Coming to our senses

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In the 2013 Slate article Going Against the Grain about whether small-scale regional grain growers can be profitable, they concluded that flavor difference in local wheat from industrial wheat wasn’t strong enough to convince the masses. “While those of us willing to shell out $10 for a bag of flour or $5 for a loaf of bread may understand intellectually the virtues of buying locally grown, small-farm grain products—our taste buds can’t deny the obvious: Bread made from local grains will never taste as revelatory as a garden-grown strawberry, a tree-ripe organic peach, or a freshly picked heirloom tomato.”

This assertion is the opposite of my love story. I was totally won over by whole wheat when I first tried fresh red fife flour. It was clearly different than anything I’ve had before! And while running the California Grain Campaign for four years and nearly a hundred events, I’ve witnessed thousands of people sample side-by-side comparisons and instantly tell the difference between industrial all-purpose flour and single-origin, identity-preserved truly whole wheat (aka natural wheat). People who consider themselves un-discerning immediately remark on the flavor, the surprise, the delight in whole wheat.

Also counter to the 2013 article, this week’s Slate article The Pandemic Brought More Flavorful Flours into America’s Kitchens was all about giving readers an idea of what wheat can offer. Quoting Cecilia Gunther on Janie’s Red Fife wheat: “The scent of this flour will transport you to a still, deep, and loamy forest in the early autumn as the leaves begin to fall,“ and Olivia Watson, chef, consultant, and organizer of Bakers Against Racism in Richmond, Virginia, “I can smell the difference. … Sometimes I’ll pick up floral or herbal notes, or nutty earthy vibes, and then I can build flavors around them.” About a month earlier Epicurious also published The Power of Fresh Flour extols the many benefits of regionally produced grain, principally among them the noticeable difference in taste between wheat varieties.

Are we finally coming to our senses?

Modern food marketing pushes us to rely on images, keywords, trends, and fear to determine what to eat. Algorithms to align market interests with recent emails, color filters to draw in the eye, catchphrases that signal you’re in our you’re out. This removes our personal agency to determine what we want based on our sense of self.

When I take my mom to a new, hip restaurant, she quickly discerns whether the establishment uses quality ingredients. However long the line, shiny the vintage relief ceiling, ornate the cocktails, my mom knows if it’s just a show. She taught me to assess quality by color, texture, smell, and taste and ignore whatever you’re hearing.

Checking in with our senses and bodies isn’t part of food marketing, otherwise we’d reject all these packaged permutations of gluten, salt, fat, and sugar. The climate controlled nuclear family home with climate controlled personal car to get to a grocery store with the world’s goods readily available after centuries of colonialism and genocide to ensure all things go to us ensures that we do not need to rely on our senses and are desensitized to the world’s ailments for our benefit.

But if we are coming to our senses, let’s use them to discern not only what to eat but also what world we want to live in.

Do you remember last year when everyone was forced to stay home, so few cars spewed their exhaust? Do you remember how clear and beautiful the skies were, how clearly you could see your surroundings? Do you remember hearing bird songs and leaves rustling?

Do you remember what the world smelled like when you took off your mask? Remember the intoxicating flowers and sunshine-scented fabrics?

I want to live in a sensible world.

 

Resist Drought with Biodiversity

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As I mentioned in the post “2021 Outlook,” this year’s drought has dramatically reduced California’s wheat production, and that I’m one of very few farmers with a crop this year. I’ve been asked how that’s the case.

First the seed.
I started farming with climate change in mind, which, for California, means projections of less rain and more humidity and cloud cover. I sought out old plant varieties that have lived through hundreds to thousands of years, through many geographic and climatic changes. Ones that can be saved, regrown, and shared without penalties from chemical corporations, thus giving them the chance to adapt to a region. Ones that can thrive without irrigation or synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer. It takes a seed 20 generations to adapt to a place, which is 20 years in wheat time. So, when I began farming I saw myself in a lineage of seed savers to help prepare for the distant future of climate disaster. Turns out the future is now.
A seed’s adaptability still needs help from its environment–nature needs nurture. A diverse ecosystem that balances animals, fungi, plants, and natural elements is ideal, but much is out of my control. I intercrop an understory of clover and chamomile to provide nitrogen and to outcompete noxious weeds, rotate animals for weed control, fertilizer, and pest management, and incorporate long stalks of heirloom wheat into the soil to increase its water retention capacity. So, even if we only get 12″ of rain when we’d usually get 80″, the seeds are supported by its environment to have enough water and nutrients for a consistent crop.
The rest of the wheat growing world is very different. What dominates the wheat seed market are proprietary ones bred to be short, thirsty, fast-growing, pesticide and herbicide reliant, synthetic fertilizer-dependent, and millable into a sifted, refined flour. They’re expected to grow under the same conditions again and again, which is unrealistic geographically or in our climate change conditions.
We’re seeing clearly the benefits of planning for drought and for regional food sovereignty (i.e. I have a crop!), but it has gone against conventional business values. Chiddam, Wit, and many heirloom varieties are low-yielding compared to modern wheat (1 ton for me compared to 3 tons to the acre for modern wheat in irrigated, chemical conditions), I pay for intercropping seeds that don’t yield marketable products, and I have to invest in totally new equipment and infrastructure for this operation. I’m paying rent to trial seeds that no one will eat for maybe another ten years (because I’m starting with a tablespoon of seed!). I’ve invested in on-farm biodiversity because it creates an ecosystem that can mitigate and be resilient in the face of climate change–something scientists are only now coming around to recognize.
This is a time in our global society to reevaluate business as usual, and to build on and create businesses that integrate environmental stewardship, climate resilience, social equity and healing. This Flour Share has received attention as a model of a better business, a better grain economy, and it’s been made possible by the people who became members. It’s collective action that manifests meaningful change, so let’s get our institutions and policies to change and make health our usual business.

