The Masumoto family farm in Del Ray, California, is run by the second and third generations of that family, the father and daughter team of Mas and Nikiko Masumoto. Nikiko told her family years ago that she would never come back to the farm, but then eventually changed her mind and returned to work on the farm and prepare for eventually taking control of the business. She and her father are poetic and complex. We wanted to talk with them about the emotional and physical effort of working alongside each other, and how that has changed their relationship to each other and the land.
Francis Lam: Nikiko, when you and I last talked – I think literally five years ago – we were talking about how, when you were younger, you had left the family farm to go to college, and at that time you thought you would never want to return. Then you had come back, and you were learning all these skills about what it takes to be farmer, but also the emotional work of coming back and being so present and so physical with your family. How has it been since?
Nikiko Masumoto: I can’t believe it’s been five years since we spoke last. It’s amazing. The farm has been richer, deeper and harder than I think I even imagined the last time we spoke.
FL: In what ways?
NM: I think that one of the gifts of farming with family is going through all of the seasons, not only of the year and the natural cycle of the farm, but all of the seasons of life, and navigating crisis, navigating joy, navigating envy and worry about each other. That emotional terrain has been just almost sacred for me as I get to farm with my father, work with my mother and my brother, and now I’m married, and so get to welcome my wife into our farm and family.
NM: Thank you. It’s been incredible.
FL: Mas, when you were younger, I understand that you also once thought that you would leave the farm and not return. And so, you never pressured Nikiko to come back. How did it feel when she said she wanted to?
Mas Masumoto: I was shocked and surprised. You’re right. I’m the youngest of the family, so I was the last hope; my older brother and older sister clearly were not gonna come back to the farm. I probably broke my dad’s heart by telling him I’m not ever gonna come back. I can remember the day it happened. I was a bad electric guitar player, and I was playing this Led Zeppelin and saying, “Dad, I’m never going to come back to farm.” Long story short, I ended up circling back to the farm for many reasons, but one was I just loved the life there and I loved the family part of it. But, one of the lessons that I learned was I came back to the farm because my dad allowed me to leave the farm; that’s the same lesson I want to pass on to Nikiko, that allowing her to leave may be the only way she comes back to the farm. And that’s what happened.
It was this wonderful moment, because it literally changed things on the farm such as the timeline. Instead of measuring how many harvests do I have left, it was now how many harvests do we have left. And it extended the way we looked at the farm, the longevity of things, how we literally could make plans in terms of what orchards to plant. I wasn’t going to plant a new orchard, because a new orchard will take at least 15 to 20 years for the flavors of the peaches and the nectarines to arrive. And I don’t know if I wanted to wait until my 80s to find that out. But now with Nikiko it’s clearly a different timeline.
NM: Dad, do you remember the first orchard we planted together – the Rose Diamond?
MM: Oh yeah, absolutely.
NM: Our Rose Diamond nectarines. I was 19 years old; I had just made the decision that I wanted to come back and farm, but I was still in college. I came home to help plant this orchard – these knee-high nectarine trees – and we were shoveling, and you looked up at me a tree over and said, “Nikiko, this orchard will be full grown when you’re 40.” I was 19, and 40 had never entered into my consciousness yet.
MM: And it’s a wonderful way to measure time on a farm and a family, to have this understanding of the generational transitions that occur. That’s how long it takes to form partnerships. People have asked what it’s like to have Nikiko taking over the farm, and I don’t like that term at all.
NM: I don’t either.
MM: ‘Taking over’ implies that they’re pushing you away and pushing you out, and they’re going to take over something. Really, it’s a partnership that we have now, and like all partnership it has its moments of joys and moments of challenges too, but you live and work through that partnership.
Like father like daughter: Mas and Nikiko at the Masumoto family farm in 1991 (left) and 2019 (right). Source: Masumoto Family Photos
FL: How do you deal when there are disagreements? I was just watching a show about this restaurant that’s three generations deep, and when the daughter came back, her parents wouldn’t let her change anything. So, she waited until they went away on vacation, and she would immediately buy a new dishwasher or whatever. And it sounded like it worked for them, but that doesn’t sound very emotionally healthy.
NM: Well, my dad never goes on vacation. [laughs] I think I know the show you’re talking about, and I so bonded with that chef when she was describing it. I think one of the challenges is that my dad and I, just as individuals, we’re both pretty fire spirits, and so when we encounter conflict we just dive head into the conflict. I think one of the beautiful parts of farming with my dad – someone who I’m so alike – has been to learn some of the cooling effects of thinking about conflict as healthy and how to approach it in a healthy way.
