Fifty-eight years old. That was the average age of principal farm operators in the U.S. in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture. Over the past 30 years, the average age of principal farm operators in the U.S. has increased as fewer young people have taken up farming.
For many farmers' children, leaving home means leaving the business. Nikiko Masumoto grew up working the peach harvest every year on the Masumoto Family Farm in California. Though she was a fourth-generation farmer in the making, when she went to college, she thought she was leaving the farm for good. She is co-author of The Perfect Peach.
Francis Lam: Growing up on a farm as you did, you had no choice but to work the summer harvest every single year. In 110 degrees, you were picking peaches, you were fixing tractors, you were sweaty. When you left to go to college, how much were you like, "Peace out. See you never"?
Nikiko Masumoto: I was 100 percent "Peace out." I never wanted to come back to the farm. I didn’t even want to come back to the region actually. I was hungry to expand my horizons. Going from a small town and living on a farm to the University of California, Berkeley was the direction I wanted to go. I never wanted to look back.
But, of course, life introduces us to our lack of control, and I find myself amazingly back in the exact place I should be.
FL: When did you realize you wanted to return to the farm?
NM: I had a very specific moment when the idea came back to me. I took a class in environmental studies my second year at UC Berkeley. In this class, a guest lecturer came and talked about pesticides. In this lecture, she talked about what the application of pesticides was doing to our environment, and also about the public health risks of intensive use of pesticides.
It was not until that moment that I was able to put what my family had done on our small, organic, 80-acre farm in a global and political context. For me as an 18-year-old gender and women's studies major, I realized coming back to the farm to carry on that tradition might possibly be the most radical thing I could think of.
For me, that familial connection -- I live in the house my dad grew up in, I lived in this house with my grandparents, it is the house that my jiichan, my grandpop, passed away in. That core of being, that is what gets me through the 110-degree days when there’s still more work to be done. I’m incredibly grateful for that.
FL: You talk about returning, and I think everyone has a sense of returning. When they hear the word returning, it’s automatically emotional for a lot of people. They feel this warmth and they feel this comfort. But it’s interesting because when I hear you say it, you’re also returning to a place that you really wanted to leave.
You came back to a family farm that is something of a legendary farm. It’s well known not just for your fruit, but also because your father is a wonderful and renowned writer. I’ve also heard him say that when he was young, he thought he would leave the farm and never come back. Can you talk a little about that family experience, the emotional experience of returning to this place and the tensions there?
NM: I do think it’s interesting that both my dad and I had a similar experience of not wanting to come back at all. Actually, I think that quite possibly was what brought us back. There was zero pressure. My jiichan, my grandpa, put no pressure on my dad to come back. I was fortunate that my parents -- we never even talked about me farming until I came up with the idea, which is probably the best possible unfolding.
As far as the tensions, working with family is intense. I don’t get to clock out, go grab a beer and contemplate quitting because you can’t quit your family. It really has forced and invited both me, my dad and everybody else, my mom and my brother for sure, to really open hard conversations about how we communicate. What are our different ideas of what a farming life looks like and how do we make all of those come together sustainably, joyously but also working through conflict? It’s been quite an experience.
FL: You can imagine in a lot of family businesses working side by side. But it’s not super typical where that family business is so physical in nature and you’re physically working side by side with your parents. Earlier when we spoke, you mentioned the experience of aging in your family, yourself. You said you felt like maybe you had come to farming too late in a funny way.
NM: I am very aware that deciding to farm with [my father] really means I’m committing my life to witnessing and being present with him as he ages. That’s not easy. I am still on the beginning end of my life hopefully, and I think about what is to come.
He’s 60 and beginning to reflect. There are some things that physically over the coming decades are going to become harder and harder for him. I’m not looking forward to that, but I know that I wouldn’t trade going through that for doing anything else.
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.