My grains will be featured in this six-course meal next Monday. Proceeds will go to supporting San Diego farmers. If you’re interested in attending this event in La Jolla, you can purchase tickets here.
From the event site:
In collaboration with the Berry Good Foundation and Jack Ford of Taj Farms, Catania chefs Dusty Karagheusian and Ryan Johnston along with Catania alum Vince Schofield are putting on a six course meal featuring a variety of housemade pizza and pasta dishes all made with local grains in an effort to support San Diego’s farmers. Each seasonal dish will be mindfully created to enhance the unique properties of the wheat and paired with wines selected to complement the flavor profiles.
Do you have a favorite podcast? Are you a serial and simultaneous podcast subscriber? I’m not, but I paid close attention to Cal Ag Roots podcast over the years. I’m impressed by the gentle, easy-sounding, yet poignant conversations that elucidate and enrich our agricultural history.
Thus, I was honored that Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, the show’s producer, invited me to be on the podcast. She was principally interested in how history informs my farmer organizing work. I found it difficult to fully convey how every moment, every action is informed by history and memory. Organizing farmer listening sessions comes from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, seed saving comes from grandparents who hand-picked rocks out of stock for seed and food, and mobilizing multi-ethnic movements comes from Delano, Oxnard, Detroit, and Selma. It’s hard to capture all that in a short interview, but I hope it’s enough encouragement for others to reflect on how we arrived here — the struggles, strategy, and solidarity that has made the world more inclusive and equitable.
While I encourage you to listen to all the episodes through the link above, here’s the episode I’m on and the Cal Ag Roots introduction to this series:
Mai Nguyen is an innovative grain farmer and an influential farmer organizer. In this interview, the first in our new series of conversations with food movement leaders that we’re calling “Digging Deep,” Mai talks with Ildi Carlisle-Cummins about how examining our agricultural past is the only way to move into a just, healthy farming future.
As she puts it, “I, like other farmers, have perhaps 40 tries to grow my crops. That’s not many, but we have more data points by looking back and looking around us. Scale isn’t about one individual using their monoculture of the mind to manage vast acreage. Scale is time, human history, diversity — the polyculture of many minds working lands in different ways throughout time and at the same time.”
This new Cal Ag Roots podcast series–Digging Deep: Conversations with Food Movement Leaders about the History of Farming– will be released every other month. I’ll be talking with people who are working to shift farming right now, bringing California farming into the future. And we’ll be talking about how their understanding of the past, and how what they learn from Cal Ag Roots stories, has shifted their thinking about their work. Each of the conversations will draw on Cal Ag Roots stories, so if you haven’t heard them all yet, take a listen on our Story Hub (or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher) !
Particularly relevant to today’s podcast is the last one we released—#5, Borderlands of the SJV. We’ll keep on producing that style of podcasts and releasing them here—there are so, so many more histories to unearth. The two different kinds of podcasts are going to be in constant conversation with each other, so we’re hoping that you’ll tune into both and that each episode will be more meaningful that way.
Big THANK YOU goes out to Mai Nguyen, of course, for the wonderful interview, to Nangdo for the use of all the music in today’s episode, and to Cal Ag Roots Funders including the 11th Hour Project and the Food and Farming Communications Fund.
My farm partner of Sonoma Grain Collaborative checked out the gap between Wit Wolkoring and Chiddam Blanc de Mars. A healthy toddler-sized gap.
The Berkeley Food Institute broadcasts a podcast called Just Food. A recent episode includes graduate researcher Adam Calo and I talking about land access. You can follow this link for the podcast and transcript, which also includes photos of Adam and I. Or, listen in the file below.
Adam points to structural challenges, particularly racism, as a principle barrier to accessing land. Yes, we can point to America’s long history of land theft, red-lining, and discrimination. We can also point to the many instances of selective application of the law and norms. But, the trend now is that they want to hear a personal story. They want to hear the details of how racism affects an individual. I know that was supposed to be my role in this podcast.
Now, I’ve spoken about the discrimination I’ve faced as a womyn of color trying to gain leases and, despite my due diligence, paperwork preparedness, references, and sometimes trusted working experience with landowners, how ultimately I’m passed over for a less experienced and buttoned-up white person. To me, it’s not a story. Racism is a daily reality and it is painful. When I’m interviewed and asked about my experiences of racism, often as though I’m asked to prove that it exists (see: Summer of 2016 and the world around us), I think to myself, “Is this worth peeling back scabs for? This will cause me harm today, and will it do me good in the long run?” If the answer is no, then I assert that I don’t want to talk about it.
