Black Farmers Matter

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We’ve seen the violence against black people. It isn’t new, but still troubling and must be addressed. I wrote about this in my newsletter in July, during a seemingly constant stream of videos capturing police brutality against black people.

…I stopped into a small farm town [in Utah] to stretch my legs in the near middle of a drive from Chicago to California. No one was around on the 4th of July weekend. As I walked the empty sidewalk through town, I noticed wheat at the border of a yard. I thought: Someone was here, someone planted this wheat. 

Wheat is an old world crop, as you know, and one of the first farmed foods. Humans invented farming to secure our sustenance, and it’s how we relate to nature to provide ourselves greater health, nutrients, and earthly delights. Only in the last century did we stop farming with health in mind, with people in mind. Farming became a complex calculus of transport, shelf-stable preservation, and profit rather than a process done for us, by us.

Dehumanizing the customer is a relatively new concept. When customers ask me why we’ve moved away from whole grains and towards sifted, nutrient-deficient grains, I can trace it back a few decades. Dehumanizing farm laborers, however, is a process that extends further back than the last century. Africans were brought here as farm tools and stripped of their agency, liberty, dignity, and liberty. That legacy exists today.

I hadn’t kept up with news and media while driving. But when I reconnected, the news was horrendous. When I heard about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, when I watched the videos of their final moments, I saw how quickly their lives were taken. Likely they were never seen as human by the perpetrators. Manipulating people, exploiting them, violating them, killing them — it’s all easier if you don’t see them as human. Dehumanization is the psychological principle that allows the system to destroy people with minimal burden to the conscience. Mexican people become farm implements to be worn out, Vietnamese people become gooks to be burned up, and black people become first property, then inherent criminals, to be jailed or eliminated. In our society we dehumanize chiefly through skin color, and skin color becomes our justification for man’s inhumanity to man.

We have dehumanized so many facets of society. And we all suffer the consequences.

As I traveled across the U.S., past thousands and thousands of acres of farmland, I noticed how it was all filled with evidence of people but empty of them. How odd — such a deeply human process, but without a human in sight. So I was glad when I held this front porch wheat in my hand; it reminded that someone had planted it, and that before that someone had brought it across the sea, and before that someone had selected the seeds. It made me think about all the people who have made today possible. My heart is heavy these days, but I believe that we will make a better world, one where everyone is seen and respected as human.

This connection between undervaluing black lives and farming led me to think deeper about what farmers can do in solidarity. So, I talked to friends and allies in the Asian Farmers Alliance about making a concerted effort to reach out and find ways to support black farmers. We wrote a letter to send to groups that support black farmers in the US. This is what we said:

We of the Asian Farmers Alliance are writing in light of continuing violence against the African-American community, and to express our solidarity as farmers of color in the US.

We also want to express appreciation for your organization’s work and the significance of your work fighting against the systemic oppression of Black farmers. Through this work you have improved the conditions of Black farmers, aided them practically and logistically, but, more so, created unity amongst black farmers in the fight against the systemic oppressions and dehumanization that have afflicted black people since this country’s founding, and indeed were inherent in its founding. We admire your organization, and our Asian Farmers Alliance seeks to follow in your footsteps and pattern ourselves on your solid model.

As farmers and activists from the diaspora of Asia, we see how the United States food system has continued to exploit people of color. From Chinese exclusion from land ownership while extracting expertise and labor for agricultural production, to the Japanese internment when the USDA inventoried Japanese-American farm businesses to assess their worth and subsequently used that information to give additional cause for internment, to Filipinos brought to Hawaii to work in the sugarcane industry, to current day Southeast Asian refugees — Hmong, Cambodian, and Vietnamese — as farmworkers, we have seen ways labor and lives have been exploited in US agriculture.

The United States has the largest agricultural economy in the world, an economy that was built on the backs of Black people. Your work has made our work as farmers in the US possible. But, the farming framework we work in is predicated on inequality. We are fighting against the same unfair system, a system that would instead have us compete against each other. Instead, we stand with you— as farmers of color, as Asian farmers, to undo the racism in society as well as in our communities.

