The summer I came home to farm full-time with my father on our small organic farm, an odd rainstorm broke through the usually arid temperatures of the Central Valley of California. I wrote a poem about the grief and struggle caused by the brief storm:
invisible drops stained
the swollen cheeks of our fruit like tears,
as if to lament nature’s timing.
We had been only days away from harvest, and
it never rains in June, it
can’t rain in June,
it’s not supposed to rain in June.
Rain this close to harvest damages the peaches. If the drops do not dry quickly, the skin of the fruit degrades, and the moisture in the fields creates ideal conditions for rot. Even in a short storm, a whole year of work and investment can seem to vanish. The uncertainty of a life in farming reiterated itself brilliantly in this inaugural summer. If there was ever a Buddhist welcome to my return to farming, this was it: here is your harvest of struggle.
I grew up on the same land I have returned to, a small eighty-acre family farm just south of Fresno, California. The Masumoto Family Farm has been home to four generations of my family. I walk the same fields and touch the same shovel carried in my jiichan’s (grandpa’s) weathered hands. Inside my grandparents’ home where I now live is a small hand-carved butsudan inset into a wall of the family room. The house was built specifically to integrate this shrine. Much like the butsudan’s unassuming and gentle presence, Buddhist practice has been ever-present in my life.
I have inherited a rich lineage of unconventional practices, from organic methods to meditating on tractors. As a young farmer (both in embodied age—I am twenty-eight—and in experience), I still consider myself an apprentice to my father, and I imagine I will for at least a decade. I daily turn to the interwoven lineages of agri/cultures of my family.
This year, three years into my journey of learning and practicing, we find ourselves in an unprecedented drought after and during one of California’s warmest winters of the last century.
I have begun to tally the extraordinary circumstances in lists of “never”: we’ve never irrigated in January, we’ve never irrigated so often, and we’ve never harvested our peaches and nectarines so early.
As a critical thinker, I know better than to draw wide conclusions from my experiences alone. But placed in the context of scientific consensus and historical records, it seems reasonable to believe that I am bearing witness to the manifestations of climate change on our farm. Despite the organic methods we’ve used for decades and our continual attempts to diminish our harmful effects on the land, climate change doesn’t stop at any border or property line. I believe it will become one of the defining forces the next generations of farmers will wrestle with.
I try to imagine what the future will hold on this land. If I let my imagination run wild, it quickly fills with worry. Big challenges tangle themselves into knots: can I do this on my own? Will I secure health insurance? Can I farm in a rapidly changing environment? Will we have access to water? Can we farm more sustainably? Will I be able to measure sustainability? Can we farm more equitably? Can I feed people?
Eventually, when I calm myself (and instead of trying to answer this litany), I invite uncertainty to sit with me for a while. While I sit at the table of my emotions, challenges transform themselves into something else. Uncertainty becomes a teacher who points to the generational context of my life.
I remind myself that I am the fourth generation to touch this plot of land in the United States. To this day, I work with the tools of my jiichan, who bought the first acres after being released from Gila River concentration camp, where he’d lived during World War II. Before him, my great-grandparents worked as farm workers in the Central Valley. Even during their imprisonment in Gila River, many Japanese Americans at that camp worked together to grow vegetables for all the concentration camps. From within a most awful context—a concentration camp—they could grow food to nourish their bodies, and I believe the practice of farming in turn nourished their souls.
I think about the context in which my jiichan purchased and started farming our farm: he was about my age, he had lost his home, he had been imprisoned for no reason, then drafted into an army to fight for a country that had wronged him and his entire community. He had lost his older brother in the war and thus became the de facto head of household, and he had almost no money. It was his charge to carry the family forward. I imagine uncertainty haunted him too.
Then he returned to the Central Valley to work in the fields and saved enough to purchase a small piece of land. He made a place for himself and my family to plant roots, to belong and to grow. The spirit of resilience is the greatest legacy I believe he has left for me.
In the face of the future challenges in climate change, I do not know the path. But I believe that one of the greatest resources we humans have is to turn to our spiritual hearts and nourish resilience. It may not look particularly glamorous or extraordinary, but resilience is what I breathe in the dust. It’s the acceptance of challenge, struggle and uncertainty. It’s the realization that these experiences give us depth of meaning in life. The spirit of resilience has taught me to stop asking myself “Can I . . .” and instead pour my energies into experiments of “How” (How can I farm? How can I answer the call of sustainability? How can I feed people?). While “can” requires a yes-or-no answer, “how” invites a response in practice.
As I begin to respond to the many uncertainties of farming and the specific challenges of climate change, I will remember that while the specificity of my time and place is unique, the story of struggle is not. My family history reminds me that others before me stood at the feet of seemingly insurmountable odds, others before me carried the weight of uncertainty, and others before me survived incomprehensible injustices. In my family, farming has been a practice of resilience.
Every summer, two rituals remind me why I farm. When I take the first bite of peach, I reaffirm my commitment to farming. The first splash of sweet tangy nectar reignites a slow roaring hunger. Yes, I say to myself. Joy, shared sweet joy, pleasure—this is why I farm. Then, when it’s time to harvest Sun Crest peaches, I pick one, I cradle it in my hands, and I leave it at my jiichan’s gravestone. I don’t eat the peach, I give it as an offering. I have more work to do, I tell myself. Sitting with my jiichan, I just breathe.
Born in the Central Valley of California, Nikiko Masumoto spent her childhood slurping overripe peaches on the Masumoto Family Farm. She has never missed a summer harvest. She is a farmer, artist and creator, with degrees in gender and women’s studies, and performance as public practice. She is coauthor with her parents, Marcy and David Mas Masumoto, of The Perfect Peach (Ten Speed Press, 2013). See www.masumoto.com and www.whatwecouldcarry.wordpress.com.
From the Fall 2014 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 31, No. 1)
© 2014 Nikiko Masumoto