Edible Marin and Wine Country Fall 2014 : Page 56


Pit Crew

By Elisabeth Ptak

Adopt-a-Tree Program Yields Bounty of Insight – and Peaches

For a week in 2009, I ate almost nothing but peaches.

Even when I knew I'd had enough, my hand would drift to the plate of dried peach slices on the kitchen counter, or I'd crave peach jam and French toast, or I'd feel an urge to scoop peach salsa onto whatever we were having for dinner.

Some mornings, I baked a galette or two before breakfast and took them with me to work. On one typical West Marin evening (chilly, foggy), I topped a slice of peach pie with a scoop of peach ice cream and garnished it with a grilled peach half.

There were no limits.

That was the first year we harvested organic Elberta peaches in the Adopt-a-Tree program at the Masumoto Family Farm near Fresno in the Central Valley. It works much the way a CSA does: You pay in advance to provide working capital for the farm during the growing season, then reap the benefits or – as was the case this past summer – share the disappointments at harvest time.

To become an adoptive parent, you apply in February. You must convince the family – David Mas Masumoto; his wife, Marcy; daughter, Nikiko; and son, Korio – that you really, really want to do this because they want the experience to be more than just a transaction. They say they want participants to learn and share and grow.

In fact, they want it to be transformational. Starting with their own farm, they want relationships to become the bedrock of sustainable agriculture.

Mas is an organic farmer, a gifted writer and storyteller, a loving husband and father and a dedicated community builder. Once we were accepted as adoptive parents, he began emailing us regular dispatches that included photos of our "babies" at every stage. He estimated the harvest would be about 400 to 500 pounds of delicate but delicious Elberta peaches per tree. By the beginning of August, the fruit was ripe and ready to be picked.

By us.

We had divided the cost of the tree with three other families. Collectively, we called ourselves the West Marin Friends of the Peach. We would share the fruit evenly, and because the peaches don't all ripen at the same time, we also would split the work of the harvest over two weekends.

Suzanne d'Coney was on Team First Weekend. She phoned from the road on the way home. Her voice was exuberant, reporting that they had picked 26 boxes, each box weighing 10 to 12 pounds. "It was outrageous in its 'first-time-ness,'" she remembers. "At home, peaches were everywhere; the floors were covered with peaches. We wanted to honor the fruit, not waste any, and I wondered how to get it all done."

At the time, we could hardly imagine such a quantity, but the figure would be dwarfed by the 55 boxes we would fill when it was Team Second Weekend's turn.

Late the following Friday afternoon, Rebecca and Carlos Porrata and my husband, Gene, and I reached the Holiday Inn in Selma, which is near the farm. It's also the raisin capital of the world, according to a big highway sign.

We quickly unpacked and headed to the pool, which was surrounded by a faux-Yosemite-style rock wall. I heard excited voices from people in the Jacuzzi and thought I picked up the word "peaches." Sure enough, these were peach parents too, delivered like us to this unlikely setting of international raisins and fake rocks.

The idea is to harvest early, before the heat of the day (by Central Valley standards) kicks in, so the next morning we set out at 6:30am. Fifteen minutes later we spotted the hand-colored cardboard sign that read "Masumoto Family Farm." A smiling Korio directed us to a parking spot.

There was Mas' parents' modest green house just as he had described it in a field note. There was the shining white truck that is actually a field kitchen with its painted slogan "Give Peach a Chance." Under Marcy's direction, volunteers already were peeling and chopping ingredients for the brunch they would serve us later that morning. And there were, ta-da!, the peach trees.

Except for the two rows of adopted trees, the dusty orchard had been completely harvested, the fruit sold to restaurants and the wholesale market. Elberta is one of the latest ripening peaches, and it's delicious, but the variety the Masumotos grow is prone to bruising, so it's not a market favorite. In a business sense, there might be only one option: Rip out the trees and replace them with a more profitable variety. But they didn't want to lose these tasty, old-fashioned peaches. And so there was another reason for the adoption program.

Our "babies" hung heavy on the tree, identified by a hand-lettered sign staked in front of it. Someone has asked me to describe the smell of the orchard at that moment, but I can't. To really smell a peach, you must taste it. Mas put it best when he wrote about the Sun Crest variety in his book, Epitaph for a Peach: ". . .The flesh is so juicy it oozes down your chin. The nectar explodes in your mouth and the fragrance enchants your nose, a natural perfume that can never be captured."

I hated to leave our peaches alone, even for a moment. There was, perhaps, a touch of possessiveness in my amour. But when Nikiko tapped on a small chime to get our attention, we and the other pickers hurried to the gathering spot. The orientation – a combination of welcome, performance and Mas' mesmerizing picking instructions –

was not long, but it gave me a chance to marvel once again at this remarkable farming family.

Mas' grandparents immigrated from Japan in the early 1900s and worked on farms in the area until 1942, when they were interned for four years at the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona. After the war, they returned to the Central Valley as farm workers. Mas' father and uncle eventually were able to buy land.

Mas took over part of the farm in 1981, working it with his father. In the late 1980s he began transforming it to an organic operation, famed for its fruit.

Now daughter Nikiko is following in that tradition.

"I have an insatiable curiosity to learn. As I watch Dad, he greets every season with a great curiosity. There's no 'That's the way we've always done it.' He grounds the process of farming in observation." She's as deeply committed to building community and to the Adopta-Tree effort as her father.

"This program is not just about the peaches but about a shared understanding and a deep sense of teamwork and collaboration," she told me. That understanding would be tested this year when the recent harvest was about one-third of normal due to drought.

