Grow­ing fla­vor­ful fruit with less wa­ter

Agron­o­mist David ‘Mas’ Ma­sumoto ru­mi­nates on farm­ing amid the drought.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Ge­of­frey Mo­han

DEL REY, Calif. — David “Mas” Ma­sumoto set­tles on a pa­tio chair on a cool San Joaquin Val­ley evening, per­haps the last one be­fore sum­mer con­verts the val­ley into a kiln. The au­thor and or­ganic farmer has just sold the last box of his “or­ganic, ugly, fab­u­lous” Gold Dust peaches and Rose Di­a­mond nec­tarines, va­ri­eties that ripened early and came in small in this drought year.

Two of those so­bri­quets at­tached to his fruit are hard to dis­pute — they were cul­ti­vated or­gan­i­cally on his 80-acre farm south of Fresno, and they are hard to call any­thing but fab­u­lous, the pe­tite stone fruit of­fer­ing back a sweetly dis­tilled frac­tion of the wa­ter that went into them. That wa­ter, and its par­si­mo­nious yield, are on the mind of Ma­sumoto, whose lit­er­ary ru­mi­na­tions on the fate of the peach and of small-scale farm­ing cast him as the in­dus­try’s moral agron­o­mist.

As some­one who ad­vo­cates sus­tain­able farm­ing, what lessons do you take from the drought?

My lat­est thing about the whole wa­ter sit­u­a­tion is see­ing this as an op­por­tu­nity. Be­cause it’s a driver of change, like some­times nat­u­ral dis­as­ters are. You know: out of a tor­nado, a town re­builds it­self as green. An earth­quake hap­pens and ev­ery­one re­al­izes they have to bring things up to a seis­mic safety level.

It was a grad­ual dis­as­ter that “sud­denly” hit now —

as if it sud­denly hit! Peo­ple are say­ing, we have to be con­scious of this, and what can we do to be sus­tain­able? So all these ques­tions are start­ing to arise, like, where should you be farm­ing? Where should you not be farm­ing? Based on wa­ter.

Why is this re­al­iza­tion that Cal­i­for­nia is in a drought hap­pen­ing now, as op­posed to last year or the year be­fore?

It was partly when ur­ban peo­ple sud­denly re­al­ized there’s some­thing go­ing on. As a writer, I love it, be­cause it’s the power of story. You have drama, you have ten­sion, you have the con­flict. Ev­ery­one starts to say, who’s the pro­tag­o­nist, the an­tag­o­nist. Who’s the good guy? Who’s the bad guy? You have char­ac­ters.

Who are the char­ac­ters, then?

[Gov. Jerry] Brown sud­denly be­came this main char­ac­ter. Of course, he’s the gov­er­nor, but he’s de­fend­ing ag! This is a lit­tle twist in this story line, this plot. Out of this, is there go­ing to rise a sin­gle voice as a spokesper­son, ei­ther in ag or in ur­ban use or the en­vi­ron­ment? The en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, I sense, have been very quiet in this drought. I think they’re try­ing to lay low, so no one will start say­ing, well, wait a minute.

That’s why they love the sta­tis­tics of ag us­ing 80% of the state’s wa­ter. And it’s truly only 40%. It’s 80% of the de­vel­oped wa­ter. What does that mean? It means a lot of wa­ter is still used in nat­u­ral sources and it’s not counted. That’s why you get these num­ber games — it takes a gal­lon of wa­ter for an al­mond! Again, as a story, it be­came the metaphor. It is, in one sense, the wrong metaphor. Sud­denly you have almonds be­com­ing this char­ac­ter. I thought, wow, I’m glad it wasn’t peaches!

But I think be­cause it has now be­come a story, sud­denly peo­ple are in­ter­ested in pub­lic pol­icy. Be­cause there is no clear po­lit­i­cal good or bad guy yet, they’re ac­tu­ally talk­ing pol­icy more.

How has the drought changed your cul­ti­va­tion prac­tices?

We’ve been ex­per­i­ment­ing with this pe­tite peach method this year, where we’re cut­ting back wa­ter use 30%, 40%, 50% on some select ar­eas of the or­chard to see how it re­sponds. Part of my think­ing ini­tially was: How much are we over­wa­ter­ing to chase a cos­metic qual­ity? And it’s mainly size. Can you not grow a small, wa­ter-ef­fi­cient peach that has just as in­tense fla­vor? And you can.

I re­al­ize all these years I’ve been pump­ing them up with fer­til­izer and wa­ter to try to get them ar­ti­fi­cially big. So we backed off on the wa­ter. They’re small this year, but, good god, the fla­vor is great. It’s fan­tas­tic. It’s prob­a­bly the most in­tense I’ve ever had.

Will con­sumers buy them or will they look for the big, cos­met­i­cally per­fect fruit?

We’re try­ing to get the mar­kets, our buy­ers, to un­der­stand it, and hope­fully some­one to eat one and say it doesn’t mat­ter, the size. A lot of the buy­ers are say­ing: This is great. Good, that means their con­sumers are kind of get­ting over the size is­sue. We’re call­ing them pe­tite peaches, be­cause if I called them drought-tol­er­ant peaches, or wa­ter-de­prived peaches, it doesn’t sound the same. Part of it is brand­ing. They trust our brand. They’ll go, “Oh, this is a Ma­sumoto peach, let’s try it.” They are not see­ing the big ver­sus small.

If you look at fresh mar­ket grapes, ev­ery year they’ve got­ten big­ger and big­ger. Think of straw­ber­ries. Do you re­mem­ber there used to be lit­tle ones? They’re huge. They’re like a lit­tle fist. Be­cause size is just driv­ing it all. We don’t think of that in terms of what it’s cost­ing us. What are we pay­ing for to get that size? And I con­tend that a lot is wa­ter.

So, what’s the nat­u­ral use of wa­ter? If these peaches are nat­u­rally small, I don’t need to wa­ter them as much. Let me just grow them nat­u­rally. I re­al­ized, I don’t think these peaches want to be big. What’s the mat­ter with that? That’s my break­through: Oh, my god, I may have been over-wa­ter­ing all these years. Why? Be­cause we had ac­cess [to wa­ter]. It was cheap. It was sup­pos­edly free. And it’s not now.

This in­ter­view has been con­densed and edited.

To­mas Ovalle

A GROWER OF “or­ganic, ugly, fab­u­lous” peaches, David “Mas” Ma­sumoto cut his wa­ter use as much as 50%. It re­sulted in fruit with “fan­tas­tic” f la­vor.

To­mas Ovalle

“I MAY HAVE BEEN over-wa­ter­ing all these years,” says David “Mas” Ma­sumoto, whose farm is south of Fresno. “Why? Be­cause we had ac­cess [to wa­ter]. It was cheap. It was sup­pos­edly free. And it’s not now.”

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