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.

Tubbs Fire

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Thank you for your texts and emails of concern. I’m safe, and the fire is east of where the grain is stored.

Unfortunately, the land I lease in Santa Rosa is in the fire. No crops were lost and no one was harmed. Our main concern is making sure all the people and animals are safe.

Be well, friends.

Pizza with LABB and me in Westchester

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Hey, let’s have pizza to celebrate the new harvest! I’m linking up with LABB members Paul and Dana Morgan, co-organizers of the Westchester Community Oven events, to host a grain pick-up along with the chance to bake your own pizza in a traditional wood-fired oven.
When: Sunday, October 14th, 2017 11:30 AM-1:30 PM for grain pick-up and pizza-making
Who: Open to anyone who wants to pick up grain. You don’t have to stick around for pizza, but it’d be nice to hang out!
What: All whole grain and will be sold at the wholesale price. Chiddam Blanc de Mars @$3.75/lb, Wit Wolkering @$3.25/lb, Red Fife @ $5/lb. 10 lb. minimum. What are these wheats? Read about them on the Grain page.
For the bake, please bring pizza dough from the store or home (we won’t judge!), and your favorite toppings. The event is free.  Oven is hot, and pizzas bake in less than two minutes.
Where: The Garden of Holy Nativity Episcopal Church6700 W. 83rd  St., a block west of Emerson Ave. (this is a secular event)
How: Please email mai@farmermai.com to place your order and pre-pay by Oct 8th.
If you’re interested in other wood-fired oven events, they happen on the second Saturday of every month and are listed on Los-Angeles-Bread-Bakers meet up.  Pizza at noon and bread baking at 2PM. If you have an oven-ready loaf, bring it on the 14th

2017 Harvest Revealed

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At long last, Chiddam Blanc de Mars and Wit Wolkering are ready for your kitchens! I sent them to bakers and the grain lab to give you a sense of how they perform, and here are the lab results to start:

chiddam2Chiddam Blanc de Mars (top photo)

  • Protein: 11.25%
  • Falling number: 354

Wit Wolkering (bottom photo)

Protein: 10.45%

Falling number: 360

These are terrific stats! Soft white wheat, as both these are, typically have protein ranging from 8 to 10%. Falling number indicates how much enzymatic activity there is, which helps bakers know if the flour will ferment well.

witIf you’d like to order, please email me to sign up for the newsletter. The monthly newsletter announces ordering schedules and pick-up locations.


Heart and Grain Video

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The National Young Farmers Coalition made a video about me! Click on the image to link to the video site.

National Young Farmers Coalition "Heart and Grain" Series, September 18, 2017
National Young Farmers Coalition “Heart and Grain” Series, September 18, 2017

Can someone suggest a stylist? That particular day was frantic and there wouldn’t have been time for any hairbrushing, but I think should get some tips from a pro on how to look put together!

California Grown Coverage

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The first time I got a farm lease I immediately called my friend who intimately knew my farming efforts through all the years I held farm internships and wondered when I might get my own place. He said, “This is your big break. This is it. You’ve arrived.”

It felt big at the time, and, even though that lease didn’t last, it was a big turning point. It was a whole farm business run by solo uno: me. But, I’ve learned there ‘s no arriving. There’ll be a few steps forward and some back, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t gains. I had to downsize from 5 acres to 3, but then I went up to 7 and this year I’ll have 22. There’s a possibility of 150, though I’ll need much more seed! What hasn’t wavered is the pace of growth in support, and I see that reflected in the media coverage of my farm. I’m grateful to those who encouraged me to share my story with the media early on when I was more a possibility than stability. These media spots enabled people who identify with my values, appreciate my life story, and support my farming practices to find me. That’s what we seek from media, right? We want to be informed about the world and connected to it.

While the media gets much flack these days, I am genuinely impressed by many of the media and journalists I’ve encountered. (Sure, some ask off questions like, “Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during WWII. Did Vietnamese Americans experience anything similar at the hands of the US government?” or respond to anecdotes of racism with, “There are some bad people out there.”) Their willingness to present a look into farm life for those who aren’t Old MacDonald or future Old MacDonalds and, at times, to use my words without their filter enables our society to see the diversity and complexity of farming. I hope it’ll get people to realize, “Hey, there’s much I don’t know, and I can’t speak for everyone’s experiences. They should be able to speak for themselves and represent themselves in the media and in politics.” Maybe people will sit down. Be Humble.

