Farm Bill Forum

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The Farm Bill will be up for renewal in 2018, so people are beginning to organize informational and interest-based discussions now. I’m grateful for the opportunities presented by the National Young Farmers Coalition and San Diego Food Systems Alliance (SDFSA) to learn about this behemoth of a bill, and to appreciate how it impacts many essential aspects of our lives.

Most recently, SDSFA sponsored me to attend a Farm Bill Forum that they hosted. They began with a history and overview of the Bill by Lorette Picciano and Annie Lorie of the Rural Coalition. The Rural Coalition was founded in 1978 to link low-income and people of color community based groups to bring their combined experience to effect national policies affecting rural people and communities. I’m glad they brought their decades of farming policy experience, with an eye towards racial justice, to explain how the Farm Bill works and has been made to work for more and more people.


Lorette Picciano introducing the Farm Bill

Picciano started off by explaining that the current Farm Bill is an updated version of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1949. (The first Farm Bill was in 1933, but the Ag Adjustment Act now our touchstone.) The Bill must be renewed every 5 years or so, otherwise we will default to the original act which merely stipulates that there’s federal support for the school lunch program.

Just the school lunch program. What does that leave out? Almost everything under the sun! The Bill is divided into Titles that cover: commodities; conservation; trade; nutrition; credit; United States rural development; research; forestry; energy; horticulture; crop insurance; and miscellaneous. Within these titles are

  • Nutrition programs: Food Stamp/SNAP, WIC
  • Resource conservation
  • Crop insurance
  • Rural Development: electricity, cooperatives, socially disadvantaged groups
  • Farmers markets
  • Food hubs
  • Beginning farmer and rancher programs
  • Organic cost share
  • And more!

The day mostly consisted of speakers explaining programs supported by the Farm Bill and their impacts on Californians and San Diegans. My sense is that the best we can hope for is to preserve these programs because the current administration’s tactics have thus far been about cutting, not creating. I worried about some people’s comments that indicated a willingness to cut out programs that they didn’t think immediately affected them. “That doesn’t impact California, though,” and such statements made concerned about whether the reduction of resources will lead people to harden in self-centeredness that fuels tribalism, xenophobia, and violence.

What we can do is understand the Farm Bill’s influence and support the ways it’s been effective, and to let our representatives know that we want these programs to continue. Participation, not cynical disengagement, is necessary.

Farmers of the Global Majority

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UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) hosts a farm apprenticeship program that trains aspiring farmers in organic farming. A subset of past and current apprentices participate in a group called the Farmers of the Global Majority, and they invited me to informally speak at the farm.


It was a treat to see the beautiful rows of weed-free crops that lead to an ocean horizon. Before our informal meeting, I ran into apprentices who came to the Small Grains Field Day and my EcoFarm presentations. They showed me their wheat trials, and we nerded out about tillering and maturity stages.

IMG_20170628_122503_684 I had a moment to walk the gardens that reflect curiosity, biodiversity, and social justice. IMG_20170627_223831_631 IMG_20170627_223831_638 IMG_20170627_223831_632









Unfortunately, I was developing bronchitis and felt my head was in a vice, so when it came time to talk I spoke mostly of difficulties and what work needs to be done. I left regretting not saying more of what is being done and what can be done, of what we might do together.

So, for the first time, I committed myself to articulating what I’m working towards. It’s difficult to look past day to day efforts, past trouble shooting, and anticipating someone else’s next move. Moving through the world that way is defensive, not proactive. It allows others to make decisions that you respond to. What if we decided?

I wrote them a letter, and I think it’s worth sharing with you, too.

Dearest Farmers of the Global Majority,

I deeply appreciated the chance to visit with you and see the abundance of life you’ve nurtured. I’m particularly grateful to Leigh for coordinating my visit and to Mo for taking care of me — bronchitis was the culprit after all!
A part of me regrets that our time centered so much on travails and less so on solutions. You and I already know that this system does not work for us, does not mean to include us. People of color in America’s farming system are dehumanized and dispossessed of land, knowledge, seed, skills, product of our labor, and political power. We know and have experienced that our whole lives.
So, I think it’s important for us to think about the world we want to create. Our conversation brought up how to connect urban-rural, increase food sovereignty- and security, support our communities, and, at the heart of it all, gain power to thrive. I spent July 4th considering America’s history, mortality, and potential — typical birthday thoughts!
What I’d like to share is a vision of what’s possible: Imagine you’re in a city and you want to buy food for cooking. You walk into a grocery store and find a produce section stocked with amaranth leaves, pea shoots, chrysanthemum greens, huauzontle, okra, makrut limes. The deli offers injera, fuol, mitmita, banh cuon, tamales made by people in the neighborhood. It turns out the whole store is made by neighborhood residents. It’s a food co-op like where the members and employees live in the area, decide on what food to carry, and create a workplace that provides a true living wage.
With your goods in hand for a killer curry, you wonder how the store had so much food diversity. That’s when you pass by a community farm with bounteous biodiversity of annuals and perennials. The annuals come from the community’s seeds that are steadily grown out to eventually go to farmers who can grow them on a larger scale. The city provides protection from cross pollination from GMO crops. Those farms have secure seed and customers — the co-ops, cooks who make culturally-relevant food for the deli, schools, and restaurants. The perennials capture environmental toxins and atmospheric carbon to store them deep in the soil, while bearing fruit for passerbys.
Passing by is someone who stepped out of their cooperatively-owned home. The low cost of entry enables low-wage workers to secure a home and be protected from landlord evictions. The local credit union, a cooperative bank, works with residents to finance homes, businesses, and community investments. This neighborhood has resilience, continuity, and sustainability because it connects farmers, eaters, workers, everyone.
We can create a food system that provides quality jobs, promotes health, uplifts cultural foodways, secures homes, and encourages democratic ownership of our basic needs. As we build an equitable food system, we need to protect it in policy. We have been purposefully pushed out of voting centers, district zones, and political education so that we cannot institutionalize our social movements. Our political involvement would create policies by the people and for the people — all the people. True democracy is what this society is most afraid of.
Whatever you do after CASFS, I hope we will stay in touch. I’d love to hear your vision for the future and work with you towards a collective good. 
Very best,

