Letter from California
An organic fruit grower reflects on the passing of old peach varieties . . . and their names

By Mas Masumoto

 
Peachy: Mas (above, center) with his parents, Tak and Carole Masumoto  

Editor's NOTE

Mas Masumoto is an organic fruit grower in Del Ray, California, and author Epitaph for a Peach, Harvest Son and the soon to be published Four Seasons in Five Senses: Things Worth Savoring. He farms with his 80-year-old father on 80 acres of peaches, nectarines, raisins and grapes near Fresno, California. He'll post regular letters to The New Farm® web site from California, reminding us of our place in the sweep of time — rediscovering the treasures of the past and leaving our own legacy to future generations of farmers.

When discussing this particular piece with Mas on the phone, I had a great chat about Elberta peaches. I spent a lot of time on my granddad's farm in Western Oklahoma back in the 50s, and his "next door" neighbor (a half a mile down the red sandy road) grew these delicious Elbertas. Turns out, Mas says, there are at least 20 different varieties of Elbertas alone that people have told him about. Got any interesting varieties of fruits or vegetables we should know about, or trying to find one? Tell us about it. We'll pass them on to Mas, who is always looking for new varieties of peaches, nectarines or plums. As he told us, "I want to plant some memories on my farm."

 

 

Dear Dad:

I have been thinking of the names of old peach varieties that few people grow anymore:

Elberta. J. H. Hale. Red Haven.

These old fruits lacked full color and shelf life, qualities more and more fruit brokers and produce managers claimed were needed. And consumer dollars rewarded newer varieties bred for lipstick-red color and could stay rock hard for weeks in cold storage after harvest. Who cared about taste when they looked so good? Old fruits were deemed obsolete along with their farmers.

Now as I farm organically and cling to varieties I grew up with (Sun Crest peaches and Le Grand nectarines), and which mostly are gone from the valley's fields, mine seem like memorials to the past. I, too, am feeling old and forgotten.

Once while cleaning up after a long day's work, I found, tucked up high on a shelf in our barn, an old tin coffee can where you saved the hand stamps from our fruit-packing days.

Rio so Gem. Sun Grand. Late Le Grand.

I read aloud those names as the evening gave way to darkness. It felt like citing a list of our neighbor farmers who have passed on:

Kamm Oliver, Kei Hiyama, Al Riffel.

But these hand stamps are different, and they are part of my history, too. Every summer, I lived with them, pressing the names onto wooden boxes. The stamps' wooden handles were worn smooth from use over the years. The rubber lettering gradually collected saw dust and had to be periodically cleaned out with a nail. My fingers wore perpetual purple ink stains, and one summer I spent weeks with "Forty-niner" - a cling peach - embossed on my arm like a farmboy's tattoo.

Names from our past. A simpler time when we farmed by working with nature before pesticides and herbicides. And we knew all the peaches' names because there were only a few. Stores used to advertise by variety, and families held annual gatherings centered on fruits. I've heard that Elbertas brought generations of women together to can and jam: an American quilt based on food that we contributed to each year.

Ironically, with dozens of varieties and new ones introduced annually, fruits today are rarely sold by name. Most peaches are now simply peaches grown with the goal of cosmetic beauty - as if all peaches should look the same: red, hard and clean of blemishes. In the process, we have lost our identity in a generic marketplace.

Of course, some heirloom varieties had flaws and prone to spit pits or small size. Others overly sensitive to weather swings - a cool spring may produce a funny shape or a heat wave prior to harvest can promote a soft and easily bruised tip. All reasons why some old varieties have fallen aside, doomed in a modern market place that seems to reward size, looks and shelf life. We live in a world that wants young peaches and nectarines.

But these stamps connect me with a time and place, and echo with reminders of our family farm. You've taught me well, Dad. I still farm with a respect for nature and a passion for taste, hoping my fruits create that moment of recognition in the middle of long summer days, a pause to enjoy something with flavor.

We farm memories - fruits that catapult someone into remembrances of things past: a story of eating a freshly picked Babcock peach or Green Gage plum. If our work is done correctly, it's no longer our fruits but rather a personalized story of flavor.

I want to believe people still remember great peaches. It's probably an older generation or those with a hunger of memory who know what sweet, juicy ones taste like. And I hope they don't forget.

My greatest fear is of a generation growing up without an appreciation of these flavors. They don't know the taste of a great peach or nectarine or plum. All their knowledge is based on what they've been exposed to: a peach flavored jelly bean or fruit roll-up. Sugar sweetness all too often becomes their criteria in judging taste.

As a result, old varieties become homeless. Without memory, there is no sense of what is lost. Sun Crest and Le Grand become secrets, and the world doesn't need any more secrets.

Dad, I just might find a way to use these old stamps and perhaps add some new ones to our farm family.

Nubiana. Flavortop. Nectar.

They sound wonderful, like poetry, and make me feel young. Perhaps that's why you kept the stamps all these years in that old coffee can.

And so will I.

Your son,

Mas


A version of this story was previously published in the Fresno Bee.

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