This reading group guide for Wisdom of the Last Farmer includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author David Mas Masumoto. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When David Mas Masumoto’s father has a stroke in the fields of their organic peach farm in California, the reality of his father’s mortality drives Masumoto to reevaluate the significance and meaning of farming in a fast-paced, modern world. As he nurses his father back to health, and becomes a teacher to the master who had once schooled him, he reclaims the practical and emotional wisdom that they and their ancestors had learned from working the land. Realizing that he himself needs to pass on a wealth of knowledge to the next generation, he writes this impassioned narrative about re-connecting to the land.
In Wisdom of the Last Farmer, Masumoto finds the natural connections between families and farming, fathers and children, booms and declines, and relates them to larger, more sweeping themes of life, death, and renewal.
Questions for Discussion
1. Growing up as the third generation in this country, David Mas Masumoto learns to embrace Japanese proverbs such as “Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight,” “The Crooked Nail Gets Hammered Down,” and “It Can’t Be Helped.” How do you think these perceptions influence his life and philosophies of farming? Can you relate these proverbs to your own life?
2. Masumoto’s father’s stroke occurs at the very beginning of the book. How does this affect your reading of the story, knowing that his father has suffered this trauma? How does this alter Masumoto’s reflections on farming?
3. Discuss Masumoto’s decision to bring his father home to die. How does he come to this decision? How did you feel when his father wakes up from the coma? During his rehabilitation? As he returns to work at the farm?
4. Throughout the book there are numerous references to “recycling.” For example, mementos pass down from generation to generation, and Masumoto uses parts from a “junk pile” to fix his machinery. Which aspects of David Mas Masumoto’s family background instilled this virtue of resourcefulness?
6. The book emphasizes many tensions, for example, between technology and hard labor. Think about some other dichotomies. How do these fit into a grander theme?
7. Discuss Masumoto’s changing relationship with “weeds.” Consider the different ways he uses this term, from the metaphor about his father’s comatose state to the angry letter he addresses to Mr. Johnson about Johnson grass (pg. 94.) Does he view “weeds” as helpful or hurtful? What do they represent to him? To his father?
8. How do you feel about Masumoto’s decision to dedicate his life to the family’s farm? About Nikiko’s decision? Are there any family obligations that changed the trajectory of your life?
9. How do women play a part in this book? Where and how do they fit into the Masumoto family? Into the farming community?
10. Masumoto imparts his wisdom about the economic and politics of farming. Is he optimistic or pessimistic? What did you learn about the farming culture that surprised you?
11. Masumoto describes numerous examples of the unpredictability of nature. What does he learn from situations that are out of his control? Have you had any similar experiences?
12. Are there distinctive generational differences between Issei, Nisei, and Sansei, as Masumoto describes them?
13. Discuss the title of this memoir. What are the implications of the “Last Farmer” as Masumoto sees it?
14. Describe the structure of the book. Was it successful? What did it remind you of? Would you classify the book as more memoir or life-instruction book?
Enhancing Your Book Club
1. Visit the produce aisle at your local grocery store and buy a selection of peaches you find there (organic and non-organic.) Describe the color, skin, texture and taste of the fruits. Do the pits “cling” or are they “freestone”? Consider the differences between the organic and non-organic variations.
2. Draw a family tree and share it with the members of your book group. Is there anything interesting that they might not know about you? Do you have any family histories relating to the immigration experience?
3. Densho is a nonprofit organization that collects oral histories from Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II. Visit their website to learn more about the Japanese American Legacy project: www.densho.org.
4. Learn more about organic farming and the local food movements. Visit websites such as www.slowfoodusa.com or www.organicconsumers.org.
A Conversation with David Mas Masumoto
1. Did you approach this project more as a personal history or as a life instruction book?
Wisdom began as a personal journey – for weeks following my father’s initial stroke in 1997, I kept a daily journal of the challenging situation. I believe it’s common during such a crisis to reexamine personal family histories and the connections between family members.
During my father’s recovery from the stroke, our relationship changed with a role reversal: I had to teach him how to farm again. Gradually, the lessons I had learned from my father became clearer– along with other discoveries about myself and the person I called my father.
Writing is a wonderful method through which I tackle hard questions and examine transition points. In the case of Wisdom of the Last Farmer, writing helped me understand when things will no longer be the same.
What began as a personal journey evolved into broader life lessons I wanted to share. And I have to confess, all this, as my family will attest, makes me kind of moody.
2. Who did you write this book for?
I wrote Wisdom of the Last Farmer for those interested in exploring the relationship between fathers and their children and the context of that connection: the places, the family histories, the stories.
For me, our story unfolds on a family farm and through the seemingly simple, yet complex relationship that is created when you not only work with your father but also must help him heal. The story is nuanced by the fact we farm and grow food. Life is all around us and we must live and work with the rhythms of nature.
