By David ‘Mas” Masumoto
Isolation. That’s the reality of this pandemic period we’re all living through.
We farmers live with isolation. We work in open spaces, much of the labor is done individually and alone. Today I find myself worrying about the impact of the coronavirus on this livelihood I’ve choosen for myself and my family as my children partner with us on our farm. Our future is now measured by generations on this land: What lies ahead beyond our trees and vines?
So I asked a few of my colleagues to share their insights. A group of friends — wise movers and shakers in the food world — were willing to express their thoughts directly, helping me clarify how a family farm can belong in a world altered by a pandemic.
When asked about the future of food, chef and food activist Jose Andres wrote me: “I would hope that the people of America no longer take their food, or those who prepare it, for granted.”
I took great comfort when he added that “our current situation is making each of us think hard about how we eat. I’m certain there will be a new respect for the ones who feed America.”
The coronavirus exposes a simple fact we farmers have known about food: we are not alone. A food chain bonds and connects people to those who grow, distribute, prepare, deliver and use food, and now we’re threatened by major disruptions. Daily, Americans now are forced to ask, where does food come from? The pandemic demands our public to think systemically; we all survive because of a food network.
I begin to feel better, not so isolated. I am part of a larger team of partners. A sage voice further calms my emotions. Alice Waters, California chef and food pioneer, shared with me that “the present crisis is reminding us that food security depends on a local food system. When we grow food regeneratively and organically, we not only produce deeply nutritious food, we also mitigate climate change. What a hopeful and delicious vision for the future.”
Farmers grow public food, our work belongs in the public sphere. A nation’s large and complicated food network is based on person-to-person exchanges. The more the people learn about food, the more they realize it’s all personal. We all work to fill a human’s body and soul with life.
The decades-old and systemic de-personalization of food made much of our food a commodity based solely on money, supply and demand. Coronavirus compels us to look at the world differently — we see neighbors, families, and people who affect our health and well-being. At the same time, food rises to the top of our human needs. We can shelter in place only if we have food.
Now, part of my daily morning farm meetings include deep exchanges about where the our small farm fits in a larger food conversation. Our daughter Nikiko Masumoto brings a new calling and responsibility: “The Covid-19 crisis both causes and exposes fault lines in our food system. Hunger was already a problem, access to healthy nourishing food is mitigated by poverty and structural racism. Some are experiencing the feeling of scarcity and insecurity for the first time.”
On our farm, we work at a literal grassroots level and know well that the hidden hands that feed us belong to farm workers. Their plight is exacerbated by a cheap food system the industry has created. The driving economic force had been price — keep expenses low, under-pay workers, limit their access to health care, provide few benefits — all for the cause of providing the public with inexpensive food. Faced with growing economic pressures and a tightening labor supply due to closed borders, many farmers are turning to science and mechanization to solve problems, as if a meal will then magically appear on our tables with the right formula.
Suddenly nothing is easy when it comes to food. There are no quick fixes despite what some leaders proclaim. We’re rethinking how and what we eat. Michael Pollan, food writer, reminded me in an email exchange that even simple acts have become complex: “Procuring food is one of the biggest challenges of the day.”
Our small farm resides in an intricate web of relationships. Food is part of a high-touch network. From farm to truck to shipper, many hands touch our food. Distribution systems of brokers, direct sales, markets and restaurants all are parts of a necessarily complex structure that feeds us.
Jessica B. Harris, cookbook author and food historian, wrote me: “I think that we will have learned some important lessons about the commensality of the table and of the cardinal importance that coming together over food plays in our lives, whether it’s at home in the dining room or kitchen, or in a restaurant white tablecloth or burger joint, or even hunkered down on a bar stool.”
We are witnessing the disruption to this interconnectedness. Some farmers markets are discovering sparse crowds due to a false labeling as “unsocial” places. Groceries are pulled in new directions with uneven demands yet long lines. The crushing closure of eating establishments has thrown thousands of workers into turmoil. Restaurants are trying to pivot with the birth of new take out and delivery structures. But typically, the small operator can’t weather crises. Many will not reopen and fall victim to this food storm we are witnessing.