But our first year at the farm, she simply asked us to introduce ourselves to someone we didn't know in the circle of strangers. I turned to the young woman next to me and held out my hand. She had dark braids and wore cowboy boots, a cowboy hat and a sleeveless red polka-dotted dress. A sudden recollection of a photo of my mother came to mind. She is wearing a similar dress and is posed on a ladder. Her left hand is outstretched toward a profuse cherry tree; her right hand rests on one hip. No braids, no cowboy boots, no peaches, but I counted this evidence of my mother's singular harvest as credential enough, and in her memory I volunteered for ladder duty.

In fact, I loved climbing the three-legged orchard ladder stenciled with the name Masumoto, and surveying my team from the treetop. How wonderful the ripe peaches felt in the palm of my hand. How readily they released from their branches. I filled one yellow bucket, then another, while below me Rebecca, Carlos and Gene sorted fruit by size into boxes.

And how splendidly mild the weather was, relatively speaking – only 85° instead of the previous weekend's temperature of 105°. Everything was perfect.

So why were we arguing?

Picture, if you will, travelers accustomed to the mild coastal Northern California wilting in the Central Valley. Imagine a certain amount of itchiness from all that peach fuzz. Search for relief from the drama and from the heat and find it in a cleared space in the orchard where the canopy of harvested trees creates a shady haven, and shared peach recipes flutter from a clothesline.

We had been assigned a break time of 9:45am, so we settled down to quesadillas served with peach salsa and the camaraderie of other harvesters. By 10:30 we were back at our tree and picked companionably for another hour. Teamwork. Collaboration. Just don't get between me and my peaches, OK?

"The Sweat Thesis" chapter of Mas' book Wisdom of the Last Farmer describes a summer when there was a ". . .twenty-day heat wave with temperatures between 105 and 115 degrees." Except for Rebecca who had picked oranges and chiles in the fields of Orange County with her Mexican-American family when she was a girl, none of us has had the experience of making our living harvesting in such weather.

We ourselves were handpicked for this experience, but we were withering. I am embarrassed to even mention how sweaty and dirty and exhausted we felt after our single morning's harvest. After saying our goodbyes, we hurried to the Holiday Inn to shower before the fivehour drive back to West Marin.

I don't know what kind of clientele the motel gets on a normal weekend, but even I was surprised to meet one of our sister pickers on the elevator. She had loaded up a luggage cart with boxes of peaches and was taking them to her air-conditioned room, not willing to risk their sitting in a hot car for even the length of a shower.

We met other peach pickers on our way home. At a taqueria in Los Banos, we sat next to Jesse Cool, founding chef of Flea Street in Menlo Park. She shared dried peach slices (and her drying technique). At her restaurant, Masumoto peaches appear in appetizers, salads, main dishes and desserts –

an annual summertime peach extravaganza. I asked what else she would do with them, and she said she planned to make peach martinis.

In 2013, we adopted again. This time my son Louis and his fiancée, Camille Jackson, joined us. Camille is a chef, too, and says the Masumoto peaches are legendary among her colleagues. She and Louis are avid gardeners, orchardists, foragers, preservers and sharers. Depending on the time of year, they dig for clams, dive for abalone, fish for salmon and collect mushrooms, huckleberries and blackberries. At home in Inverness they've expanded an old neglected orchard and have more than 30 varieties of apples and pears on a dozen trees.

"But if you know anything about our climate," Louis wrote in the (successful) application form that year, "you know we cannot grow peaches here in West Marin. We've been imagining harvesting those delicious Masumoto peaches with our own hands ever since my parents and their friends adopted a tree a couple years ago."

That year the harvest was as abundant as ever, and we filled our cupboards and those of our friends with fruit preserves, chutneys and jams. But this summer things were different. 2013 had been a dry year, but 2014 was even drier. The farm experienced its warmest weather in 119 years.

Concerned with the health of the trees and the effects of the drought, the Masumotos limited the number of adoptions to 30. By April, the emails began to express worries about the crops and to warn adoptive parents that the yield was probably going to be lower than in the past. By June: "We have a dilemma."

"The crisis called for really deep engagements with the adopting teams," according to Nikiko. For the first time since the program began 10 years ago, adoptive parents were given the choice to opt out and get a full refund, or to share in the nuanced and complex decision-making of the farm.

Ninety percent said, "We're in it for the long haul." Restaurateur Jesse Cool's team was one of them.

"The last thing we want to do is opt out," she said. "I think anyone who's connected to farming realizes these people are deeply affected by the weather. It's up to us to go through that weather with them." She thinks explaining how climate affects the farmer must be conveyed to consumers, too.

"How else do we get [an understanding of ] these food challenges to the next generation?" She told Mas: "We will tell the story in the restaurant." And so they do.

I remember arriving back in Inverness after one of our harvests. I was ready to roll up my sleeves, and right away began lining up supplies and boiling water, the metaphor of birth not yet fully exploited. I parboiled and skinned enough peaches for the three batches of jam I planned to make the next morning. Before going to bed, I walked out on the deck to look at the moon.

In the Farmer's Almanac, the August moon is called the Full Sturgeon Moon, the Green Corn Moon and the Grain Moon. Some Indian tribes named it the Full Red Moon because of its color. That night it rose fiery red, then transformed to the color of a ripe Elberta. I wonder why no one has thought to call it a Peach Moon.

Applications for next year's Adopt-a-Tree program will be posted at Masumoto.com in January 2015. Both Elberta peach trees and LeGrand nectarine trees will be available, depending on the effects of the drought.

Elisabeth Ptak writes about farming and land conservation for local and national publications and organizations. She is also the author of Marin's Mountain Play: One Hundred Years of Theatre on Mount Tamalpais (2013). ElisabethPtak.com.

Read the full article at http://onlinedigeditions.com/article/Pit+Crew/1790262/222024/article.html.

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