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If goats can perceive a smile, can a tree understand a human? This farmer says yes

We need smiles and can learn from the natural world. For example, goats prefer smiles. And so do sheep. They are living creatures who respond to the environment around them, including humans who care for them.

According to Alan McElligott, a professor of animal behavior in England, we humans underestimate the cognitive ability of livestock. They react and engage with the world around them. They can form relationships and distinguish a smile from an angry face. In theory, a farmer would benefit with more productivity when employing pleasant exchanges.

My wife Marcy, who was raised on a goat dairy and daily milked a herd of goats, firmly believes the best goats were happy goats: They were the best milkers. This resulted in a winning combination: more milk and strong offspring and smiling faces all around.

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David Mas Masumoto

So can the same be true with our organic peaches and nectarines? Happy farmers make for happy fruit? Can a tender human touch help produce fruit bursting with flavor and juice and generate a lush orchard brimming with trees of life?

Our trees are living organisms and naturally respond to the world around them. They certainly react to weather conditions. A warm, mild winter with low chill hours will result in trees that wake up in spring a bit grumpy. They lack the deep sleep of a hardy dormancy and their fruit reflects their mood – erratic blossoms and fruit set, smaller sizes and texture that can easily become mealy.

Likewise, during a massive heat wave in the summer, as in July 2018 when we endured 30 straight days over 100 degrees, our orchards simply slowed down. The trees shut down, ripening gradually as they rested in the blistering heat. This was a good thing because this farmer and his workers also wither in the heat – quitting work early was valued and welcomed. We all felt the heat and adjusted accordingly. My body thanked the trees for their consideration. Did the trees actually feel my gratitude? Smiling and “cool” workers in the summer mornings made for happy fruit. We all took a siesta in the miserable afternoon heat.

OK, I’m guilty of personification: giving human characteristics to objects. Perhaps I take it a step further with anthropomorphism: making an object behave and appear like it is human.

Some of my most rewarding work occurs when I fix things, such as a broken tree limb or sagging branch. I have learned to distinguish the weeds “I can live with” from those nasty and alien species such as Bermuda and Johnson grass. Injecting my human emotions into my work seems to help efficiencies and productivity.

New (and controversial) research claims that trees can communicate with each other. An orchard or grove can function like a community. German forester and author Peter Wohlleben claims that trees send out distress signals about drought, disease and insect attacks. Neighboring trees will share water and nutrients and alter their behavior when they receive these messages.

In his book, “Hidden Life of Trees,” Wohlleben explores the ways trees are connected to each other in root systems and underground fungal networks. He calls it part of a “wood-wide web.” Plants don’t compete with each other for resources, they spread and share life.

We know animals such as dogs and cats respond to a smile or voice. (Although, I sometimes believe cats are even smarter and trick us into responding to their needs.) Goats have sensory receptors, and according to Marcy, they express themselves with their eyes.

So do my trees have feelings? Can they have memory? I believe the tender touch of a caring hand does make a difference. Sometimes, a peach harvested at the right moment will gently fall into my palm as if it wanted to be picked, as opposed to that of a green piece of fruit that requires a sharp yank and tug to be snapped off the branch. TLC does matter to these trees.

Besides, when we believe plants are alive, we treat them differently. We harvest life and share it with others. Good food is not to be crammed into your mouth and mindlessly consumed. Instead, you respectfully feed your body and soul. Flavor, taste and, maybe, feelings do matter. And don’t we need more smiles in today’s harsh world?

David “Mas” Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at masmasumoto@gmail.com
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