The one thing my farm training never covered: Racism

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Mai speaking on a leadership panel at the 2016 NYFC Leadership Convergence.

When I started farming grains and vegetables in California in 2014, I already had a lot of the knowledge, skills, and experience essential to farming. When I was a child, my grandmother taught me to how grow plants and save seed. In college, I studied geography, focusing on atmospheric physics and later on soil science, which enabled me to assess landscapes and their hydrology and microclimates. After college, I created a restaurant that sourced from local farms, which gave me business skills I could apply to my farm.

But this wasn’t nearly enough. I attended every farm conference, intensive, forum, panel, workshop, and field day I could. I sought apprenticeships and internships. I learned from other farmers how to scale up and efficiently cultivate and harvest. Through study and practice, I learned how to take on the immensely complex task of farming.

But no farm conference, internship, or book prepared me for the challenges of farming as a person of color.

I don’t want to be labeled the farm blogger who only talks about race, but it’s something I can’t ignore. Race permeates my life. It is something I live with and through, that we all live with and through, even as farmers. Racism isn’t unique to cities; in the country—in the bucolic landscapes in which we farm—it is also a problem, one that hinders a large segment of young farmers and keeps others from farming altogether.

I’ve had farm advisors deter me from growing Southeast Asian crops, explaining, as if to protect me from something I didn’t understand, that there was no market for them. This despite the fact that there are over 4.9 million Asian Americans in California, the fastest growing demographic group in the state. At local markets, I’ve seen people shoo their friends away from my farm stand saying, “Asians don’t grow organic.” Others ask me if I speak English, using this as a precondition to purchasing. Even simply living in a farming area is hard. I’d avoid going to the only grocery store in 20 miles because I often see trucks flying Confederate flags parked out front. It isn’t uncommon for people to yell racial epithets at me or threaten violence as I walk down the street, telling me to “go home.”

But this is my home. I farm in a rural area because that’s where farms can exist at a viable scale. But it keeps me far from family, friends, and an understanding community that affords me safety. At times, it has left me feeling confined to my farm. Needing camaraderie, I sought out farmers of color using Natasha Bowen’s The Color of Food website, which is an extension of her book that contains portraits and stories of farmers of color across America, plus a map of where they live and farm. I contacted the only farmer within 200 miles, Kristyn Leach of Namu Farm. We exchanged information about seed, cultivation, and marketing, but also shared solidarity, something more important than knowledge. My connection with Kristyn inspired me to convene other Asian American farmers to discuss market opportunities, collaborate on customer education, and share best practices. This group became the Asian American Farmers Alliance.

Mai with Dr. Carol Zippert of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

I’ve also learned a great deal from Dr. Carol Zippert of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, whom I’ve had the pleasure of befriending recently. She shares stories about how her community cooperated with one another to retain farmland, develop capital, and create jobs during segregation, Jim Crow, and state-sanctioned and socially-accepted oppression of African Americans. Her 50 years of rural community organizing showed me the power of cooperation to enable farmers of diverse backgrounds to thrive.

This is the kind of knowledge that transforms and sustains farmers of color. It goes beyond technical knowledge, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be included in technical assistance trainings and conferences, like NYFC’s 2016 Leadership Convergence (pictured above). If more farmers of color were included in these presentations, this knowledge could be shared widely and made part of all our conversations. Marketing advice, for instance, could include how to address racist customers or how to be an ally to other farmers.

This knowledge needs to be passed on and made actionable so that gains we make in our communities don’t need to be recreated by future generations. That’s where policy comes in.

The Farmer Equity Act working group after the California Ag Commission passed the bill.

Farm service organizations and farmers, including myself, have been working on legislation here in California to support farmers of color. The first we’re pushing for in our state legislation is AB 1348, the Farmer Equity Act. If passed, this bill would introduce a definition of socially disadvantaged farmers and thus acknowledge the historic and current experiences of farmers of color as distinct. It would include those who were enslaved, those who were robbed of land and citizenship, and those forcibly brought over for farm labor. With this recognition, it opens the door to technical assistance, resources, and programs for farmers of color. The bill is scheduled to go to the California Senate floor on July 6th, so I encourage Californians to call or write their assembly members to urge them to support the Farmer Equity Act.

While young farmers develop as stewards, producers, and business owners, we as a society can advocate for equity so all young people have a chance to become successful farmers.