Rural Coalition

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Spent the past two days at the Rural Coalition Winter Forum. I was with people who’ve been fighting the good fight for economic and racial equity in rural America over the past 80 years. We younger farmers, ranchers, and activists have much to learn from our elders. I appreciate the opportunity to have learned from so many who have shaped the world for the better.

 

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After meeting with members of the Senate Ag Committee
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Rural Coalition Board and Staff
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John Zippert, my friend and mentor Carol Zippert’s counterpart

Food Justice is About Us, Not You

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As white-led food and farming organizations begin to grapple with the topic of race, I repeatedly hear my white colleagues talk about race in terms of their feelings. They feel bad that it happens, they ask what they need to say differently, and, when confronted with an instance in which they or their organization perpetuates systemic racism, they focus on their personal shortcomings. White people see race as a personal problem, while people of color know it is a systemic problem. This critical difference in perspective hinders us from making necessary structural change.

We saw an example of this last week at events that transpired at the Young Farmers Conference in New York, which was hosted by Stone Barns and organized by the National Young Farmers Coalition. Mark Bittman and Ricardo Salvador gave a keynote on the first day. During the question and answer period, Nadine Nelson and Dallas Washington asked Mark Bittman questions about race in relation to his and the food movement’s work. The New Food Economy reported on this and several videos of the exchange are available online, so is common knowledge who said what. But the individuals involved shouldn’t be the focus. We can use this situation to blame particular people, but it will have little effect. What we might see in this, instead, is systemic racism, how it acts through us, and the responsibilities individuals have to respond to it.

What I will focus on is not what happened in the question and answer period, but Bittman’s response. It is as follows:

Bittman Twitter Apology

This statement misses the point of what was offensive and what needs to be remedied. What was offensive was his avoidance of addressing systemic racism imbued in food writing and in the land access framework he espouses. Bittman seems to think the problem is about him, that remedy is through his personal transformation. He writes how it was a missed opportunity for him to talk about race and to be accountable. That he swears he is committed to listening and learning, that he just made a mistake. What he is making here, in case you missed it, is a request for his personal redemption. This is a move familiar to people of color: the offending white person appeals to their humanity and asks us to work with them so they can be a better person.

That is white privilege. Systemic racism enables white people to assert their personhood and be seen for the complexity of who they are for their potential to change. When a person of color makes a mistake, they are seen by society as symbolic of their entire race, ethnicity, or of all people of color and of broad, negative stereotypes. (Sometimes we have to joke about it.)  We, people of color, are not seen for our personhood.

We, people of color, are not seen for our complex personhoods. But we should be. Our personhoods embody a multitude of identities and histories – races, culture, gender, age, migration, displacement. We live them every moment, and our multiple, intersecting identities come into play in our engagement with people and politics. For farmers of color, these intersections are particularly rich. A conversation about race is not and cannot be separated from a conversation about farming, food systems, and sustainability—and vice versa.

When Bittman—or any white person in a position of power, from conference organizers to social media mavens—chooses not to talk about race, or passes the mic so others can talk about it, we see another example of how white people think about race: as a separate topic. White people seem to need too often to designate a separate time and place to talk about race. Last year’s Young Farmers Conference offered concurrent tracks about the Farm Bill and about race. True, the Farm Bill provides substantial funding for nutrition programs, farm technical assistance, and other food and farming programs. But historically, it began as a tool to support white farmers, explicitly excluding black farmers. This history, its legacy, continues to have an effect. The Farm Bill and race are not separate topics.

The same holds true for discussions of land access, marketing, seed sourcing, and every and all farm topics. We don’t need special sessions about race, we need race to be meaningfully included as a topic in all of our discussions. If you don’t know how race is relevant to say climate smart farming, don’t assume it doesn’t—ask someone who might know.  Our conversations need to be integrated—and please consider the full weight of that word—if we are to create systemic change.

Ironically, the framework for understanding these relationships were clearly presented at the beginning of the Conference by Shakirah Simley, Viviana Gilbuena, Hannah Koski, and Margiana Peterson-Rockney in their talk about Agroequity. Race is discussed at pre-determined, circumscribed times.

Working with people of color to shape our farming conversations and policies requires respecting the knowledge of people of color. Don’t tell us you want to listen: tell us you’re going to collaborate to create a meaningful space in which to speak, not about race, but about the topics you don’t normally think are “ours” to talk about. This is true power sharing, After all, there’s no opportunity to listen if you don’t give us time at the podium.

Undoing racism requires an understanding of how systemic racism permeates everything. Doing so enables people to comprehend how it is actualized through them, how they reproduce it, and thus how to prevent it. I hope you will join in the collective task of dismantling racism because it is about all of us.

These Days

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It all started Thanksgiving week. My partner and I walked out of the house and noticed our car was gone. It had been stolen directly from our driveway. While my partner called the police, I received a message from my mom saying that my dad felt extreme pain on his head and needed to go to the emergency room.

