, and every year we have an Adopt-a-Tree program at our farm where about 200 people come and harvest trees that they’ve adopted for the year. I’m really short, so it’s hard to see everyone in the audience—so she made me a fork-liftable stage.
So that’s another one, and then the most recent incredible gift: My best friend gifted my wife and I the second half of our honeymoon. She lives in Switzerland now, and she told me, don’t plan anything for the last five days. And she planned our last five days in Italy, which was just so nice of her.
Do you have a favorite local band or musician?
There’s a local Chicano musician who re-did a version of Woody Guthrie’s song [“Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)”]. His name is Lance Canales. He’s a local artist. He’s great. Lance Canales and the Flood [featuring Tim Z Hernandez].
There’s also a really cool jazz and classical music composer Benjamin Boone who did a collaboration with Philip Levine, the late poet laureate.
What do you do to decompress?
Oh, I go for walks on the farm all the time. Silent walks. Sometimes it’s intentional that I’m actually looking to observe somebody, a stage of growth in a vine or tree. But I also just go to clear my mind. And in case you are in an urban environment, we have been posting over the past two weeks one-minute farm walks on our Instagram. You can hear me walking and breathing, but it’s supposed to be meditative. As soon as the shelter in place came down, we were just thinking what some small thing we could do. So that’s been part of our farm response.
What is your favorite novel?
My favorite novel. That is so hard. I’ll do the last novel I read, which is a modern Canadian Muslim [take on] Pride and Prejudice. It is called Ayesha At Last by Uzma Jalaluddin. It’s a great book. And as a non-Muslim, it was a great refresher on my cultural competency.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t know if this exactly fits, but this is the best thing I can think about, one of the “aha” moments for me in life, and as a farmer. When I was still at UC Berkeley, I came home to help with the planting of a new orchard on our farm, which doesn’t happen very often because we try to keep our varieties for as long as possible. So we were planting a new orchard of nectarines called the Rose Diamond nectarine, and as we were in the fields working together, my dad stopped. He said, “Nikiko, this orchard will be full grown when you are 40.” I was 19 at the time, and 40 had never entered my mind as a 19-year-old. What I took from that moment was that when you farm, one of the lessons of farming is to extend your view of life and to think about the legacy you’re leaving—not just in a year, not even in five years, not even in a decade, but in a lifetime of working the same place.
Do you have a go-to comfort food that uses local ingredients?
I have so many that bring me great comfort. When you don’t have a lot of time to make something and you just have whatever fruits or vegetables you have that you hadn’t planned for, I make loaded quesadillas or grilled cheese sandwiches. You can put anything like spinach, mushrooms, Napa cabbage, Swiss chard made into a quick pickle …