Former Assistant Crown Attorney Karen McCleave’s Profiles in Courage Last Stand at Sunset Grove

Former Assistant Crown Attorney Karen McCleave’s Profiles in Courage: Last Stand at Sunset Grove

As a former Assistant Crown Attorney, Karen McCleave especially appreciates a good David vs. Goliath story, a tale of the right result prevailing against all odds. As a connoisseur of unadulterated, transparently grown food, she particularly likes to recount the story of how an heirloom peach survived because of a steadfast farmer at Sunset Grove.

Deep inside orchard country in California’s Central Valley, a small peach grove marks the spot where one man took a brave stand against mass-market farming and the uninspired produce that factory orchards can produce.

When fruit brokers told farmer David Masumoto that there was no longer any retail demand for his heirloom peaches, he thought briefly about uprooting the trees, but instead sat down to write Epitaph for a Peach, a love letter to a flavor and way of life that were both worth saving.

It was a lament heard round the world: From the small town of Del Rey, southeast of Fresno, a revolution was born. 

Writer Dan Charles chronicled how the essay, which argued the Sun Crest variety “tasted great like a peach is supposed to,” became a manifesto for consumers who knew it was important to preserve original varieties and to fight the industrialization of North American agriculture.

The Sun Crest “was an old heirloom variety that didn’t have the right cosmetics for the marketplace,” Masumoto told Charles. “It didn’t get lipstick-red when it was ripe. It didn’t have the shelf life that the market was demanding. So it had become blacklisted. We had 2,000 20-pound boxes of it in cold storage with no buyers.”

The essay changed all that. When it was published in the Los Angeles Times, readers rallied to save, sample and savour the Sun Crest. As Charles outlines, it was the beginning of great things for the modest family farmer: “He started farming organically. He got in touch with farmers markets in places like San Francisco and Berkeley — places that are far away, in every sense, from the big farm operations of the Central Valley. Through those contacts, he met the chef and food activist Alice Waters [who] started serving those peaches at her landmark restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, and sang the praises of the farmer who saved his heirloom orchard.”

For McCleave, the power of words is an inspiring part of the story. In a style redolent of Hemingway, with its percussion of simple truth, David imagines in his essay the final stand at Sunset Grove: “The last of my Sun Crest peaches will be dug up. A bulldozer will be summoned to crawl into my fields, rip each tree from the earth, and toss it aside. …

“I envision my orchard yielding to the bulldozer and the trees tumbling without a fight. I imagine setting a match to them and listening to the crackle of dry leaves as the dead branches are engulfed by rising flames. I estimate the embers will last for days, glowing in the chill of the fall nights. I’ll plan on going out daily to watch the fire, my face and arms warmed by the heat of the burning wood. Later I’ll plow the ashes back into the earth. The ground will be renewed, and I’ll hope that my next orchard will become as rich.” 

But that day never came, thanks to the indomitable passion and prose of David Masumoto.

Today, the inspiring story continues with a new generation, as daughter Nikiko begins to take over farm operations. She returned to what she once thought was a backwater, after studying environmental issues at Berkeley, with new respect for the principled position taken by her father years ago.

“One day, in class, a visiting speaker laid out the environmental impact of food production, how farming defeated nature with plows and pesticides,” writes Charles. “And it dawned on her that her parents, planting cover crops and wildflowers in their organic orchard, were actually doing something important. That thought was followed by another one: The most radical thing that she could possibly do would be to go home.”

David Masumoto’s successful resistance, to what initially seemed inevitable defeat, is a testament to the impact of one person by using the power of eloquent expression.