The police found our car the next day, and my dad was home from the hospital, but cannot have visitors. Thanksgiving dinner was a small gathering and unusual without my dad. The sad part about him being cornered off from the world was that it meant he couldn’t see his mom two days later when she suddenly had a stroke.

My grandmother lives near my dad, so he takes care of her on a daily basis. She happened to be visiting family in Northern California when she had a stroke, which damaged half her brain and left her unable to talk.

Then, the fires came. The Lilac Fire broke out and filled San Diego, where my parents live, with smoke. Farmer friends were displaced, and it was like October again.

Oh, life.

Bread, Glorious Bread!

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I love seeing what people do with my wheat. Don’t these look delectable?!


These breads were artfully made by:

Min of Biodynamic Wellness got into naturally leavened bread when her daughter became sick from eating conventional bread. Min taught herself how to make delicious sourdough bread before it became a thang. She’s a great teacher online and in-person on all things bread and biodynamic wellness.

Christina of @chinitaspies turned my Chiddam Blanc into these crispy baguettes, and regularly works her magic for special events. She’s a chef and baker in San Diego, California.

Revolution Bread makes baguettes and loaves from our Wit Wolkoring and Chiddam Blanc de Mars, which is available every week at the East Petaluma and Healdsburg SHED farmers’ markets.

Kathy of @makenbreadngreens is an enthusiastic home-baker who is curious about any wheat she can get her hands on. She bakes 100% whole grain bread in her Los Angeles home.

The last bread was made by Meg of @folk.bread in Olympia, Washington. A mutual friend of ours, Adrian Hale of 1000 Bites of Bread, journeyed north from California with a car full of my grain. Meg was a beneficiary of this excursion, and now we all benefit from the sight of the beautiful bread she made with the Chiddam Blanc de Mars.

All this, folks, makes a grain economy.

New 2017 Grain Catalog

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The new 2017 California Grain Catalog is ready to order! I finished putting final touches on it so that you can get a copy and order California-grown grains before Thanksgiving.  Visit californiagrains.com to get your copy, and see our revamped website, thanks to the skillful web design work of Megan Woo Web Development. (Megan is great to work with, so get in touch with her if you need a new website!) 

NYFC Post #5: Marketing my Grains is a Mouthful

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By Mai Nguyen

My grain is a mouthful. It is  identity-preserved, non-Plant Variety Protection (PVP), incrementally upscaled heritage seed grown using rain-fed, on-site fertility, carbon sequestering, integrated pest management, nonsynthetic sprays, low fossil fuel, no-till practices and brought to market as stone milled whole grain flour. That’s a mouthful that the commodity market can’t swallow. But that’s okay because what I do isn’t only palatable to the public, it’s craved.

In my first year, I took my grain to my local farmers’ markets. My booth stood out from the pepper baskets, vegetable pyramids, and flower bouquets. People aren’t used to seeing grain at the farmers’ market. I wondered how many people would stop at my booth, and before I finished that thought I saw a tuft of curls shoulder past the casual market strollers. “I’ve been waiting for you my whole life!” she exclaimed as she reached for jars of whole grain. “The market manager posted on Facebook that you’re selling whole grains—whole grains with names and flavor. This is what I’ve wanted my whole life!” This woman, Carol, seemed increasingly excited as she perused my display of farm photos,  the hand-drawn histories of each grain, and the color-coded reusable jars.

Later, another woman came by and expressed gratitude for my endeavors. Her husband had diabetes and needed to eat whole grains, which she had difficulty finding for bread making. Driven by a search for flavor or healthy food, a group of regulars came each week to exchange jars and stories. I learned about how the Red Fife rose, they learned about the next steps in field prep, and we gained a relationship of accountability and care.

Mai at her farmers’ market booth.

Putting myself in public inspired people to reexamine the food system. People would say, “I try to eat local as much as possible, but I never thought about all the non-local bread and grain I buy!” We would start a conversation about why that’s so, and what else they might be missing out on. My booth provided subtle hints. The glass jars enabled people to see the different colored wheat and rye that would make them pause to wonder why they had never seen different wheat before. The cooler indicated that I kept flour cold, and people would ask, “Why is the grocery store flour unrefrigerated?” I’d explain that I stone-milled the flour the night before and I wanted to retain the nutrients, oils, and amino acids present in whole grains until handed them to the customer. One question led to the next as people ventured into the wide world of organic whole grain, and I was glad to be their guide.

To move product in greater volumes, I also developed a Mai-style wholesale market. I connected with bakers who also operated their businesses with integrity, environmental and social considerations, and shared values. One of them is Mark Stambler who’s in my Heart and Grain video. Mark of Pagnol Boulanger worked on policy that made it possible for California home bakers to sell their bread, which has paved the way for decriminalizing cooking. Mark co-invested in part of my first crop, which alleviated some financial risk in my first year—the year that turned out to be California’s worst drought. He bought what I grew, and has continued to procure from my farm as he’s expanded his operations to Baywood Park, CA. Our farmer-baker relationship has helped us both grow our businesses and, in turn, feed more people.

