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Organic Farming Intersects with Modern Technology - 2003-03-17

Agriculture has become increasingly industrialized as modern technology has found its way into the ancient art of farming. California was once dominated by small family-run operations, but now each year the number of family farms in the state drops. Organic grower, and author David Masumoto is bucking that trend.

Rain hits the shingles on the large covered porch that leads up to David Masumoto's farmhouse. From the porch he can see 90-year-old raisin vineyards his family has tended since before he was born. In the distance there are rows of peach trees, waiting to be shaped by his pruning shears. The fruits of the fields and the stories behind them are something this 48-year-old farmer has made a life's work of sharing with others.

"We make our decisions on food based on memories," says Mr. Masumoto. "If we remember what a great tasting peach is like, then people will like my peaches. Because they may not look the prettiest but they have that wonderful flavor. And that's what I farm for, what I write for to try to connect people with these memories and stories."

David Masumoto grew up on this farm. His grandparents moved to the area from Japan around the turn of the century and worked in the fields. His parents planted the grapevines. He went away to college, majored in sociology, and yet found himself drawn back to the family's rural land. The land is a familiar topic for Mr. Masumoto and is central to his newest book "four seasons in five senses, things worth savoring." It's an extended personal essay that describes the process of growing, harvesting, selling and enjoying his prized organic peaches. At midday, the rain slows, then stops altogether. Mr. Masumoto walks a muddy road to his favorite peach orchard. "These are, by peach standards, an old growth forest," he says. "My dad and I planted these trees in 1968, which is ancient, ancient, so there's this personal connection and I think that's what makes a family farm, maybe makes the work that I do different, because I have these personal memories, the sense of history that's part of the fields here."

These are Sun Crest peaches. And in an age when most farmers replace their trees with new varieties every decade or so, they're an old, some might say obsolete variety. They're fuzzier than newer types of peaches, but Mr. Masumoto says they're also much tastier. As an organic farmer, he sees himself working in harmony with nature, not trying to control it. He shares the farming experience with his readers and with his whole family, working the fields beside his 80-year-old father, teaching good farming practices to his teenage daughter and 11-year-old son.

"You feel a connection and a responsibility with the land to take care of it because you see generations on the land. I'm taking care of it like my dad took care of it for me," he says. "I'm taking care of it for my children or hopefully someone who would farm after me."

David Masumoto's sense of responsibility to the land means not using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Because he and his family live on the farm,he says growing organically just seemed like the right thing to do. "In 1985, I had our first child was born, and I distinctly remember as she was growing thinking about how the things I was spraying in the fields weren't very good for kids," he says.

Pulling pruning shears and a spool of rope from a shed, he goes out to a block of young peach trees. As he clips off branches, Mr. Masumoto says he's making decisions now that will affect how the tree looks in a few months, and even a few decades. "It's really all about seeing the future," he says. "So when I look at this tree and how I want to prune and shape it. You have to imagine how it's going to look in the summer and how really the sunlight is going to penetrate it, so as you're pruning in a wonderful way I'm feeling summer."

In a couple of months, the valley's winter fog will give way to warm sunlight and the peach trees on the Masumoto farm will bloom. Tiny fruits will appear. They'll grow, turning bright shades of red and gold. Then they'll be harvested and find their way to markets around the state and across the country.