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Twenty-seven years ago, a young Japanese-American farmer in California walked out to his small peach orchard and met the driver of a bulldozer who was there to rip out his trees. The farmer, Mas Masumoto, told the driver that he changed his mind. People might call his peaches obsolete, but he couldn't let their flavor disappear. The trees would stay. His orchard became a symbol of a movement to change U.S. agriculture, and now it's witnessing a new transition. NPR's Dan Charles has more.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The Masumoto farm lies just southeast of Fresno, Calif., in the heart of the Central Valley, one of the country's great centers of industrial-scale farming. It's one small corner of a landscape of orchards and vineyards and vegetable fields. When I get there, the Masumotos - Mas, his wife Marcy and their daughter Nikiko take me on a little walk down a dirt lane toward five rows of gnarled, old fruit trees.
NIKIKO MASUMOTO: We have arrived at the Suncrest Peach Orchard.
CHARLES: This is Nikiko, 29 years old.
N. MASUMOTO: These are the trees my dad planted - helped plant as a young boy. And how old were you?
MAS MASUMOTO: Oh, I was a young teenager.
CHARLES: Mas Masumoto is 61 now. Growing up on this farm, he was part of a large Japanese-American farming community. They'd come back here from internment camps, where the U.S. government had imprisoned them during World War II. Mas went off to college, like most of the children in this community. Very few of them came back to farming, but Mas did. He returned to the family farm to the orchards he'd helped plant. But by the mid-1980s, he had to face the fact that big peach buyers no longer wanted those peaches from a variety called Suncrest.
MAS MASUMOTO: It was an old heirloom variety that didn't have the right cosmetics for the marketplace. It didn't get lipstick red when it was ripe. It didn't have the shelf-life that they, you know, that the marketplace was demanding, so it had become blacklisted. We had like 2,000 20-pound boxes of this in cold storage with no buyers.
CHARLES: They were losing thousands of dollars on those peaches. So Masumoto did two things - he scheduled that bulldozer, and he sat down at his typewriter.
MAS MASUMOTO: I wrote an essay called "Epitaph For A Peach."
CHARLES: It was a sad hymn of praise for the kind of peach that, he wrote, tasted the way a peach is supposed to. It enchanted your nose with a natural perfume.
MAS MASUMOTO: This fantastic-tasting flavor of food.
CHARLES: That flavor might now be lost, he wrote, along with meaning. He mailed the essay to the Los Angeles Times, which published it. Then the letters arrived. He showed them to his wife Marcy.
MAS MASUMOTO: I said, you know, I have, you know, 20 letters from people saying keep this peach. It's worth it. And I thought, you know, what's more important - losing $20,000 or 20 letters? And she looked at me, rolled her eyes and...
CHARLES: What did you think?
MARCY MASUMOTO: I'm thinking Marcy, keep the day job (laughter).
CHARLES: This is an important part of this story. Marcy's jobs at the hospital in Fresno, then at a university, gave Mas the courage to take risks with the farm, for instance, on that day when the man showed up to tear out the trees.
MAS MASUMOTO: He has a cigar out of his mouth, you know, and says OK, where's your field to yank out? And I said, you know, I think I might keep it. And he barks to me, well, it's going to cost you extra for me to come out later. Are you sure? And I said yeah, I think I'll keep this. And then that was the turning point.
CHARLES: It was a turning point because those letters put him in touch with what he calls the food world, people who really cared about flavor, how their food was grown.
MAS MASUMOTO: That food world was just starting to explode through the '80s and of course in the '90s. And that's exactly where this peach variety fit in this new world of food.
CHARLES: He started farming organically. He got in touch with farmers markets in places like San Francisco and Berkeley, far away in every sense from the big farm operations of the Central Valley. And through them, he met perhaps the founding food revolutionary herself - Alice Waters.
ALICE WATERS: He was so eloquent, and I knew that I needed to taste his peaches.
CHARLES: Waters started serving those peaches at her landmark restaurant, Chez Panisse. And she sang the praises of the farmer who saved his heirloom orchard.
WATERS: I always have wanted to support the people who are taking care of the land. And it's that personal story that really connects the food to the people who come and eat here.
CHARLES: The story spread. Masumoto published a book-length meditation on farming, also called "Epitaph For A Peach." People sought out his peaches, and the farm thrived. It may sound like the end of the story, but it's not. Remember Nikiko, the Masumoto daughter? Growing up, she never thought this farm was anything special. Why should she?
N. MASUMOTO: It's very common in rural schools that success is defined as going away and not coming back.
CHARLES: So off she went to the University of California, Berkeley. She loved it.
N. MASUMOTO: I was off in my land of gender and women's studies, feminist theory and really wild and radical political ideas. And I decided to take an environmental studies class.
CHARLES: One day in that class, a visiting speaker laid out the environmental impact of food production, how farming has defeated nature with plows and pesticides. It dawned on her - her parents, with their organic orchard, planting cover crops and wildflowers, were actually doing something amazing. And she thought the most radical thing I could possibly do would be to go home.
N. MASUMOTO: My sealing of the deal was on my 21st birthday, I gave myself a gift of a peach tattoo. And I think that's when my parents were like, oh, she's serious about coming back to the farm (laughter).
CHARLES: It did not go smoothly, though. The work was hard; working with family was even harder. Nikiko took a break, went to grad school. But then she was drawn back again by something more personal. Her grandfather, Mas Masumoto's father, the patriarch, the man who'd come back here from the internment camp to buy this land, he was dying.
N. MASUMOTO: I flew home from Texas. And one of those amazing, magical moments, my plane landed early. My mom picked me up, and I went home to our house, which is now my house. And he passed away in our living room, in the farm house.
CHARLES: And she thought about her grandfather's choice, in a really difficult time, to settle here.
N. MASUMOTO: I mean, that strength and his power to claim this place in America, in a country that had just very clearly told him and all of our community that you don't belong - for him to stake a place here - I mean, that's - it's almost a legacy I can - I can't turn away from. Like, it's just - I have to be here.
CHARLES: Nikiko Masumoto moved into the old farmhouse where her grandparents had lived. That was four years ago. The plan is she'll gradually take over the farm. She says the process of learning how to work with this land and these trees is only just beginning. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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