I perpetually seek new ways of engaging people in this deeper understanding of and appreciation for grain. My favorite occasions involve collaborations with creative chefs and brewers. My friend Leyna Lightman orchestrated a six course dinner at Maximilliano wherein each dish featured my grain and was paired with commissioned beer by Highland Park Brewery or Craftsman Brewery. You should have seen the Sonora bird’s nest dessert. What a delight to taste one’s efforts in many manifestations! My newest gig is setting up grain pick-ups in community gardens. People can pre-order my grain, which provides predictability, but also bring friends and family to hang out and eat food provided my chef friends. It’s a chance to meet with those I know and passersby curious about the commotion, resulting in a greater community around healthful food.

Mai with her Grain Catalog.

I wondered how the growing population of people interested in whole grain were connecting with my farmer colleagues. Amidst my harvest and cleaning in 2016, I put in 200 hours of information gathering, editing, and design work that resulted in an image-rich catalog of California grain farmers and their products. It isn’t merely a listing of products, but a chronicling of this collective effort to revive heritage grain. Farmers’ faces and stories are present so people can develop relationships with them.

The project was driven by my fear that the heritage grain that my colleagues and I have meticulously grown out will be taken up by large producers who could price out the small growers. We’re the ones taking the time and risk to propagate rare seeds, and many of us use unconventional practices that have long-term global benefits but little immediate returns. The public will benefit from the abundance of heritage grain, but let us not leave behind the small-scale farmer, the beginning farmer, the young farmer whom we relied on for the seed and knowledge. I think that as much as we can build relationships, loyalty, and trust between producers and customers around shared values of accountable and transparent food production, small-scale farmers have a chance.

To secure a market for small-scale growers, I created the California Grain Campaign. Our immediate objective is to encourage all California farmers’ markets to require that vendors use 20 percent California-grown whole grain by 2020. Co-founder Dave Miller of Miller’s Bake House and I were inspired by GrowNYC, which adopted a 15 percent local grain rule. Their policy resulted in the strengthening of New York grain farms and the development of a robust regional grain economy. Dave and I thought California was capable of similar goals, but with the addition of the whole grain mandate because of its importance to human health. We quickly found allies among Los Angeles area farmers’ market managers and were featured in the LA Times.

Promoting the 20 x 2020 campaign.

We don’t want to simply impose this 20 percent by 2020 (or 20 x 2020) rule without ensuring that vendors and farmers have the tools to do so. Dave, being a veteran whole grain baker, developed baking guides with input from Nan of Grist and Toll, Celine of Brickmaiden Bread, Christina of Demeter Bread, and Josey of The Mill/Josey Baker Bread. We’ve developed a suite of resources about whole grain for customers, as well as for farmers seeking to improve their practices by hosting field days. We’re addressing the whole system that has excluded healthful whole grain from our diet.

Introducing a product that is totally different and essentially antithetical to what the conventional system was built for requires much effort. It needs everyone’s participation, from the farmer to the miller to the chef to the eater. I know—it’s a handful of work for a headful of ideas. But, it’s worth it so we can all enjoy a mouthful of healthy, whole grains.

How to Help Fire Victims

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My heart is still heavy and my mind clouded by the fire. I decided to stop looking for land this fall, which means I won’t have a fall crop. I don’t want to compete with people who have animals and who need homes. There are many who are in greater need than me.

If you’d like to help those affected by the fire, please consider donating to these groups:

North Coast Opportunities (ncoinc.org) is a non-profit dedicated to serving Mendocino and Lake Counties. Redwood and Potter Valley in Mendocino County was heavily impacted by the fire. Remember, folks, I used to farm in Potter Valley and I have many friends in those two valleys. This area is much more impoverished than Sonoma county and can use help.

Centro Laboral de Graton (CLG – www.gratondaylabor.org) is well-connected to the farmworker community and is one of the few organizations focused on helping people without documents and residing in Sonoma to rebuild. CLG is a “worker-led center [that] offers everyone an opportunity to participate in leadership, rights advocacy, civic participation, networking and community service. The center provides access to training, education, health care and legal resources.”

If you’re in the area, consider attending CLG’s benefit event on October 28th.

Fiery Future

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A journalist asked me if the fires affect how I think of the future and continuing to farm.

Part of me feels daunted, and tired of fire and smoke.

But my main thought is that the farming that I do — rain-fed, no-till, animal powered — is ever more important and relevant [see blog post titled NYFC Post #4]. And the farming of perennials, carbon, and soil organic matter done by more and more farmers is incredibly important. Let’s replenish the landscape with moist perennials and water with only the rain. Let’s farm and live in a way that we prevent fires and floods instead of throwing hundreds of billions of dollars into disasters. Let’s invest in our water, air, and soil instead of taking and wasting without replenishing.

I had the honor of celebrating the harvest moon at my friend Kristyn Leach’s farm. She’s moving this year, but sowed cereal rye for the birds and the earth. Before she cast the first seed, she reminded us that

We need to give back more than we took.