It took me a long time to ask myself those questions. It took practice to recognize that my inclination to trust an interviewer, as though we’re having a personal conversation, needs to be checked. I don’t get to ask questions, so it’s not a conversation.
Fellow POC, we don’t need to make ourselves vulnerable for the benefit of others. We, our ancestors, have already done so much for the benefit of others who seek to extract from us. We don’t need to explain racism because it’s not our problem. Racism is a problem created by white people, and they need to take back their problem.
I’m a grain farmer and organizer of th California Grain Campaign, which aims to make California-grown, whole grains widely available. Today I want to talk with you about how those two areas of work are related: which is my mission to humanize the food system.
The name of this talk, Rediscovering Grains, provides a useful framework for understanding how discovery and rediscovery is how we can humanize the grain economy.
I only have 5 minutes, so I’ll briefly touch on 4 areas using this framework of rediscovery: culture, health, environment, and economy.
Culture: European “discovery” of the Americas initiated the spread of European monoculture, as manifest in wheat. Expansion westward involved theft of indigenous seed and grain, replaced by wheat. 20thcentury industrial agriculture accelerated this consolidation of seed wherein a few hands offered a narrow selection of patented wheat seed.
Farmers such as myself are rediscovering and reviving a greater diversity of unpatented grains – wheat, barley, corn, rice – that reflects the diversity of human society.
Health: Europeans discovered wheat is a powerful global commodity. It can be stored a long time, shipped far distances, especially when the bran and germ are removed. That yields a refined, white flour that facilitates the spread of diabetes, obesity, and other diet related illnesses.
We are rediscovering the nutritive value of the whole grain and offering wheat to support human health over profit.
Environment: Europeans discovered America to be a vast grassland. Wheat is also a grass, so to eliminate the competition chemicals and mechanical tillage has been used, resulting in diminished biodiversity, widespread environmental toxins, and increased greenhouse gases.
California farmers are at the forefront of rediscovering grain’s role in an organic rotation that increases biodiversity, soil health, and captures atmospheric carbon.
Economy: We know that European discovery of new lands meant the encounter with peoples whom they enslaved. Slaves built our agricultural economy. We continue to exploit people to produce an overabundance of wheat with which we flood the global market and destroy regional economies.
We in the California Grain Campaign are creating relationships of transparency, accountability, and risk sharing throughout the grain economy so that we are supporting each others’ livelihoods, ensuring we all have a living wage, have good work conditions, and are supporting each other as whole human beings.
Our process of rediscovering grains with respect for culture, health, environment, and regional economies is a radical departure from the past. We are doing the the most innovative work: humanizing the food system.
See you in Berkeley!
Farming and community organizing constitutes the grassroots work that people walk past, take for granted, or trample on. There’s plenty of good, earth-moving work that goes unrecognized. Each year Grist shines a light on 50 people engaged in positive change, in fixing. Thus, I’m grateful and honored to be included among the 2018 Grist 50, with special thanks to author Samin Nosrat for recognizing my efforts. Here’s what she wrote about me:
I want the future of American agriculture to look like Mai Nguyen. She has a science background, but she understands the cultural importance of food. She’s tough and focused, even after losing 15 of her 28 acres in the California wildfires.
Mai’s a one-woman solution to major diversity problems in U.S. farming. Our fields are vast, monolithic rows of corn and soy — crops like these make up about 75 percent of U.S. agriculture. She raises heritage plants like Syrian wheat and Vietnamese eggplant, preserving the diversity of flavors in food.
She improves people diversity, too. Our farmers are mostly white dudes. There are plenty of reasons why: the high cost of land, casual racism and sexism within rural America, immigrant parents who want something better than manual labor for their daughters.
In 2017, she organized farmers and testified at the California legislature to help pass a new law that ensures farmers of color will have a say in Golden State agriculture policy. And she’s quick to give talks to and field questions from other farm-curious women of color.
Here’s how she puts her heirloom crops in context for family members who were refugees from Vietnam: “We came from a country that doesn’t exist anymore. Cultural practices are dying. Seeds can bring some semblance of home.”
For my part, I wanted to honor those who came before, those who gave us the most basic element for life: seed. The effort to save seed has been largely undertaken by womyn. Be it a gendered task or not, our anthropological record shows that womyn across time and cultures saved seed. We have them to thank for our biodiversity, adaptability, survival, and lives.
