David 'Mas' Masumoto

On farming and the art of repair, and extending the lives of old things

Fresno-area farmer David Mas Masumoto maintaining his trusty tractor.
Fresno-area farmer David Mas Masumoto maintaining his trusty tractor. Special to The Bee

I have environmentally correct farm equipment. Our disks and plows were purchased decades ago. My father bought most of our tractors and many were purchased “used.” Shovels, rakes, pitchforks were also passed down with a distinct brown rust coloring. They are ecologically right precisely because they’re old.

The energy and resources required to build a new tractor or forklift is huge. For example, in one report, the making of a new vehicle creates as much carbon pollution as driving it for a decade. My equipment may move a little slow and use a little more fuel, but the replacement expense can have a huge impact on the environment.

Instead I’ve joined a green wave of a recycling, anti-consumption business model. We have learned to live with things old. And as I too age, I appreciate this perspective more and more.

On our farm, have mastered the art of repair rather than throwing away. It requires a creative eye to see value in the old and anticipate when things will break. The challenge is then how to fix things, to rally your own innovative skills and apply them as best you can.

Others consider me cheap, too frugal to buy things new, too simple-minded to part with the old. They forget that it’s a privileged class that discards things instead of searching for a creative alternative. Many of us can’t afford the new; we must make do with the resources and options we have. Besides, some things can come back in style, our ’81 El Camino is now a classic (at least I try to convince myself).

I have explored the culture of old equipment: each implement holds a story and a tale of decades of use. The history of our farm and family is branded in the nicks and scratches embedded like archeological fingerprints of past ancestors. The farmer before us, the Riffel family, left pieces of old machine parts in an old red barn.

I try to picture the machine a long, twisted forked steel rod was once part of; then I joyfully reconfigure it as part of a brace on our French plow (which, of course, I bent and broke trying to go too fast in the vineyards).

Our farm junk pile is a treasure chest of parts. If you look at them through the eyes of a conservationist, you can see mounds of energy and resource units, all bound up in the metal pieces awaiting refabrication and rebirth.

My old equipment has been personalized over the years and decades of use. I’ve learned the character of our old tractor, when working well, I can hear a Buddhist chant – ooommmmm – of a finely tuned machine.

I’ve learned to live with some ailments and accept the wear and tear and lower performance. We grow old together and tolerate declining productivity. I convince myself that it’s the quality of work not speed that matters.

Most of the time, I find a way for the old to work side by side with the new. An aging tractor may be relegated to simply pulling a trailer, it can no longer handle a big disk but may be still very useful. Besides, I do have some modern equipment and do not want to tie up its value for minor tasks. In this age of specialization, I have found specific tasks for all levels of capability.

Growing old does not doom us to being outdated. Rather, it’s a process of refinement and redefining. The theory of creative destruction in capitalism dictates the old must give way to innovation and the new. Yet must we always destroy the old? Are traditional ways and methods destined to be discarded? I like to think it’s about how the new fits with the old and not the reverse.

I like using a better term: creative disruption which simply signifies a break of existing patterns of behavior. To bring in new equipment to work in tandem with the old suits me better. This is how we’re trying to transition our farm, with my daughter taking over, there is not yet a succession plan of throwing me out (at least that’s what I hope) and rather how we can form a new type of partnership.

Alas, there comes a time it costs more to maintain and repair than it’s worth, and it’s time to replace. Change can be a slow process, sometimes painful; other times I find it refreshing to know euthanasia sometimes belongs in the journey of life (and who knows when my time may come). Yet, each year I manage to maintain old equipment, I delay consuming and taxing the environment with one more new thing that had to be manufactured.

I’ve adopted an attitude of give and take, striving for balance. I now tolerate imperfection more than ever. Adaptation joins my daily plans, nothing is complete. In life – like a Buddhist maxim depicts – “the pot is always boiling.”

My father had a system for living with the old. He understood some things would break down, like an ancient pick-up or old farmer; so as they aged, he tried to stay close to home. That’s how we can extend the life of things old. And not just throw them away.

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