I also wrote this for those who want to know more about the story behind their foods – the people and places and the sometimes harsh realities of farming today.
3. Much of the narrative focuses on the decline of your father’s health. Was it difficult to put these experiences into words?
Yes. It took years to sort out my feelings while watching this strong man grow older and weaker. The story is complex and does not take place in isolation. Family is always part of this narrative including my wife, children, and my mom. All the while, the farm also continued to change and evolve, along with running a small business in the real world.
A constant question was: how does this all fit together in an honest way? This is not fiction, I can’t make up something in order for it to work or make sense. Authenticity is a constant theme in my work.
4. Your passion for harvesting food is apparent in the language you use to describe the color, taste, and feel of fruits. Has writing always come naturally to you or does the subject matter inspire you to write?
Writing is not natural for me. I was a late bloomer in becoming a writer (and hope the best is saved for last!). But I am inspired daily when I head out to work in the fields. I’m always humbled by the joy, beauty, and power of laboring in the earth, growing things and witnessing nature at work. If I can come close to capturing in words some of the drama of our family work, I will consider it a good harvest.
5. You wrote this book as an experienced farmer reflecting on your trials and tribulations. Do you think it would be different to be a young farmer like Nikiko? Are there different challenges today?
Absolutely. Our daughter Nikiko speaks of returning to the farm and taking over. While I will try to pass on my own wisdom, I know the world she faces is changing. Today, people are renewing their relationship with food – it’s no longer just a commodity but something more. While some of our work is eternal – peaches need to be irrigated, pruned, and harvested – farming continues to become more complicated from new regulations and labor issues to marketing challenges and a demand for transparency about agriculture.
Nikiko will also bring her own talents, skills, and perspective to the farm. I expect our farm to change. For example, she had major input in the redesign of our web page and framing our farm with a new public face. (See www.masumoto.com). She claims I can’t hide on the farm anymore!
6. Have you had a positive response to your writing from the farming community?
The farming community has been wonderful. I view it as a compliment when many see me as a farmer first and writer second. I remain their neighbor, part of the farm community, and not the voice of an outsider or someone with no intention of staying put. I hope this reflects my honesty in telling not just my story but part of the story of all farm families.
7. Organic food has gained significant attention in recent years. Do you think this increase in awareness has fostered greater appreciation for the work that goes into the products? Does this resonate with the general American public?
Part of the organic agriculture revolution continues to be the relationship people want with their food. They demand to know more. Organic farming and sustainable agriculture strives to reduce the distance between the farm story and consumer interest. It’s all part of putting the public frame back into food and agriculture and I think this is great. People who enjoy our peaches, nectarines, and raisins are not just consumers – I like to think of them as partners. They do have a role in determining how foods are grown.
8. You make references to George Orwell twice in this book. Is there some connection you have with his work? Has he influenced you? To what extent?
I have long admired Orwell and his ability to tell stories and contextualize meaning, often with a social and political perspective. He was a storyteller and his greatness has made his perspectives universal. I have often reread some of his stories, like Shooting an Elephant and of course, was attracted to Animal Farm in my youth, believing it was about agriculture. After reading it, I was happy we did not raise pigs on our farm.
9. Have you been inspired by life-instruction books? Which stories or memoirs have had a great impact on you?
Though not a memoir, I felt Grapes of Wrath was a great story about our valley, our history, and the people that I continue to call my neighbors. The story of struggle and hope bless and haunt me daily when I’m out in the fields.
I also feel many oral histories work like life-instruction books. The many collections by Studs Terkel have influenced my writing as I constantly struggle to find my voice and the collective voice of the places I write about.
I enjoy placed-based books such as Kathleen Norris’s Dakota and Richard Hugo’s 31 Letters and 13 Dreams who anchored their work in real people and places.
Finally, I read Zen Buddhist stories and reflect upon their significance for hours while in the fields. These words linger with me for hours as I work.
10. Do you have any plans for another book? If so, what will it be about?
I’m still living with Wisdom of the Last Farmer and feel part of “writing a book” is also meeting readers and sharing my voice through readings and presentations. (I list my schedule on our webpage www.masumoto.com)
Everyday stories continue to intrigue me the most. I’m certain that I’m in the middle of a new book but not exactly sure what the story is – I allow it to grow naturally, sometimes it turns into a weed, other times a flower. As I begin to write, I often find that I’m attracted to the weeds as the most powerful story.
11. Readers might not be familiar with organic farming except for what they read in the pages of your book. Can you suggest any resources for readers who would like to know more?
Read works by Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan.
Explore organizations like Slow Food and the many organic farming groups (such as California Certified Organic Farmers) and sustainable agriculture organizations and their websites (such as the food section of Grist.com).
And the best resource: talking to a farmer at a farmers market, engaging someone in the produce section of a market, or discovering a friend who loves food and exploring the joy of flavor and taste. Perhaps then my stories will have even greater meaning!