I think a lot about my oji'i-chan – my grandfather – who was a really quiet man. I think he didn’t like conflict very much. I can imagine him getting in a little tiff or something with my oba'a-chan – my grandmother – and going out to the shed or the fields to find solitude. I’m a really hot spirit, and so when I get mad I try to get on the tractor or go find some solace with the trees, and it always has a calming effect for me.
MM: And you should see the tractor work she does when she’s mad. It’s—
NM: It’s excellent! [laughs]
MM: It’s really fast, or it’s sloppy and beats the crap out of the vines and trees and everything. So, how do we handle the conflict and that? One, I’m much more verbal than my dad, so we talk a lot, but at the same time, one of my strategies is I step away in the same way because a lot of the conflicts don’t require necessarily immediate resolution. On a farm all the timelines are stretched out, so it takes time to think things through, and that’s really the time that works great to step away and sort of work through it that way. Probably for both Nikiko and also my wife, Marcy, and our son, Korio. I might step away too much, and in that sense, they suddenly go, "Where’s dad?" I’m thinking out in the fields, and I enjoy that. And in a way, I get lost out in the fields too, which is exactly where I wanna be.
Life on the farm: Mas enjoys one of his family's succulent peaches (left) and Nikiko shakes raisins. Photos: Masumoto Family Photo (left), Alan Sanchez (right)
FL: This is going to sound so incredibly woo-woo, but you guys are from California so maybe it’ll be fine for you. I think so much thinking happens in the body You know what I mean? In that your thinking changes, your perspective changes on where your body is and what your body is feeling. I never grew up on a farm. I have almost no experience of farming or gardening or that kind of connection with the earth, but I do have experience in trying to write when I’m freezing cold, and it’s so different emotionally than when I’m trying to write when I’m in a warm place – things like that. And I can only imagine what it must be like when you have such a connection to this land that your family has had for so long, and you can walk amongst these trees and you can do your thinking that way.
MM: Well, it’s also, I would imagine, for anyone who works with food. Food is visceral. It’s all about this tactile relationship, this tactile touch that we have. You engage with your body, and that’s exactly how we want to think things through. It’s not just cerebral, that we could just figure it out with a new spreadsheet or something like that. It’s actually trying to work it out both in an intellectual and emotional and physical way. I think that’s the one thing that I want to emphasize. I think all food is that way. All food involves emotions and personal connections, and that’s how we approach our farming, and hopefully our peaches, nectarines and raisins represent that – that there’s this connection, the connective tissue that people could find in food.
FL: That’s beautiful. Nikiko, earlier Mas said that you guys kind of resist this idea of passing it along to you, but from your perspective, do you think about what it will be like when your father eventually does decide he isn’t going to be out on the farm the same way anymore?
NM: Gosh, when you just said that, I get chills down my back. Yes, I think about it a lot. I know my dad – I know him through and through – and I know he’s going to work the farm until his last day because he loves it so much. So, whenever anybody mentions me being the farmer, I can’t help but think about death, and think about the day when I have to do this on my own. And that’s part of the richness of it, because it makes every day feel so precious, and it’s also part of the weight of working with family and working with the land. I so believe in ghosts, and the ghosts of my great-grandparents walking on our farm. My grandfather – my oji'i-chan – who I just adored, he’s still with us. That’s when the courage is conjured for me. This journey of deciding if I’m with my dad instead of starting my own farm has required of me to make presence with mortality. My dad also loves talking about it. He’s planned his entire funeral including the song he wants played when I walk up to the podium.
FL: The same Led Zeppelin song? [laughs] “Whole Lotta Love” or something.
MM: It was a country western song, “Cowgirls Don’t Cry”. And Nikiko doesn’t laugh. I laugh thinking about it. In a similar way, my father had a stroke, and it changed our relationship because he wasn’t going to work as much on the farm, but we got him back on a tractor. But I remember, it made me think of his mortality, and understanding this dynamic of what’s it going to be like when he’s no longer here. And I remembered this moment. I was walking in the fields, and I started thinking about that and realizing that my father is part of this land. He planted these trees; I could see the marks that he made literally in the earth. I realized that part of letting go of my father was also understanding he will always be part of this farm. And in that sense, I was able to let go and realize his mortality would soon happen. It was this moment of both sadness and yet joy, because you realized there will be that connection. And I think that’s how we see our farm. I will always be part of this, no matter if I’m here physically or just in memory. And, again, I think that power of memory is so important to the work that we do on the farm, and I think of food too, and how people relate to food through this power of memory.
FL: You guys are magnificent. Thank you so much.
NM: It’s a pleasure.
MM: Oh, our pleasure.
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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.