California GrownAnd inclusive. So, I was astonished that California Grown included me in their “Meet a Farmer” blog. They interview many farmers, and not many of them look like me or farm the way I do. They wrote up the piece with straight up quotes, and expressed sincere interest in my climate change mitigation motives for farming. It’s a small piece of the interweb, but I’m glad to inhabit it nonetheless and it feels like a notable benchmark along my path that intersects with the national conversation about what diversity and inclusion can look like.

Though there’s no arriving, there are milestones on this long journey towards social justice.

NYFC Post #4: Climate Change is Changing the Rules

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There was a worrying absence of metronomic clicks. I took out my voltmeter and detected only a faint current in the sheep fencing. In search of the impediment, I checked the solar panel output, connections, and electric twine that made up the portable fence. The problem lay in an entanglement of wire and brambles.

I wondered if I should corral the sheep into their pen while I fixed the problem or leave them grazing. It was already late in the day, and I needed the sheep to finish mowing the field before seeding time—before the big rain that was forecasted to arrive three weeks earlier than usual. I decided to leave the sheep to their urgent task as I worked on mine, delicately untangling the barbed twine.

I must have tugged too hard. An adjacent post fell, then another, and the one after that teased the wire’s tautness with a wavering tilt. The domino of poles provided a sufficient opening to new pasture: the neighbor’s vineyard.

Did the sheep notice? Sheep don’t naturally stampede into new terrain. Rather, when one moves forward to graze, another goes a few feet in front creating a leap-frog pattern of alternating movement. Factor that by 50 and there’s a fast moving herd. I walked-jogged-skipped in front of the lead sheep so as to not alarm them and ran perpendicular to their trajectory, which, if you’ll take a moment to imagine, meant running in a circle. I was a human sheepdog.

Much of farming involves a balance of doing something well and doing it on time. Unlike final exams, driver’s license renewal, or tax day, farming deadlines aren’t definitive dates. At least there are patterns to follow! Take the pattern of rain and heat that affect the fields and dictate my crop’s fate: gentle fall rains germinate weed seeds; Thanksgiving downpours alternate with warm days; then comes constant rain through February until a window of March sunshine allows for spring planting. April and May bring more rain, and summer shines a bright light that penetrates and desiccates so I can harvest grain without fear of moisture and sprouting. These patterns allow me to plan when to bring out the sheep to mow and fertilize, and the draft horses to broadcast seed and harrow in time for rain. I know when I’ll be able to reintroduce sheep to manage weeds and top-dress with enough time to avoid mistakes that come with being rushed, as in the story above. Each of these practices requires care and time, and patterns provide predictability for effective execution.

But these patterns are changing. In their place are not new patterns, but perpetual variability. In 2015, my crops received less than 10 inches of rain during California’s worst drought, thereby reducing yields of already low-producing heritage grains. Then, unprecedented rain and humidity came in July and threatened grain marketability. This year’s deluge of rain was a mixed blessing. Decades of drought made the soil impermeable, so the watery wealth went unabsorbed and instead wreaked havoc. Farms flooded, soil slid, winter crops became moldy, and that March planting window never opened. Many farmers didn’t have a spring crop at all.

The skies above my farm in August 2015, when fire engulfed the whole county.

The rainfall pattern changed too quickly for fields and forests to adapt. Crops became parched, so farmers pumped wells to the point where soil boron poisoned crops and prevented farming on once arable land. During the great drought, springs in the hills dried up, leading deer, mountain lions, wild pigs, and other animals to risk drinking from rivers that run alongside roads, and their death-toll demonstrated their desperation. Despite high fences, I found them or their impressions in my field, where they had lain for reprieve from the heat. They ate crops or rendered them unharvestable, but I didn’t resent them. Their water, food, and habitat were diminishing. Their home—the forests—dried and fueled devastating fires that engulfed 8,500 acres just 30 miles north of me one year, and 31,000 acres only eight miles east of me the following year. The changing patterns affected everyone and everything.

We know these patterns are changing because of human-generated greenhouse gases. Farmers can help reduce emissions and capture what’s in the atmosphere through how we farm, what we farm, and where we send our products. I reduce tillage to retain carbon in the ground, knowing that a third of atmospheric greenhouse gases came from the soil. I drive a combine because it’s difficult to find an efficient replacement, but I opt for animal or renewable power when possible. These animals and planting intercropped nitrogen fixers, such as crimson clover, minimize my reliance on imported nutrients. I grow heritage grains that develop deep roots (carbon) when mowed, and have long stalks (carbon) that I use as ground cover to retain moisture.

Nature is a dynamic system that I strive to farm synchronously with. That task becomes harder as human-induced climate change creates discord and disrupts long-standing patterns. We can slow this change through how we farm.