The Movement for Black Lives has given all Americans a chance to examine the historical legacy of violence and discrimination, and continue to seek justice that will benefit all. We are dedicated to supporting this movement and ensuring that its progress extends to rural America, farming communities, food-producing communities, and the entire food and agriculture system. We want to

  • Build on the legacy of Pigford to encourage that this country look honestly at its past and addressing its intentional, institutionalized robbery and oppression of people of color;
  • Support HR 40 and other efforts to examine the possibilities and implications of government reparations to descendants of American slavery;
  • Change the culture of government and organizational discrimination of people of color, especially black communities;
  • Develop an Asian Farmers Alliance to build solidarity amongst our different ethnic backgrounds and histories, fight against anti-blackness racism in our own community, and create a relationship in solidarity with black farmers and communities.

We hope that we can come together to talk discuss how we as Asian farmers can work with you towards social justice for our communities.

I look forward to hearing back and starting a long relationship in solidarity. In the meantime, we have much internal work to do.

Los Angeles Grain Convening

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Angelenos, you’ll find me in your town next month! The Gourmandise School in Los Angeles invited me to speak at their upcoming Grain Convening. The day is dedicated to providing hands-on workshops to show people how to bake bread and pastries, make pasta, and cook with whole grains. I’ll be there to talk about how farmers are working to bring back heritage grains and to show the variety of flavor across different whole grains.

Early bird registration remains open until September 30th, so hurry to sign-up! You can find more information here: http://thegourmandiseschool.com/gourmandise-grain-conference-2016/

 

Spelt: A case study of why people don’t grow heritage grains

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Spanish Spelt

The ancient grain Spelt is beautiful and a pain in the butt. Like many ancient grains, it has a protective outer layer called a hull. Modern wheats have been selected to not include this hard casing because it requires a cumbersome step in the grain cleaning process to remove.

Let me take you through how it’s a pain.

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DEER LODGING

It’s already an annoyance in the field. It’s super tall, so the deer love to lay in it and use it as bedding. Long stalks characterize many ancient and old grains, which were purposefully selected against when scientists selected modern varieties. Shorter stalks mean less lodging and easier harvesting, which works well for a mechanized farm operation. The longer stalks create an abundance of straw that can be used for mulching, and they’ve captured more atmospheric carbon than the short stalks.

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Clogged Combine Auger

The spelt also grow long beards and consists of hulls that become block up nearly all the combine’s openings. I had to stop every 10 minutes to clear out the various augers and orifices. Now for a closer look.

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Left: Red Fife, Right: Spanish Spelt

Let’s compare the relatively younger Red Fife to Spanish Spelt. Red Fife has a chaff, thin outside, but the Spanish Spelt has many layers.

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With one peel, the Red Fife is exposed. Red Fife is also super old, about 6,000 years old, but not as old as Spelt. So after layer one, you still have a hard shell around the seed.

20160917_123646 I had to break through the layers with my nails to expose the seed. Imagine trying to break through thousands of pounds. Most de-hullers only have a 12% return rate. That means 88% of the product sent through aren’t dehulled! 
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Why grow Spelt? From a farming perspective, all that straw and carbon sequestration helps retain soil moisture, and the yields and plump berries make it a good crop for market (assuming you can de-hull it!). As an eater, Spelt is incredibly flavorful and unmatched by other grains. These reasons make it worth growing.

Anniversary

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I still remember what the semi-truck looked like as it came towards me. It’s been a year since that car accident, but I still feel the impact. My back and shoulder nerves continue to hurt and occasionally send out painful reminders through my arms and legs that this injury has larger than local implications. Physical therapy appointments take up each week and right now there’s no end in sight.

I can live with the physical pain, but what pains me the most is not being able to do what I’ve dreamed of, dedicated years to, and place much value in: farming. Most days I feel satisfied doing what I can by growing grains, which don’t require daily attention, and cultivating seeds. But sometimes I’ll walk through the farmers’ market and feel envious of the colorful vegetable booths, the farmers geeking out with customers about produce flavors and textures, and the diversity of crops. I feel cheated of the chance to share my skills through tangible, nutritious, and delectable objects that I’ve cared for and produced.

I understand that I must be patient and heal. But some days it feels daunting and interminable.

And today is a day to remember the doors that have closed, hopefully temporarily, and the doors that have opened. I’ve been able to help other farmers grow food and improve their farm businesses. I’ve been able to support the creation of equitable jobs through cooperatives. I’m grateful to exercise my other abilities for a greater good.

Here’s to more healing through this next year.