In 'Secret Harvests,' Farmer Mas Masumoto Explores Questions of Legacy | Civil Eats

In ‘Secret Harvests,’ Farmer Mas Masumoto Explores Questions of Legacy

In his new book, the Japanese American peach farmer unearths his family’s painful, hidden history and explores its impact on his identity.

Mas Masumoto and the cover of his new book, Secret Harvests

In everything David Mas Masumoto does, from pruning peach trees to shooting the breeze with a neighbor, he’s thinking about legacy. The legacy he’ll leave behind, as a father and pioneering organic farmer, and all of the legacies that have quietly guided him here, to his family’s 80-acre stone fruit and raisin farm just south of Fresno.

Perhaps that’s only natural when one’s work is so steeped in history. Masumoto has spent his career growing (and popularizing) varieties of heirloom fruits that have been around for decades, working the same land as the two generations before him. He’s also documented all of the above in a collection of books, the first of which quite literally served as an oral history for the Japanese American farming community in which he grew up.

Given this interest in preserving history, it makes sense that when Masumoto learned that an aunt his family had long thought dead was still alive, and living nearby, his response was to start documenting her story. In the resulting book, Secret Harvests: A Hidden Story of Separation and the Resilience of a Family Farm, which came out in February, he explores the depths of his family history, uncovering long-held secrets and grappling with impossible decisions made when his family was imprisoned during World War II.

“Some stories remain private, concealed, hidden beneath the ground, out of sight and clandestine,” he writes. “[My family] had worked hard, so hard, to establish themselves and scratch out a new reality in a world that had imprisoned them. They sought closure on a terrible past, straining to move on, to carve a new history and reconciliation.” In researching his aunt’s story, “I open and expose old wounds. I disrupt the journey, face inner demons, and revisit a painful moment no one has asked to return to.”

We talked with him about unearthing his family’s past, and his attempts to answer one question above all: how the legacies of those who come before us impact our sense of identity, even when they take place outside of our awareness.

You’re first and foremost a farmer, but you’ve also managed to write 13 books. In Secret Harvests, you lament having grown up without a natural storyteller in the family. How did you find yourself drawn to that role?

Before I came back to the farm, I ran away to college in Berkeley. I studied sociology because I thought it was the furthest thing from farming. The irony, of course, is it was probably one of the best majors to study to come back to the farm. I love ethnographies, and the idea of capturing stories. And in our little town of Del Rey, there were probably 30 Japanese-American farmers here, but none of the kids came back to the farm except me.

When a neighbor [would] pass away, we’d have a Buddhist funeral. And Buddhist funerals needed to have a chairperson, so they’d call me. I oversaw probably about 30 funerals in the first three or four years I was back. I was the only young person around to do it. I would be in charge of giving the eulogy at the funeral. And what’s a eulogy? A eulogy is a story.

Secret Harvests feels like a kind of eulogy for your aunt Shizuko, who your family was forced to put in institutional care during World War II due to a mental disability, and who you were able to meet some 70 years later.

You’re spot on with the idea that this book is a eulogy to Shizuko—a story that captures who she really was and now is in our family memories. My hope is that we all keep asking questions and are curious about our families, our foods, and our planet full of life. I do believe every family has secrets, and exploring them can lead to wonderfully engaging memories.

The idea of family legacy, and how it’s something that impacts all of us, is such a huge part of your book. What would you say is hers?

There was an early exchange that happened when I went in to visit—a guy who’d been working there for maybe 10 years told me that when he first met Shizuko, she pinched him! So, that’s how she survived 70 years—she was feisty. She broke the stereotypical image of a Japanese-American woman, someone with a disability, and the image of quiet, rural farm people. She was full of life, that’s how she survived. My family was full of life, too, and feisty in their own way, given the circumstances of their history.

I hope to have lived my life with a type of “feisty-ness.” Growing food and building healthy soils may not sound feisty, but that’s when we ignore the life that embodies our organic peaches and nectarines and the wild, active biological life in our soils. That’s the feisty legacy I hope to leave behind, and the spirit you can taste in our fruits.

Secret Harvests is also about confronting shame. I imagine that writing it and having these conversations with family members was therapeutic in some ways, and challenging in others.

“I began this writing journey full of questions and unknowns. It’s the same way I farm—accepting the mystery of my work and open to learning.”

Yeah, absolutely. The original draft was mainly focusing on Shizuko. And the challenge was, we didn’t know that much because her records were sealed. We had no records of her, there were no family photos with her in it. A good friend of mine looked at an early draft and said, “You know, Mas? This book isn’t about your aunt. It’s about you.” So, then I redid the entire book and grappled with history, secrets, legacy, context, and with understanding what you know and what you don’t know. And [accepting] what you don’t know and will never know.

Shizuko allowed our family to look deeply at our history and reclaim memories. Too often trauma is buried and lost, leaving huge gaps and black holes for future generations. I began this writing journey full of questions and unknowns. It’s the same way I farm—accepting the mystery of my work and open to learning. The Shizuko story opened a door into the past without judgment, and [allowed us to] explore the emotions of real history.

