Epitaph for a Peach, by David Mas Masumoto

I don't buy peaches in the grocery store anymore. Either they rot before getting ripe or they have no flavor. I'm lucky to have alternatives: nearby farms and farmers' markets where I can find good peaches.

This memoir opens with the shocking image of Masumoto expecting to have to bring in the bulldozers to rip out his orchard of peach trees. These healthy and productive trees produce Sun Crest peaches, an heirloom strain with amazing flavor but a short shelf life and mild color.

As suppliers constantly tell Masumoto, consumers only care about the color and markets need fruit that can be shipped long distances without spoiling. To meet this demand, nurseries compete to come up with the next flavor-of-the-month strain of fruit. This surprised me. I would expect it of peas or tomatoes or other annuals, but the time investment in fruit trees seems so great that a quick turnover to catch a market boom in the popularity of a particular strain would be impossible. It would be like a writer trying to imitate some new popular book, not realising that by the time her book is written and published, an entirely different kind of book will have captured the public's imagination.

And of course, the suppliers are wrong. At least, I think I'm not the only consumer who cares much more about flavor than color. I'd pretty much stopped eating apples because they were so bland, but now we have lots of heirloom kinds of apples available. Same thing with tomatoes. I would love to try a Sun Crest peach.

Masumoto's descriptions of farm life are lovely: blossoms in the spring, weighing a peach in your hand to determine ripeness, spreading grapes on paper trays to dry in the sun, pruning branches for the best growth. He talks a lot about the relationship between the farm and family, not just his wife and children but his parents and grandparents. He remembers and beautifully describes the way his grandmother, his baachan, walked in from the fields.

His grandparents came to the U.S. from Japan and were following the hard working emigrant path when World War II started and they, like other Japanese-Americans, were sent to detention camps. After they got out, even though they were middle-aged, they decided to save and buy their own land. Masumoto's father stayed to work the farm his parents bought, the land that the author now farms, producing peaches and raisins.

Masumoto has a lovely voice, calm and straightforward, even when describing the indignities of the camps and the way neighbors helped themselves to the belongings left behind. His attitude is both realistic, especially about the difficulties of making a family farm successful, and idealistic. He still believes that there are people out there who will want his peaches and that he can support his family, even as he describes the vagaries of the weather that can wipe out a crop of raisins in a day, and migrant workers whose unavailability can cause a disastrous delay at harvest time. Unsparing of himself, he is quick to own up to his mistakes and na├»veté.

In the end, this account is a realistic depiction of life on a family farm. I've worked on a dairy farm, but cultivating trees calls for a very different relationship with time. I agonised with Masumoto over whether trees had grown too old to be productive or what path a threatening storm might take. I rejoiced with him on finding a much-needed antique defuzzer in a shed and in taking twilight walks through the vineyards with his young children. Anyone interested in locavore issues or who just wants to be immersed in a different sort of life for a while will enjoy this book.

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