Wisdom Of The Last Farmer: Harvesting Legacies From The Land, by David Mas Masumoto
This book is no more than half of an interesting conversation that one can find between authors like this one and authors like Victor Davis Hanson who, despite very different cultural and political views nonetheless has a lot of the same things to say as a family farmer struggling to deal with the unprofitable raisin market. Indeed, what I found most striking about this book was trying to triangulate between the two authors and my own background coming from a farming family to see how it is that very different people with very different views can nonetheless find a great deal of similarity simply by struggling with the horrific problems of how to keep a family farm afloat in the contemporary age. If the author does not have a great deal of insight into that problem, this book does fit the general downbeat mood of just about all writing that exists about family farms. Anyone who writes or knows anything about family farms has the grim feeling of writing about or being the last farmer. It is worthwhile in this context to recognize that these accounts are all broadly similar, suggesting that the structural issues of farming trump any sort of view that someone brings into the task.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages and has five parts and 29 small chapters. Indeed, many of this book’s chapters appear like blog entries, or like small articles made for various rags that the author is involved in. The book begins with a foreword that talks about the author and his peaches. This is followed by four chapters that discuss why it is that one should farm (I, 1-4), including a discussion about family heirlooms, the price of perfections, as well as the last orchard. This is then followed by looking at what one does when things break (II), including chapters on what it means to call one’s father a weed, how one lives with insults, resilience, shoveling sand, and getting back to work again. After that comes a section of chapters on farm works (III), including junk, French plowing, hardpan economics, and falling down. Another set of chapters then looks at planting memories (IV), including killing an orchard to save the farm, farming with ghosts, missing stories, and fields of gold. Finally, the book ends with chapters on succession (V), including the question of how many harvests are left, what it means to abandon a vineyard, and questions of preservation, after which the author closes with acknowledgements.
What does it mean to be a last farmer? This book gives a picture of what it involves. While I must admit that I am by no means fond of the author’s political worldview, for he considers himself to be a leftist, most of the book mercifully focuses on other aspects of being a last farmer. So we read stories about the stroke that the author’s father had, and his attempts to recover from the stroke and keep working despite his handicaps. We see the author’s own efforts at farming and seeking to profit by going organic while dealing with the inevitable pests that attack fruit trees, of which the author’s farm had plenty. The author deals with matters of identity in his own family–looking at the difference between firstborn and second children, as well as how it felt for him and for his children to go to college and deal with being from the “other California” that is often forgotten despite its population and agricultural importance. Perhaps most interestingly, the author deals with the hardscrabble economics of farming, pointing out how economic survival for farms often interferes with political goals, and how poverty tends to become entrenched through generational patterns of failure and struggle.