Our farm’s produce broker, Cindy Richter of Fruit World, has seen a rapid shift. “The real estate inside stores is reorganizing before us as they adjust to new demands. People are thinking more about food, planning even more and using personal shopping delivery systems. But if others are buying food for people, does that eliminate impulse buying? What’s not on the shopping list matters more than ever.”
I do not farm by myself — the farm-to-fork metaphor oversimplifies the vital role people in the middle play, an idea reinforced when Dan Barber, New York chef and food leader, imparted these thoughts with me: “We ought to recognize (read: invest in and celebrate) that our food movement needs to become a food system. To get there, farm to table would benefit from a few more middlemen. Not just chefs and eaters, but millers, maltsters, butchers, processors, preservers, fermenters, and distributors.”
How we acquire food is now a bigger part of daily routines, part of a complex farm to fork food chain. Much of agribusiness had lost their place in this food chain. Growing food was no different than making widgets, it’s about production and economics. But I sense a shift is occurring with the coronavirus pandemic. Farming has been exempt from the shuttering of businesses. Rightfully deemed a vital component of life, we are now positioned to make a difference, not with monetary exchange but with the fruits of our labor: food.
“The lesson we ought to be learning from the pandemic is awe. Without it, we can treat the web of life as callously as we like, destroying habitat, creating crushes of monocultured plants and animals, tended by the most poorly treated humans on the planet,” Raj Patel, an economist and activist advised me.
EATING AT HOME
I project to our summer harvests of organic peaches, nectarines and apricots. The social connections around food are more evident. People are forced to reinvent the meaning of food. When restaurants and bars close, we are now compelled to eat at home and experience a meal in different ways. Home cooking has taken on new life — someone else is no longer preparing all our food.
“A revival of home cooking is underway. The shared meal is one of the few pleasures left to us.” Michael Pollan’s voice echoes as I walk our orchards, finding comfort, hoping our produce will join the tables of many.
Food has returned to its original communal roots. It’s a new yet old cultural ritual of the common gathering — from how to acquire food, who and how it’s cooked, how and where we partake it. But we farmers live with a pessimism, worrying about the weather, prices, pests and now a jolting change.
I worry about the restaurants we sell to and how they can survive the pandemic. A new paradigm of food may emerge, a new respect for those who provide meals for all of us. Behind every restaurant stands an band of not only chefs and staff, but also a circle of farmers and shippers and we too will change and pivot. Yet the economic fallout of today will crush plans.
As we emerge from this black hole, Michael Pollan suggested that we may “hurry back to the status quo.” This new awareness of where food comes from may be tossed aside, abandoned like gardens people planted or new home cooking endeavors. We may quickly forget about the plight of farm workers and the struggle of restaurant laborers.
My spirits tumble, part of a daily cyclical routine as this pandemic swirls around me, my farm, our family.
“There’s an expression in the Jewish tradition, ‘Tikkun olam.’ It refers to the idea of mending a shattered world, making it whole,” wrote Dan Barber.
Soon, I hope we transition from coping to hoping. It took an invisible virus to make farmers and food visible again.
“If we come out of this crisis with an abiding appreciation for the hands that feed us, and a newfound respect for the diversity of life, we’ll have learned well,” said Raj Patel with a reassuring voice.
I take refuge in these words from my colleagues. Perhaps farmers are not as isolated as we think.
TRANSFORMING FOOD CHAIN
Social change can evolve from small revisions that ripple through a system. We have an opportunity to remedy inequities and generate incremental advancements in the food chain we are bound by. A transformation may be underway as we shelter in place and rethink the foods we eat.
“I think/hope/pray that we have learned to be grateful … grateful for the farmers, for the vendors, for those who cook, and for those who serve it and celebrate them, pay them well, and understand the important and essential role that they play in our lives,” Jessica B. Harris kindly shared.
Dan Barber also added that “a thriving food system means an infrastructure strong enough to support all these vital food actors, to take a shattered world and patch it back together in the long run. And the long run starts now.”
On our small farm, we must constantly adapt to an unpredictable nature. And as I grow into an old farmer, I often ask how many harvests do I have left to make changes? My answer: “Next year begins now.”
David “Mas” Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at email@example.com