by Mas Masumoto
But our stories are anchored in real life. Wendell’s from a poet and activist eyes, I from a creative non-fiction writer and organic farmer point of view. We’d exchange opinions in a disarming yet deliberate way because it’s a conversation. Words and ideas flow with images and metaphors, policy and poetry. The two of us have something often overlooked in today’s fast-paced world: a history on the land and a sense of place.
This isn’t a dream. I have had such moments in my imagination over the past decades as I pondered Wendell’s words, poetry, and essays. When I came back from college in the ’80’s to our family farm outside of Fresno, California, joining my “homecoming” was Wendell’s The Unsettling of America. That’s when “our” conversations began. Initially, it began with just a single idea from Wendell: “The best farming requires a farmer.” I felt pulled into his mindset; I like this man’s thinking. Then came a more involved concept: “Food is a cultural act”–which catapulted me into a new vision for my work. That’s when the exchanges began.
Good writing lingers and thoughts turn over in your mind. Farm chores are often monotonous and tedious, a perfect type of working meditation as my dialogue with Wendell continues. What better way to explore the meaning of your efforts than to be doing some productive undertaking while you think.
Farming is about real and honest work, hard physical labor that breaks the body and taxes the soul. The words of Wendell fall with a refreshing spring rain or are found in a shovel full of dirt, along with a proper amount of weeds, of course.
So over the decades, we talked about values and agriculture. Values still matter, a belief I’ve struggled with every harvest amongst the pressures to make a living, to find enough income to allow my family to grow, to reevaluate the real return on investment in our organic peaches and nectarines that are born from my soils and sweat, along with the strong hands and backs of the farm workers that are the lifeblood of our operation.
Wendell talks of the disconnections in modern agriculture. The business of growing food lurks like a dark shadow. I know of a few neighbors with the vision of Wendell but their timing was off by a decade or two – they couldn’t translate their labor into the marketplace and fell out of place. My family was lucky, we had no master business plan but a blend of hard work, some savvy, a few arguments with Wendell, and of course, the luck factor.
Today, I can sit on the porch and talk about old times and what’s to come as my daughter now partners me on the land. How fitting that a young woman has found her place on this piece of earth we call a family farm., or as she would say, “It’s about time for women to be recognized.”
The documentary Look & See: Wendell Berry’s Kentucky felt like one of my imagined exchanges. Thoughts were triggered, the constant struggle with the appropriate role of technology and the pressures to get by for farmers. And the will to work the land and keep alive something in those of us who dare to consider farming and ranching.
I’m old enough to remember Agricultural Secretary Earl Butz who championed industrial agriculture. His “adapt or die” mantra led the charge as farming shifted from smaller, family operations to factories in the fields. Wendell offered a different voice, another perspective and hope for my small operation.
But in a twisted way, our farm became the contrarian to the massive changes in agriculture that continue today. I’ve debated with Wendell many times about the proper role of technology and modernization. I never farmed with horses–although my father would share some priceless tales about his mules who were smart enough to stop plowing before they accidentally pulled out a grapevine.
Needless to say, our farm is filled with gaps of missing vines and my bad French plowing techniques coupled with tractors who don’t stop when I drive too close, dig too deep and yank out roots. But I like my tractors. And equipment, especially the old stuff that I can actually fix when broken. They are adapted to our sandy loam dirt with disk blades that delicately turn the “native grasses” (a.k.a. weeds) to create rich humus.
Because our organic peaches, nectarines and raisin grapes require large amounts of labor, we constantly are challenged by labor-saving equipment that displaces some of the best workers, coupled with public policies, such as immigration laws, which impact the daily lives of farm workers central to the larger food community. My grandparents immigrated from Japan to work the fields of America, my parents grew up as farm workers because Alien Land Law specifically targeted “Orientals” and prohibited them from owning land.
Conviction lies at the heart of real farming: a dedication to the land and home. Wendell weaves family and community into the fabric of rural life as we talk about what it means to be a farmer. Local knowledge means something. What we feel matters. I wonder what Wendell would say about my fallowed acres because I want to work wiser, not just harder. And the sound of birds and witnessing the native bee population explode because of that open ground helps my bottom line of value.
Of course, there are major differences between Wendell and myself. California is a long way from Kentucky. We have a different agriculture here, a shorter history of farming and one filled with immigrants. Wendell’s people are white, mine are Asian. The role of race is absent in our conversations on the porch, yet I know he will ask questions and these stories will bond us.
And in the middle of our exchanges, my daughter Nikiko will not hold back and inject her voice, a woman’s voice. Just as Wendell and I thought we have figured out the narrative about modernization and farming, Nikiko will toss in a disruptive realization and us two old guys will glance at each other and realize we missed something all along. Is the new farming and food culture we’ve been advocating really about women on the land?
Words matter, perhaps that’s why Wendell and I also write. We are fortunate to have two harvests: of poems and stories, as well as food from the good earth. The words help us connect with the worlds of nature and human nature. Both harvests impact each other. I know my writing would not be as rich without the farm and our produce would lack flavor if not for nurturing by words.
Our shared wisdom may originate in a simple act of listening. And then doing. On the farm, you never stop working. Yet you must pause to think and ponder, expand your perspective, and pilot a new approach – much like the first draft of a poem or story, you get it out and then rewrite and rewrite until it feels right.
When I’m at my best, I can pause enough to be aware of the work and I hear voices: the farmers before me, my family, my father. And Wendell mixed in.
So our work may be lonely at times. But we work with the knowledge there are others that surround us and take comfort in what we leave behind: something of value.
The proper way to end my talk with Wendell may be a simple joke that circulates in our farm community (and probably many others). I first heard this after a sudden and dramatic hail storm that wiped out part of my peach crop and that of neighbors. We could all track the path of the storm, the fiercely dark clouds jumped from field to field and I could name the farmers along that route. I know we would all be standing at our pane windows, watching the force of nature, witnessing a power that dwarfs us all.
The simple joke we then shared amongst ourselves: “A farmer neighbor passes away and they performed an autopsy. When they opened him/her up they found they were filled with ‘next years’.”
So Wendell, until a future visit, thanks for another conversation. We’re both optimists, that’s what farming and writing is all about. Along with another harvest, another season of words and another “next year” of work.
This guest column is by writer and organic farmer David Mas Masumoto, author of the award-winning Epitaph for a Peach, Wisdom of the Last Farmer, and Changing Seasons, along with numerous other acclaimed books and articles. Based in California’s Central Valley, Mas was inspired to write after seeing Look & See: Wendell Berry’s Kentucky, recollecting his own connections to writer Berry and their kinship over farming. See Look & See on Independent Lens April 23 on PBS.