Ten minutes is hardly enough time to honor the ten thousand years of seed saving work. I tried my best.
In the context of wheat, I spoke of Sally Fox who grew out Sonora for ten years and gifted farmers with that heirloom wheat of the Americas. Of course, I paid respect to Monica Spiller who birthed this heritage, whole grain revival. They are part of a bigger story.
I spoke of the seeds that nourished my family and of womyn who escaped war, persecution,
oppression by boat and brought me their seeds. They thought to carry seeds for soil they may never set foot on and for a future they might not have been part of.
I recounted this past fall, when my newly leased land for seed saving burned in the fires. I read the passage that my partner shared with me as I hand-separated seed from chaff and wondered about whether to find new land.
“For all the blacks that get crucified or hung from iron hooks through their ribs, escapes from Surinam’s four hundred coastal plantations never stop…
Before escaping, the female slaves steal grains of rice, corn, and wheat, seeds of bean and squash. Their enormous hairdos act as granaries. When they reach the refuges in the jungle, the women shake their heads and thus fertilize the free land.” — Eduardo Galeano Faces and Masks
The answer is yes, I must find land for seed.
Seeds feed us. They are part of the commons, and we must fight to keep them in the commons. We must resist the privatization of our commons by corporations and breeders who take what’s free and slap on a fee (mostly men). Taking away seeds — our food, our staple — is criminal. It is an offense to humanity.
This means we need to give back the seed. We need to value and compensate people who know how to steward and sustain seeds. We need to provide land for seed and practicing the diverse cultivation and management methods. Summary: free seed, pay farmers, provide land.
The problem of food waste is misattributed as an issue of consumer ignorance, over-spending, or negligence. The individual is blamed, distracting the from the corporate and government investment in food waste. The systemic production of food waste became clear to me as a I sat starving and soaked in rancid animal fat, staring at a heap of edible, discarded food.
I dumpster dived for my daily meal for a couple years, especially during the Great Recession when it was difficult to make ends meet even with a college degree and three jobs. But, I knew exactly when Andronico’s and Elephant Pharmacy brought out their green waste. I rode up on my bike with panniers and plastic bags three times a week around 10 pm, hopped the fence, then loaded up on fruit and vegetables. I’d find apples, oranges, and perfectly ripe plantains and avocados. That’s right, no need to wait! Standing on over 300 lbs of food, I could be picky and check if the apples were mealy, oranges pithy, and fennel fragrant. Then, I’d bike to the bakeries and get their day-old bread that muffin-topped multiple dumpsters. I visited those once a month because each time would fill a freezer and friends’ freezers.
The treasure hunt was enjoyable, but more so was the socializing. I occasionally met other regular dumpster divers, came to know their food preferences, and saved special finds for them. One man was a bus driver for the university. His wife had cancer, so all his money went to her care. “She loves bright flowers, but they’re so expensive. They have nice flowers at this store,” he told me as we sifted through food for flora. I saved flowers for him and his wife every week from then on.
Others were people who wanted to redirect food back to people. They were part of the national, grassroots network called Food Not Bombs, which encourages distributing food instead of violence through war or incarceration. We dumpstered and solicited donations at farmers markets to gather enough food to prepare hot meals for anyone who wanted one.
On my personal dumpster runs, I’d bike home around midnight and start on several hours of food preparation. Scratches and bruises quickly spread to affect the rest of the fruit or vegetable, so I needed to immediately wash, cut, salt, and ferment my finds. I’d meticulously, surgically remove the necessary damage as not to detract from edible parts. The discards went into the compost I managed for the community garden where I applied this nutriment to the berries, greens, and fresh produce that I’d enjoy in summer.
I didn’t sign up for food stamps because I didn’t want to rely on the government. I internalized the social stigma associated with food stamps, so I ate garbage instead. (Note: I support SNAP/food stamps!) I ate fresh food everyday and never got sick. I perfected lacto-fermentation and finding ways to preserve food for a long time without using artificially generated heat or cold. It seemed a sustainable life.
One night I jumped a fence and slipped in spilled rendered fat spread around the dumpsters. As I sat in stinking, sticky tallow assessing for injuries, I looked up at the towering dumpster overflowing with food. My hustle, resourcefulness, and will to live gave way to an honest look at the situation. Massive amounts of food sat before me as my belly grumbled, as people starved and lived impoverished. How did this come to be?
