I wrote a book about a peach, a very special peach, that I think has historical significance in the sense that it talks about the power of story. First let me describe this peach that I grow.
Sun Crest is one of the last remaining truly juicy peaches. When you wash that treasure under a stream of cooling water your fingertips instinctively search for that gooshy side of the fruit. Your mouth waters in anticipation. You lean over the sink to make sure you don’t drip on yourself, and then you sink your teeth into the flesh and the juice trickles down your cheeks and dangles on your chin. This is a real bite, a primal act, a magical sensory celebration announcing summer has arrived. (from Epitaph for a Peach)
That’s the kind of peach that I grow, but it has two problems. When the peach is ripe, it has an amber glow to it. It’s not lipstick red like many other peaches have been bred to be. Also, it doesn’t have so-called shelf life. It won’t stay on a grocer’s shelf for a year.
I’ve been told that this peach has no mass-market appeal, it can’t compete, it’s outdated, it’s old, it’s better that you plant new varieties. I’ve been told there is no audience for it, you’ll never make lots of money farming it. You’re eternally working with something old and something claimed to be obsolete.
I wonder if old peaches and the preservation of historic places have something in common.
My quest was to find a home for this homeless peach, and that led me to continue to farm it. It also led me to write some books about it too. But the books are not just about how to sustain a family farm. They are also about sustaining meanings that support great taste, and I think it’s similar to the work of preserving and sustaining America. And my question for you would be, how do you grow sustainable places? And my answer is, through the power of stories and memories.
Every year I have a quest to grow the perfect peach. It’s a quest to find that peach that will be timeless and priceless. It’s a perfect peach that has a story, and I’ll describe to you something that I found when I was close, when I almost found that perfect peach.
My grandma taught me how to eat a peach. She’d sit on a small wooden stool and slice peaches, and occasionally she’d stop and like an innocent child she’d steal the taste of the golden flesh and quickly sneak a piece into her mouth. I watched her close her eyes and they seemed to tremble, muscles of an 80-yearold involuntarily twitching and dancing as if lost in a dream. My grandmother savored the flavor. A satisfying glow gently spread across her face, not a smile or even a grin, just a look of comfort, relaxed, soothing, content.
I thought of that image even after she died, wanting to believe that would be the look on her face forever. My grandmother and I shared a perfect moment and I’ve spent years trying to reenact the same closing of my eyes, smacking my lips. I smile and gradually lose myself in the flavor of a perfect peach memory. (from Four Seasons in Five Senses)
I think it is memories that we are after. When you combine memories with the power of story it makes things significant, because only when memories and stories go public do they gain significance.
A perfect memory to me is one that is a community memory. Farmers and those who are engaged in historic preservation, we grow stories, but our stories must be taken in context over time. In other words, history counts because stories without history are like sound bites. Stories without history are like the flavor of a peach with no taste. You eat one and five minutes later you can’t remember what you ate. We face challenges, however, when we deal with truth-telling because that’s what good stories are all about.
Truth-telling often taxes us, and I believe that it’s important that we keep a lighter side to our work in mind, a lighter side that reminds us what it is to be human. In working to save this old peach variety, I’ve found that I discovered life that came back to my farm.
That’s the power of story and the power of memory. The challenge for us is to sustain our stories.
Let me share three elements of sustainable farming that maybe will have parallels with your work. The three elements are farming that is environmentally responsible, farming that is socially just, and farming that is economically viable. Perhaps that’s similar to the conference theme of vision, economics, and preservation.
First, sustainable farming that’s environmentally responsible. On my farm peaches are part of a place. I have the responsibility to take care of that place. You might say the history of my peaches must take place somewhere. I hope by becoming a steward of the land that I can continue to grow great peaches, and that’s why I farm it organically, because I partner with nature on my land.
The common bond that we share in this room is that your work takes place in real places.
These are places with stories, just as a farm is more than just dirt, and history is more than dates and names. We work with a sense of place, and it’s all about taking care of those places. Organic farmers work with endangered species, preservationists work with endangered places, but we also work with endangered stories.
The second part of sustainable and organic farming for me is that it’s socially just. The perfect peach is not just grown organically. It has to be grown with the realization that there are communities and workers around me.
My work is inclusive, not exclusive. It includes the human element, the human capital. There’s a human story behind my peaches. It’s a story that’s part of the memory of a great peach, because when you work on a farm, especially a family farm, you include generations on the land. It’s part of that sense of place.
These are stories that are not necessarily pleasant, and I’ll paraphrase one story from Harvest Son where I wrote about how our farm began. After World War II my dad took the gamble and bought some farmland, and my grandmother became furious with him and she said, you should not have bought land because in America they take it away. It’s part of that simple story of a farm that adds that human character, that human dimension to the land.
Third, sustainable farming is economically viable. This is probably the hardest thing, yet the simplest lesson for myself when it dawned on me that going bankrupt and not growing wonderful tasting peaches does no one any good. Yet part of my job in my work faces this reality: What I do best will not always make the most money. It was a hard reality for me to understand and realize that, like for you, my farm is nonprofit.
But here’s how I hope to be economically sustainable. My work is not about making money, but it is about making stories. I farm stories that make money, and that’s at the heart of each peach that I grow. My peaches fill the flavor niche that industry left behind.
Large-scale farming operations can’t mimic my methods, in which skill and human management replace huge doses of capital and technology. I want my fruits to manifest the life and spirit of our farm. Mass produced peaches are designed to excite only the visual sense as consumers trade money for something that resembles a peach.
My peaches begin a journey into taste, texture, aroma accompanied by stories. People who enjoy my peaches understand and appreciate flavor. They pay attention to memories and stories. (from Four Seasons in Five Senses)
Our challenge is to foster and build memory, and the biggest concern that I have as a grower is to make sure that people get to taste a wonderful peach, because how can you miss something if you’ve never experienced it.
[As part of his presentation, Masumoto demonstrated “How Farmers Eat a Peach” with samples of organic peach jam from his family farm. He shared this with the audience—a literal and figurative “taste” of how the perfect peach memory transports us and a demonstration of the power of memories and stories.]
Let me end with one final passage from Letters to the Valley, which is one of my latest books. This book is written as letters, and this last one is called “Hunger for Memory,” and it’s a letter written to my father.
Dear Dad, you taught me how to have a hunger for memory, not nostalgia and a longing for the past that can never begin again, but a memory that’s alive with passion and excellence. Our family farm was never about trying to make big piles of money.
Instead, you instilled a desire to create a memory of something great and a passion to rediscover it each summer. I inherited your quest to keep that flavor ripening each year. Dad, I think of your life’s work as a priceless gift you passed on to another generation, a different sort of legacy that parents hope to leave behind neither in wealth nor land, but a portfolio of stories.
Dad, without knowing it you taught me a lesson about how to save our farm. When we work as artisan farmers we excite consumers with stories of passion. It’s okay to dream of perfection. The memory of a perfect food moment can become our greatest tool.
We all should hunger for memory.
Publication Date: Winter 2006