Art, Agriculture, and Changing Times

Mas Masumoto
Interview by Willie Smyth

Mas Masumoto, author of Epitaph for a Peach and Harvest Son, is an organic farmer in California's Central Valley. He is a grower spokesperson for the California Tree Fruit Growers Association and serves as co-chair of the California Council for the Humanities. En route to Portland to read from his new book, 4 Seasons 5 Senses, he stopped by the offices of the Washington State Arts Commission and talked with Willie Smyth, state folk arts program manager. In the interview, Masumoto refers to the benefits of art's reflective nature. This excerpt is published with permission.

Willie Smyth: What are the greatest threats to life and happiness today and how can artists respond to them?

Mas Masumoto: We live in an age where speed counts – from working to raising kids and families. Everyone is being pressured into a quicker pace. That's part of the reality of living in a computer age and information age. It's all about quickness, speed – faster and faster computers, more things to do. On the other hand art by its nature is reflective, and thinking is slow. We haven't sped up our reflective thinking, although everything around us has sped up. Part of the role of art is to help things slow down, to be a contrast to that fast pace – to be reflective, because that's where our strength is. Artists can be contrarian models right now and promote modes of thinking that provide balance to the fast pace.

Things are faster paced and changing more rapidly. Art provides insight into the agency of change. As both an artist and a farmer, I try to understand the nature of innovation and how it occurs. Farming in today's world is rapidly changing, especially in deal¬ing with fresh produce, and peaches specifically. There's an image of farming as being very slow where nothing changes; but I recently read that the average grocery store has access to four thousand percent more products than they had ten years ago. New products are becoming available online and from other sources. Even in the little produce sections where you used to have staples of apples, bananas, and various fruits, now one finds more exotic products constantly being introduced.

Yet despite the introduction of new fruits, there is increasing uniformity within each type of food on the shelves. The market place is shifting and innovation has helped it along.

Artists and farmers can respond to this shift by providing a healthier balance in the form that innovation takes. There is a drive toward uniformity among peaches. We have arrived at a point where most people do not buy peaches by variety any more; they just buy peaches. The result of this drive to uniformity is that the peach has literally lost its name and identity. If you understand the great range of flavors that peach varieties have, the magnitude of this loss is apparent.

Artists can help claim back that identity and diversity. I think of myself as a farmer artist in that sense, an artisan of the field. Part of my goal is to bring back the identity and diversity of varieties. I label my peaches with their name, I reclaim their identity with a label saying "This is a Sun Crest peach." The process of giving names back to things adds additional layers of value. It becomes known that the peach that came from my farm was grown in a certain part of California, in a certain type of soil that we have. This soil creates a certain unique character and regional flavor that people remember as a sensual aesthetic experience.

Artists can bring back an aesthetic identity to the world, which is increasingly being pushed towards uniformity and consistency. One can see this by thinking of food as art and chefs as artists. Twenty years ago that concept was unheard of, though the art has always been there. Now we're be¬coming very conscious of food as an art form. It's part of a effort to differentiate different approaches toward food – and it's a reaction to fast food mentality, eating generic foods, or eating something out of a can. Now we have regional cuisine and chefs who are creating fusion food. All this creativity is going on and some chefs are treated like rock stars. And these awards come with it, which I think is all fun – fun, and an example of how artistic expression can be cultivated in a field that was beginning to become just an industry.

Smyth: How can the artist and the farmer insure their produce and product have this gifted quality of art rather than being treated just as a commodity?

Masumoto: One of the things that terrifies me as a farmer and artist is the notion that there is no clear insurance that this peach or this essay or this book is going to be wonderful and is going to have an artisan quality. My work helps personalize them; the peach or the essay has that life, that human spirit, and that gifted quality because it IS unique and it IS reflective. Clearly, a peach is reflective of each year literally: how early was the spring, what kind of warmth did we have during the summer, and how did certain things work on the farm. This is all a matter of the synergy of things taking place on the farm and the result is this wonderfully unique, very personalized gift.

The way to differentiate art from the commodity is that art is unique and there is a natural variability in the ways an audience can relate to it. It terrifies me as a farmer that someone may buy peaches of mine that do not quite meet their expectations. That's the same gamble I take as an artist – that you're not going to always meet expectations of the audience. I remember doing an interview for the LA Times where they asked about this issue of consistency in art and farming. I told them that if one wants consistency, they can go to McDonalds, because basically the hamburger that's made in Seattle, Fresno, on the East Coast, or in Japan is going to be pretty much the same. That's what you get with anything that's mass-produced. I don't strive for consistency as much as uniqueness that is universally understandable.

Artists need to have a high degree of ownership of what they create in a way that marks a clear separation between something that is mass-produced and something that is very personalized. In the same way, a lot of things that artists do reverse the economy of scale. The traditional theory of economies of scale is you expand and become more efficient at producing something, and then the commodity you produce sells at a lower price and for more profit. I think an artisan's approach does the reverse. I maximize the personalization of my peaches. I maximize their uniqueness. Which means it's done on small scale. I substitute my management for technology and capital. The approach is highly human and becomes a wonderful fusion of synergy that hopefully results in this artisan peach.