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The Peaches Are Sweet, but Growing Them Isn’t

DEL REY, Calif. — When I first visited this tiny farm town to pick peaches, I did not expect to return. Certainly not every summer. Yet in July, here I was again, in triple-degree heat, for the ninth straight year of a pilgrimage with friends to an orchard just south of Fresno, near the geographic center of California.

We come to harvest peaches from a tree we “adopted” on the farm of 65-year-old David Mas Masumoto, a third-generation Japanese-American farmer who began his adoption program to connect people to their food and to find homes for old-fashioned fruit too delicate for commercial sale. He has succeeded in ways he could not have foreseen. We are drawn back each summer by the intense flavor of the heirloom fruit, but even more by the unexpected attachments that have deepened over the harvests: bonds among members of our multigenerational team, ties with the Masumoto family, and a connection to our decades-old Elberta peach tree.

This year in particular has underscored the most profound lessons of the annual trek, which has become a window into the changing nature of a perpetually fragile enterprise in a perilous era. There is no longer any “normal” for a Central Valley farmer.

Climate change has brought extremes in heat and precipitation that play havoc with the harvest season, now elongated and unpredictable. And farm labor, long one of the few factors growers could control, has become equally unpredictable, as immigration crackdowns cause shortages and fear suffuses the largely undocumented Mexican farmworker community in the state.

When we return next year, we will see one of the more tangible consequences: Our peach tree will be two-thirds its former height. All trees on the 80-acre farm will be pruned to make them easier to be cared for by women, who have become by necessity the preferred workers for this small farm during a labor shortage that shows no sign of abating. The Masumotos hope to turn the challenge into an opportunity by shaping the trees to produce fewer, larger peaches, which command a higher price.

Farmers are accustomed to forces beyond their control — freakish storms, droughts, tariffs, recessions, consumer habits. Farms adapt, or they die. The Masumotos would typically hire a dozen workers during peak harvest; this year they picked their entire crop with four, plus the family — Mas Masumoto, an organic entrepreneur and author; his wife, Marcy, an educator and school board member; their daughter, Nikiko, a queer feminist performance artist and farmer; and their son, Korio, who just graduated from Fresno State.

The Masumotos are a California story, unique in their blend of genuine down-to-earth warmth and rock star status, universal in their immigrant roots, optimism and innovation.

Mr. Masumoto’s grandfather was part of a wave of Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century who quickly moved from working in the fields to running farms. By 1940, more than 5,000 Japanese-operated farms produced 42 percent of the state’s crops, despite racist exclusionary laws that made owning property difficult. Then came President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1942 order to intern all people of Japanese ancestry in a wide swath of the West Coast designated a theater of war. Mr. Masumoto’s parents were among the more than 100,000 — mostly Californians, most citizens — rounded up and imprisoned. They did not talk to their children about the trauma.

In 1987, the heirloom peach trees that Mr. Masumoto’s father had lovingly planted were almost lost. Mr. Masumoto wrote an angry op-ed essay that year in The Los Angeles Times in which he explained his decision to bulldoze and burn the trees because consumers shunned the succulent amber peaches they produced in favor of red, tasteless orbs bred for durability and appearance. “No one wants a peach variety with wonderful taste,” he wrote.

The essay prompted an outpouring that persuaded Mr. Masumoto to hold on to his Sun Crest trees and unleashed a cult following for peaches that became featured on the menu of restaurants like Berkeley’s Chez Panisse.

Although she grew up on the farm and never missed a harvest, Nikiko Masumoto had no intention to return home when she went off to the University of California at Berkeley, following her father’s footsteps. But in 2011, she followed him again, moving back home to carry on the family legacy, convinced that farming could be a vehicle for social activism and civic responsibility.

She will inherit the challenge of responding to climate change. Last summer set records in Fresno: July 2018 was the hottest month in history, with 30 consecutive days in which the temperature hit or topped 100 degrees. The last five years are the warmest on record in Fresno. Before that came two years of severe drought, among the driest ever, followed by torrential rains.

Mr. Masumoto believes the trees have embarked on their own mysterious, evolutionary strategy for survival. He and his daughter are experimenting with ways to irrigate with less water, which will become an even scarcer commodity when the state’s first limits on groundwater pumping go into effect in the 2020s. They have ripped out unproductive vines — they also cultivate a small crop of organic grapes for raisins — and not replaced them, leaving about 20 percent of their land fallow.

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CreditGosia Wozniacka/Associated Press

It’s also getting more difficult to keep workers in an increasingly competitive market. The fear among workers without legal papers is so great that last year a family backed out on the Masumotos at the last minute, reasoning they would be safer working for a labor contractor on a large farm that would provide greater anonymity.

In an age of such uncertainty, there is something reassuring about the land, and the trees, which persevere. The half-dozen members of our team converge on the Central Valley from Los Angeles, Salinas, Sacramento and the Bay Area, a mix of journalists, lawyers, nonprofit executives, with a new recruit or two each year to be inducted into the familiar routines. There are the same jokes, the same arguments, the same Friday night barbecues, which started in the back of a hotel in the shadow of Highway 99. And there’s the tale of the team member who forsook us one year to hike the John Muir trail — and was airlifted out after a medical emergency. “The Peach Gods were angry!” Mas Masumoto roared, with his wide, mischievous grin.

The harvests become a way to mark the years. Since our first season, Mas had heart bypass surgery. He, Marcy and Nikiko published a cookbook. Nikiko gave a TEDx talk, performed at the White House and was married this spring, in the orchard between Rows 7 and 8.

The youngest on our team was in high school when we first came to Del Rey; now she works for a food-gleaning organization. Team members retired, changed jobs, wrote books. The daughter of a founding member took her father’s place. The first grandchild was born this summer.

There are no endings in farming, Mas Masumoto says. There is just the next season.

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Miriam Pawel is the author of “The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation” and a contributing opinion writer.

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