The first reason that came to mind was the expectation that food looks perfect, and failure to meet the expectation meant expulsion. The Atlantic reported in 2016 that Americans waste 50% of harvested food, about 60 million tons, and a large reason is the cosmetic blemishes. We now see campaigns such as Ugly Produce is Beautiful, Imperfect Producr, and ugly produce boxes to get people to look past the surface. These initiatives are valuable to getting people to reconsider what they expect of food, but why do people have expectations of cosmetic perfection to begin with? And is the lack of scratches and bruises an accurate proxy for food food?
Marketing shows us dyed, elaborately lit, edited versions of food and conflates that image for good food. We constantly see food through a filter. Processed food, fast food, and a cultural pressure and norm to eat at the newest hot spot rid us of the need to know how to assess food. We no longer need our parents, family, community elders, and farmers who help us understand how to pick a green bean and cook it, too. We rely less on each other or even ourselves, and more so on Yelp reviews, Instagram likes, and professionals for our most basic need.
We rely on professionals all the way up the food chain, and at the top are the corporations that own everything right down to the seeds we rely on to make any food. They patent seeds from the commons and restrict how they can be saved and shared such that farmers, thus all of us, are beholden to them for our food.
They put out high yielding crops that create abundance of one type, and not the essential abundance of diversity, and creates the first major source of food waste. In the case of wheat, breeders created short stalk varieties so that the plant diverts energy from the stalk to producing a larger wheat berry. As I mentioned in my previous post, the nutritive parts are eliminated (‘waste’) and the endosperm is kept for flour that’s made into many different processed foods. With the flavor removed, who can tell the difference from one plant to the next, so why would it matter what seed it came from?
Note the shorter stalks. They would typically be used to return carbon to the soil. There isn’t enough nutrient cycling, plus the crops aren’t necessarily disease resistant or adaptable to different conditions, farmers depend on pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals provided by the very same seed companies or their subsidiaries. This results in the second kind of food waste: waste from the production of food.
The applications of petrochemical fertilizers lead to nitrogen run-off into waterways that cause algal blooms, choke fish, potable water contamination. Pesticides and herbicides accumulate in water, soil, air, and unborn children. This land use is applied to hundreds of thousands of acres, laying to waste once ecologically rich landscapes. The ripping of earth to imbue it with toxins also releases carbon emissions that cause atmospheric waste.
The waste from over-production and growing practices is government sanctioned and implemented by profiteering corporations. Government funded research and breeding efforts engineered high-yielding crops to solve issues of world hunger that were in reality results of colonialism and creating infrastructure to move food away from zones of production and to zones of consumption (of the wealthy nations, and wealthy people within those countries).
We see this lack of infrastructure needed to thoroughly distribute food and resources on the municipal scale, too. I see people talk about food waste as an issue of food scraps ending up in landfills. I heard from Dannon-Wave that Dan Barber is developing a pepper that has less stem and inner matter that is discarded by chefs. The argument is that it’s food waste that goes to landfill. That helps restaurants reduce their waste hauling expenses. The problem isn’t that it’s going to a landfill, the problem is that there isn’t a compost system to bring it back to the farm.
So, when the dialogue focuses on food scraps or people over-purchasing and neglecting to eat all their food as the reasons for food waste, it is only looking at the consumer end of the problem. Thus, the solutions presented, such as the less ‘wasteful’ pepper or eating more parts of the plant, only look at that part of the food chain.
The other piece I hear is that we need to take food waste and give it to poor people. Let’s remember that the over-abundance of food comes from a chemically-laden process that is carried with the food. Distributing that food means we are spreading food that is waste from the moment it started growing. That food will only worsen people’s conditions by contributing to endocrine disruption, diabetes and obesity in the case of processed foods, and carcinogen bioaccumulation.
Addressing the problem requires looking at the whole system, who’s responsible, and what interventions can be made that affect the entire structure. Production and consumption need to be linked. Food waste is desperately needed compost in this time of depleting top soil. Farmers rely on petrochemical fertilizers when they should be recouperating food that can be returned to the soil where it came from.
What we can do is direct public and private investment into the infrastructure that returns food to farms, seeds to farmers, and accountability to society. This shift will enable farmers to feed you quality food. Maybe it’ll have a cut or blemish, but it will be delicious.