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We’re encouraged to be curious as kids, and we’re given more grace when we ask uncomfortable questions. But as we get older, maybe as we become more compassionate and empathetic, we often stop asking those hard questions.

Writing my first book really helped me as a writer, and being part of this family and community. I learned quickly that to get the best stories, it’s not the first question that’s the important one, it’s the second and the third. Asking questions is what led to the story in Secret Harvests, but it took years to do that, because you weren’t going to sit down with a tape recorder and say, “All right, tell me everything you know about this.” It was one thing that triggered another thing that triggered another thing.

For Japanese Americans, legacy often goes hand in hand with generational trauma. How did working on this help you reframe the idea of legacy?

One of the underlying themes of Secret Harvests is the story of food, which permeates my family history, and also every peach and raisin we grow. And I hope people, when they eat our organic peaches, can taste that history. Some of them will through the stories we share, but some of them might because it’s an heirloom peach that has flavor. And if it’s working right, it catapults them into their memories.

That’s what you want, that kind of connective tissue. The past in the present lays the groundwork for the future. The thing that scares me the most is a farmer, or people, who have no memory of what a great-tasting peach is like. If you don’t have a memory of a great peach, you don’t know what you’re missing.

“We have so many legacies we carry with us that we don’t even know about. Just because you don’t remember your family’s farm […] doesn’t mean you don’t have that somewhere inside of you.”

We have so many legacies we carry with us that we don’t even know about. Just because you don’t remember your family’s farm, or you weren’t alive when it was around, doesn’t mean you don’t have that somewhere inside of you. And that legacy influenced your family. That’s why I’ll go back to looking at my grandparents when they arrived and how alien land laws prevented them [and other Asian Americans] from owning land.

At the time, other immigrant groups in California, like Armenians, could buy land, and it changed the trajectory of the raisin industry. But I think one of the biases we carry is that secrets automatically connote something negative, as opposed to secrets being part of who we are. Every family has secrets, and a lot of them are actually, especially with time, wonderful.

And that’s such an important part of the process, letting go of resentment and all that makes you bitter.

That’s where it connects with food today. What are the values that people had 20 years ago, 40 years ago, and how are they changing today? When we started farming organically in the ’80s, we were ostracized by markets, and we got lucky because a lot of things started to happen. We made some partnerships—[like with] Whole Foods, [which] started exploding in the ’90s. So, we got very lucky. Whereas if we were maybe a decade earlier, I probably would have gone out of business, or just went back to conventional farming, because there were no markets.

But that context allows me to say—what’s going to happen with [my daughter] Nikiko as she starts farming more? And now that we have a grandchild, what will it mean 40 years from now?

What does it mean to you to be able to pass the farm on to a child? I know you and Nikiko both had roundabout ways of coming to farming. Having a similar trajectory must be meaningful, and then also just being able to have her carry on all of your traditions.

My dad let me leave, which opened the door for me to come back. I think a great orchard takes 20 years before the flavor really starts maturing. So, at a certain point, I stopped planting anything new. Until Nikiko came back, I stopped planting new varieties because I didn’t know, in my 60s, 70s, would I have the energy, the time, to really do it? But when she came back, it changed the timeline.

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And now that Nunziata [Nikiko’s daughter] is here, there’s suddenly another generation that will be raised on the farm. What rhythms are going to shift with that? It means we can experiment with another variety, you know, because Nikiko will be here to see it to the next phase, and we can make those decisions together.

Do you have any official succession plans for Nikiko taking over?

I plan to just keep farming, and the farm will shift. And we’ve already changed some things. I’ve learned that as you get better at farming, you don’t make more money, but you get more time. Most people who work really hard and make more money, they want to buy the time to take that vacation.

I’m wealthy with time! And it allows me to pursue other things, like chasing a family secret. As I get into my late 60s, that’s the legacy I want to leave behind. Not an estate, not a big ranch, or a corporation—but the spirit of resilience. That’s exactly why I love certain heirloom varieties of fruit. They’re resilient to [have made it here]. And when someone bites into one of our peaches, they can taste that resilience.

Do you draw any connection between that resilience and the current challenges posed by the climate crisis?

The key is to look at things in context and to realize, 10, 20 years from now, it’s going to be very different. So where are we on this trajectory? It’s not linear.

When you prune, you’re actually seeing the future. You say, “I’m gonna prune this branch a certain way, because I want to see the summer sun hitting the fruit.” So, it’s this idea of projecting into the future.

Our farm recently got hit with hail, and one of the farmers who also got hit phoned me, and we started commiserating. He said, “Hey, I’ve got a story to tell you. They did an autopsy on an old farmer, and when they opened him up, he was full of ‘next years.’” That’s exactly how I farm. And so that’s the angle of climate change: We’re all farming for “next years.”

Caroline Hatano is a writer, editor, and content strategist invested in building a better food system. When she's not busy committing the cardinal NYC sin of dousing her pizza in ranch, she's dreaming about one day finding an apartment with a yard large enough for a luscious garden. Read more >

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  1. Susan
    Thank you for a well-written, insightful article! I particularly enjoyed the eloquence and the structure of questioning is so spot-on that I felt like I was present in the interview. If I had my druthers, Mr. Masumoto's books would be required reading for every California student.

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