Nikiko Masumoto cultivates connections between the art of food and farming and stories of place

Nikiko Masumoto is a farmer, and also an artist. Contrary what people might assume about these two different aspects of her life, they are not at odds with each other. In fact, each one informs the other – her work as a farmer shaping her work as an artist and vice-versa. She refers to herself as an “agrarian artist,” cultivating the richness of life in California’s Central Valley through farming, food, storytelling, art, and community.

“The importance of imagination in farming as well as in art is essential to my literal livelihood as well as the thriving of my soul,” says Masumoto. “Both depend on the generative spirit of creativity and imagination. The link between farming and art for me – they are inseparable. So much of farming and art is imagining the possibility of experience and working towards some exchange in the public realm. For me that is why I farm – I farm to grow food that carries the stories of my family and of this place, the infinite inconceivable pleasures of food, and as an artist I perform and write and create experiences in invitation for people to engage in their own storytelling. The seed of germination is one and the same for me.”

Masumoto grew up on Masumoto Family Farm, an 80-acre certified organic farm south of Fresno that grows peaches, nectarines, grapes, and raisins. Hers is the fourth generation to work this land.

Her father, David Mas Masumoto, is a farmer, writer, and arts advocate. He has won several awards for his writing, including recognition from the James Beard Foundation as a finalist, and has also served on the boards of several organizations, currently including the James Irvine Foundation, the Statewide Leadership Council to the Public Policy Institute of California, and the National Council on the Arts, for which he was appointed by President Obama.

“I was really lucky to grow up with a mentor and role model who paved the way for making a connection between farming and art,” says Masumoto. “He farmed my entire life but was also a creative writer. For decades we have talked about farming as an artistic practice in itself.”

This might sound like a natural, even obvious, statement to make now, with the rapid growth of “foodie” culture having penetrated all corners of the country, creating a consuming public with a greater interest in and awareness of the food they eat –a highly determined level of thoughtfulness – than probably since the dawn of industrialization and the end of America’s agrarian society.

Now, for some, being a farmer is “cool” (even if the “coolness” quotient is a bit affected), as urban farming has become an earnest strategy in the push towards re-urbanization and increasingly more people are leaving their cube farms to cultivate urban farms on vacant plots of city land.

But it wasn’t so long ago that Masumoto saw kids getting laughed at in school just for having an association with farming.

“I remember classmates getting teased relentlessly for having any relationship with farming,” she says. Since then there has been a cultural shift, from food being viewed as a needs-based commodity supplied by corporate agriculture to understanding food as an art form. “[There was a] pendulum swing of going to college and saying, ‘I’m an organic farmer’ and that having social currency.”

Masumoto says that society is experiencing a moment in which popular culture is returning to some of its roots, getting back to the fundamentals of life – gathering around the table and sharing food, thinking about environmental sustainability. As the popularity of food and food enthusiasts exploded, people started to actually think about where their food actually comes from – the farm.

“One of the parts of food production that has been rendered invisible in so many ways is the art that happens in the fields,” Masumoto says. “As farmers, we’re growing aesthetic experiences. In the modern food production world there is a lot of pressures and different ideas on how to be a farmer; when the work becomes about the aesthetics, the story of food, that’s when you can be transported in a single bite.”

As an agrarian artist, Masumoto is specifically interested in stories. She also has a bachelors degree in women’s and gender studies and a Masters of Arts in theatre with a concentration in performance as public practice. She jokes that in the off-season when she’s not on the tractor thinking about the farm, she’s “really engaged in thinking of storytelling as a mode of community building, as a practice of physical dialogue.”

She launched the Valley Storytellers Project, a multi-disciplinary approach to empowering people of the Central Valley to tell their stories, and also created the one-woman show about Japanese American collective memory, “What We Could Carry,” culled together almost entirely from the testimony of individuals from the Los Angeles hearings of the 1981 Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.

“I believe in the magic of storytelling, not only for teller but also the listener. The possibility of public exchange is so rich for inspiring changes in behaviors and public policy shifts.”

Masumoto grew up listening to her father’s stories, and recalls from a very young age knowing that her Japanese-American grandparents had lived through the internment camps, but because there was so much shame attached to that experience her father had to fill in the gaps of her family’s history. “He’s an incredible storyteller. He was given this amazing gift to understand how meaning can be made from a story,” she says. Through the stories he told of his parents’ experience during World War II she came to understand the importance of keeping those memories translatable and alive over generations, which led to “What We Carry.” “I had a strong sense that storytelling was deeply rooted in my heart of justice.”

Her most recent projects have seen her in the role of facilitator that is “parallel to my life as a farmer,” creating places for storytelling about place.

Last fall she organized an “art-guided bus tour” of the Central Valley, a region known for its incredible bounty of food production and yet, as the one of the poorest regions in the nation, it is unable to feed itself. “There’s this really poignant paradox about this place,” says Masumoto. She wanted to create an opportunity for local artists to tell their story of place through Highway 99, the central artery of Central Valley, so she created a free day-long bus tour called Passages/Home that stopped at three community places along Highway 99 where the six local artists created and shared site-specific work across a variety of genres, allowing the artists and members of the community the opportunity to explore the meaning of that specific place.

“My favorite part was when we staged a performance art engagement piece at a rest stop. The artist leading us in engagement…transformed [yoga] poses into [interpretations of] local history, then this mariachi band comes marching by! It was this amazing moment of where the publicness of creation and place combined to show that artistry and art is already happening here. This accidental encounter was this amazing moment of connection and of place.”

She is also wrapping up with Cohort 1 of the Catalyst Initiative, a pilot project of The Center for Performance and Civic Practice creating partnership work between artists and community partners to address a community need through arts-based civic practice projects. Her cohort focused on issues of hunger and food access and was done in partnership with the Center for Land-Based Learning, a nonprofit that educates youth about agriculture across the state of California.

“The project has been two-fold: [first] sharing arts practices and design skills with their instructors for them to integrate into their artistic programming with youth – a meeting of arts and sciences in an effort to teach high school youth to create a sustainable future through food. The second part was to design and co-facilitate a digital storytelling workshop about hunger. Again, storytelling is the vehicle for opening a larger civic dialogue about hunger in a state that produces more food than any other state.”

The end goal of that workshop was for it to inspire and encourage students to share and invite a public conversation around hunger at a public festival in California’s state capitol, Sacramento. “It was a very emotional experience for some of the students because hunger is attached to so much shame, [just] for not having access or power over food.”

Masumoto also sees a strong link between farming and food and being a rural artist, and believes that rural arts create an opportunity to balance the urban-centrism of our culture.

“The parallels are amazing between thinking about food and farming and being in a rural arts community,” she says. “There is such a need for cross pollination between rural places and suburban and urban places. There’s such an opportunity between art, storytelling, and food to create many more avenues of consciousness.”