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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Books, Farming, Love

It's a very cold day, but glimpses and stretches of sunshine and blue sky are heartening. We have no cows to milk, and it didn't take too long with a chain and cooperation to pull one of our vehicles out of the deep snow that had held it since Saturday night's skin-of-our-teeth arrival home.

Here are two books I want to recommend together, as they have a common theme: THE ORCHARD: A MEMOIR, by Adele Crockett Robertson, and EPITAPH FOR A PEACH: FOUR SEASONS ON MY FAMILY FARM, by David Mas Masumoto. The time period of THE ORCHARD is the Depression (though not published until 1995), while EPITAPH FOR A PEACH (1995) is closer to our own day, but both are beautifully and compellingly written first-person accounts of the day-to-day dreams, struggles, heartbreaks and joys of growing fruit for a living. Making my home and selling books here in cherry, grape and apple country, I find these books particularly relevant.

“There are tricks to picking apples,” Robertson writes. “Each stem has to be snapped off, not pulled out, or the fruit will rot where the skin is broken. They have to be handled gently: fingermarks make dark bruises later. They are picked into bags worn around your neck with straps over your shoulders, leaving both hands free, and the bags have to be very gently emptied into the field boxes or the apples will be bruised. Each little cluster or leaves contains the bud for next year’s fruit. Rough handling of the ladders or jerking the apples off the twigs breaks too many of these fruit spurs.”

There’s a twist you give when snapping off an apple, and you do it two-handed, as I know from my brief stint at Kilcherman’s Christmas Cove Farm one year, so that one hand is picking while the other is depositing a picked apple into the bag. You do it in the cold, and you do it in the rain, and the weight of the bag tests shoulders and back muscles to their maximum. And that’s just picking. It isn’t—as Adele Crockett Robertson did herself, running a one-woman operation before finally reaching the point where she could afford to hire an assistant, and then she kept right on doing it, too—pruning in winter, spraying in spring, agonizing over machinery, digging wells, negotiating with wholesale buyers and bankers--.

Farmers don’t get paychecks. They don’t have sick time or annual leave. What’s the fastest way to become a millionaire? Start with a billion and go into farming. It makes no sense at all without the element of love. Robertson was determined that her father’s orchard not be lost, and she saved it single-handedly. The conclusion of the story will break your heart.

Masumoto’s struggle was to keep in production a certain variety of peach, the Sun Crest, a peach that tastes “like a peach is supposed to.” Remember? Not fuzzy, green softballs from the grocery store, but sweet and juicy, with “nectar that explodes in your mouth … fragrance that enchants your nose [and] perfume that can never be captured.” You see the problem? A hard peach is easy to store and transport; a delicate, juicy peach is a fragile object. Which do you think buyers prefer?

A third-generation Japanese-American farmer, Masumoto breaks with conventional modern wisdom and decides to stop using herbicides. “Farming with Chaos,” he calls it: “My farm looks as if the farmer has died.” His crew of farm workers plant bare-root trees by hand, “which is rare these days.” A farmer can’t hide his work, Masumoto observes. Everyone watches, and his fields and orchards and the way he plants and tends them announce his opinions and values to the world.

For Masumoto, however, the measure of success is a little different from what neighbors and passers-by might see from their car windows. “I relish the fact that people enjoy the taste of my fruit,” he writes, and, “My peaches are my gift, and with each new year the joy of giving is renewed.” Besides, the egret has returned, now that the chemicals are gone.

As agriculture, as history, as economics, read these books. Read them also as memoir, essay, literature. They have earned permanent shelf space.

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