David “Mas” Masumoto's story is well known. It has a mythic quality that all such stories develop, so poetic it almost seems apocryphal. The heirloom variety of peaches he was growing called Sun Crest wasn't selling due to the market buying produce based on cosmetics and shelf life instead of taste. In the summer of 1987, he decides to give up on growing the Sun Crests and schedules for the removal of the trees. He writes an essay titled "Epitaph for a Peach" and sends it to the LA Times. It gets published and Mas receives 20 some letters from readers who were moved by his essay. This gives him the conviction to turn away the man who comes to remove the trees that he planted as a young boy with his dad.
It’s romantic to say his farm, with 80 acres of peach and nectarine trees and grapevines, was kept alive by 20 letters. But that's simplifying things. It minimizes or ignores all the different factors that led to the elevation of his small family farm from one of many in the San Joaquin valley to a brand name recognized for its excellence.
One factor for the success is the man himself. Warm, friendly, a natural storyteller with a hint of a contrarian streak, Mas came to his job honestly. A son and grandson of farmers, he learned to be a farmer by working on his family farm. He certainly worked hard, but that wasn’t enough. As he graciously says, his neighbors were growing produce that was wonderful and delicious as well. So why did his farm succeed while his neighbors failed? Besides keeping the Sun Crest trees, he made two more key decisions: he decided to go organic and, more importantly, he broadened and personalized the market for his fruits.
About the same time he decided to keep farming the Sun Crest variety, he transitioned his farm from what he calls "soft conventional" to full organic farming. The idea of organic farming seems natural to us now but it was a radical act for Mas back in the 80s. Though the concept of organic farming started in the 1940s, the movement was still in its infancy in the 80s, and U.S. national organic standards wouldn’t be published until 2002. Despite the lack of a standardized certification to make it easier for farmers to tout their organic bona fides to the public, Mas made the transition to organic farming because he intuited that it would be better. He was growing wary of the use of pesticides, seeing hints here and there about the dangers of them. And as the father of an infant, he didn’t want to risk exposing his baby to them. So he began to employ farming methods that must have seemed wild and primitive to his neighbors. His decision paid off as the demand for organic produce grew over the years, but initially there were adjustments to made.
One such adjustment was the amount of fruit grown and its ramification. Conventional growing methods have the trees planted right next to each other, making for a shallower root system which results in weaker trees and depletes the earth of nutrients. Mas spaced his trees farther apart, allowing for a deeper root system to take hold. What Mas lost in total yield due to fewer trees, he gained in having healthier trees and soil, contributing to a better fruit. But better tasting fruit means little to conventional markets whose business model is based on volume, looks and shelf life over taste. From a conventional market’s point of view, his fruits were just another commodity, no different than peaches bought from another farmer. And he would be at a disadvantage due to his lower yield. As he remembers, “We were entering a world of anti-commodity, anti-big business, anti-big volume. So then suddenly in my mind it was ‘How can we do this?’ Survive by growing less? I'm not worried about THOUSANDS of boxes. I just want a thousand great boxes."
Choosing to grow in this manner meant foregoing the conventional markets, which meant Mas had to take on a new task besides farming. “My dad never worried about brokering fruit. He just grew fruit. He was a farmer. He worked with a broker and trusted the broker,” he noted. But the market was changing so he had to change. He had to find new avenues of selling his produce.
Working with new brokers helped. Other farmers in town preferred dealing with brokers who lived in Fresno, someone they could see face to face. Ever the contrarian, Mas wanted to work with a broker who was close to the consumers that bought the produce and understood their wants and needs, because as he puts it, “My buyers ain’t in Fresno!” He describes a broker he worked with; lived in San Francisco, drove up to his farm in an MG in sunglasses. His farmer colleague took a look at him and exclaimed, “That’s not gonna be my broker!" Yet, it was this broker who introduced Masumoto fruits to the farmers’ markets, to the restaurants and chefs who were busy redefining high end cuisine.
Mas also made efforts himself to build up a network. During that pivotal time he and his wife Marcy would go to the terminal markets and meet the chefs who were buying for their restaurants. They in turn introduced Mas to their brokers. He attended food conferences and spoke on panels. In one such conference, he met Ruth Reichl, at the time the food critic for the New York Times. She invited him to lunch at Zuni Cafe and later introduced him to her network of food people.
He also kept writing. After “Epitaph for a Peach” was published in the LA Times he continued writing, eventually publishing a book of the same name. His warm, spare, naturalistic writing helped to bring more name recognition to his fruits and also keep the readers informed about what was happening at the farm.
In addition to his hard work, Mas was also lucky.
He was lucky in his timing. If Mas had started ten years earlier, he would have missed out on the sustainable food revolution, the organic movement, farmers markets, celebrity chefs. This community of good food would not have been around to support him. Another benefit was by the time he made his decision to farm organically, science had matured such that it was feasible for him to do so. He had access to products and methods that were not around ten years prior.
Mas was lucky to have a wife in Marcy who could support the family with her jobs at a hospital and at Fresno State University while the farm established itself. Furthermore, Marcy grew up on a goat dairy farm so she understood the life, not only providing financial stability but also moral support. He also had the good fortune to be in a situation where the farm belonged to the family. He had only to answer to his dad instead of a bank.
Like any success (or failure) it wasn’t just one thing that made the difference. Rather it was all of these factors mingling and interacting that all added up to Masumoto Family Farm’s success.
This all makes sense looking back after the fact to understand why and how Mas and his family succeeded in growing their farm. But Mas didn’t have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight during those years of change. There’s one more factor in the success of Masumoto Family Farm. He kept the faith.
I had a friend in college named Gustavo, a music major. Gustavo wasn’t naturally gifted but he
out-worked and out-practiced those who were and accomplished more as a result. Gustavo was a devotee of avant-garde jazz music. The genre is challenging to listen to, seemingly more noise than melody for the uninitiated, the kind of music more discussed than listened to. A highly regarded composer in that field is Anthony Braxton, the recipient of many grants, awards and recognition. But it’s no secret that for a good portion of his career, Braxton labored in meager conditions. At one point, he was making a living as a chess hustler in NYC.
Gustavo would always talk about Braxton and why he is lauded and talked about. “Do you know why he’s getting all these awards?” he would ask me. “It’s because everyone else is dead or they quit!” he’d say, answering his own question. “There’s nobody else to give the awards to!” Gustavo’s theory was that Braxton’s contemporaries from the 60s and 70s were not getting the recognition he was getting because they could not tolerate the substandard living that is afforded to musicians making strange music that a very small percentage of music fans listen to and quit. Braxton on the other hand just kept on going, practicing his craft that later won him recognition. As theories go, this one is kinda obvious, but I think of Gustavo’s idea whenever I come across people such as Mas.
Even during the best of times, farmers live a precarious life. A season's worth of hard work can be wiped out in a single storm. The farmer lives this delicate existence with the nagging worry of a sudden total disaster lying just underneath the daily thoughts of rotation schedules, feeding, spraying and tracking the weather. I don’t know how a person can exist with that kind of burden, living every day fraught with anxiety from battling the elements and pests without having something to believe in. And when, in addition to the natural challenges, a farmer faces a formidable obstacle such as the market changes Mas faced, you can hardly blame him if he decides to fold and change careers. What I find moving is at the moment of reckoning, during the time when things looked bleak, Mas kept the faith and found the strength to stay the course.
(I'd like to thank Alysson Severance for her invaluable contribution in editing the piece)