I am an LA based photographer specialising in portraiture. For the past five years, I have been working on a personal project, photographing portraits of people in the food world who are doing important work, changing the way we understand or interact with food. One name I consistently came across over the course of the project is David ‘Mas’ Masumoto. A peach farmer based in Fresno with a compelling passion and creativity for what he does.
Last fall, while attending a blind tasting event for the Good Food Awards I met his wife, Marcy Masumoto, and asked her about photographing her family for the Culinaria project. She kindly agreed and that’s how I found myself driving up to Fresno to photograph David ‘Mas’ Masumoto and his family at their farm on a pleasant warm day in March.
My original idea was to photograph them closer to harvest time with peaches on the trees, then I received an email from Marcy in February letting me know that the trees were blooming. Peach blossoms! Being the city boy that I am, it hadn’t dawned on me to think about the blooms. But as soon as it was suggested I knew this was the right moment.
On arriving at the Masumoto Family farm, the first thing that you will encounter is the five-dog greeting party. They run down the driveway to meet you and trot alongside the car back to the house. The dogs barking was the cue for Marcy who came out to greet me as I arrived. Mas was out working on the field so she welcomed me into their home and showed me around. Soon enough, Mas came in from the fields and after a brief chat, he took me on a tour of his farm.
The Masumoto Family farm is the farm we have in our minds, the bucolic family-owned slice of Americana straight out of central casting: An “L” shaped lot totalling 80 acres with the inviting home in the bend of the “L” framed by a stately sycamore tree providing much welcomed shade during the 100 plus degree summer heat, a weathered old barn housing the tractors and tools, an old red truck to get around the farm and the previously mentioned packs of friendly dogs running around rooting for lizards. The only thing that looks a little out of place in this agricultural setting are the his-and-hers Priuses parked next to the house.
Mas pointed out the different areas of the farm, what grew where, the history behind the varieties he grew, stories about individual trees. He explained how his farm differed from the other farms in the area in his methods. Then gave me a quick lesson in botany as he dissected the peach blossom, pointing out the different parts of the flower and showing me the tiny little bud that will grow into a large, sweet peach fruit. And he did this all the while regaling me with his family history and stories from his experience growing the farm from one of many anonymous family farms in the San Joaquin valley into a highly regarded name brand in the food world.
One factor for the success of the farm 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 neighbours were growing produce that was wonderful and delicious as well. So why did his farm succeed while his neighbours failed? Besides keeping the Sun Crest trees, which intially weren’t selling well due to the market buying produce based on cosmetics and shelf life instead of taste, he made two more key decisions: he decided to go organic and, more importantly, he broadened and personalised 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 at this time, and US national organic standards wouldn’t be published until 2002. Despite the lack of a standardised 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 neighbours. 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.
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. 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 hindsight during those years of change. There’s one more factor in the success of Masumoto Family Farm. He kept the faith.
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 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 decided to fold and change careers. What I find moving is at the moment of reckoning, during the time when things looked bleak, Mas found the strength to stay the course.
My last view of Mas was the same as my first, working the land he treasures. He drove his tractor into the field accompanied by a dog playfully jumping around the wheels, getting in the last chore as the sky quickly changed from indigo blue to no colour at all.