Event: Culinasia

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Join me on Wednesday, June 23rd 3:30 PM Pacific while I’m in conversation with fellow farmers on the Smithsonian panel event Asian American Farmers Look Back to Go Forward. The event is free, but you’ll need to register in advance.

Event Description
In film and popular media as well as farming and land ownership, Asian Americans have been historically underrepresented and repeatedly denied opportunities for advancement. The Oscar-nominated film Minari offers a unique opportunity to explore how being Asian in America is further complicated by the model minority myth and the “perpetual foreigner” burden carried by diverse communities. Asian American farmers and vintners come together for a discussion inspired by the semi-autobiographical story of a Korean American family that embarks on a new kind of American dream, traveling from their California home to a rural Arkansas farm where they nurture the father’s hopes of growing Korean produce to sell to vendors in Dallas. Presenters include Mai Nguyen, owner of Farmer Mai and founder of the Asian American Farmers Alliance; Kamayan Farm founder Ariana de Leña; and Thai American winemaker Kenny Likitprakong of the family-owned, California-based Hobo Wine Co. Participants can view Minari in advance of the program, Friday, June 18, at 7 p.m. as part of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s film program.

Culinasia: The Future of Asian Food in America. Free!

Reflecting while Reopening

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I wrote this at this time last year, but didn’t wrap up with the last line until now. I suppose its time to release it as Californians are eager for our state to “reopen” on June 15. As much as I want to see people, to linger in a cafe and share smiles, I think there’s a great deal of reflection that we still need to do in order to recover from over a year of heightened grief, anxiety, violence, and tension. Reflecting on the past century as well as our recent past might help us understand what approach we might take to healing our social divides and what’s at stake if we don’t.


Without commutes, coworkers, parties, and travel, we were left with our own thoughts, habits, and history. We turned to ourselves to ask, “Am I ill? Do I need to quarantine?” To our families: “Is my child sick? My partner, siblings, parents, grandparents?” To our friends and neighbors: “Who is at greater risk than others? Do they need anything?” Beyond a certain point, others’ well-being was unknown and out of our individual control, and any concern was exercised by wearing a mask and physically distancing from anyone outside one’s household.

With less external activity, this has been a time to turn inward. I’ve been thinking on the phrase “turning inward.” What might we notice? What might we learn? What are old lessons to find such that when we turn outward, again, will we have changed for the better? As I looked inward in search of tools I already have to get through this time, what I’ve learned from elders and ancestors, I arrived at the past pandemic. During college I learned about the period of turning inward following World War I wherein the horror of modern warfare and, in the case of Germans, shame of defeat catalyzed a period of turning inward. Reflection. What have we done? Was all the death worth it? In the US, this gave rise to the Lost Generation and the Harlem Renaissance–movements exploring the deep interior, with revolutionary implications in the case of the latter.

Last year I became interested in the parallels with World War I-era social conflicts with that of today. We know Gravilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, assassinated Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife. Ethnic groups such as Serbians wanted to have national sovereignty and break from the Empire. The desire to have one’s ethnicity respected and to have self-determination resonates in today’s continuing efforts for racial equity.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire and its ally the German Empire (known together as the Central Powers) were united for many reasons, among them fighting separatist nationalist movements to preserve their empires’ monoculture. When the US and Allied Forces fought against the Central Powers in WWI, they weren’t doing so for the advancement of ethnic nationalism and diversity per se, but looking back those issues were worth examining because they became core issues in the next world war. For after the period of turning inwards, when they turned outward they saw a renewed fight for monoculture, specifically white, Christian, heternormative supremacy, led by Hitler and the Third Reich. So, it’s important to consider why white supremacy wasn’t defeated.

What I learned in college was that German’s feeling of humiliation and shame was deepened by how they felt the Allied Forces over punished them for the war. While Woodrow Wilson wanted to create a multinational body to facilitate peace-keeping, France wanted Germany to accept the blame and to atone. It’s argued that because Wilson caught the Spanish Influenza, which caused cognitive impairments, that he acquiesced to France’s stance. This relatively more harsh approach lent to greater feeling of shame. That feeling of shame was ripe for a group to come along and boost German pride by insisting that not only were they blameless but rather correct and superior–an Aryan race meant to inherit the earth. Thus, the rise of the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler.

What do we learn from this? If we want peace, we need to find ways to hold people accountable for their unjust acts and also to forgive them. Isolating and shaming them breeds discontent and self-righteous violence. (Another lesson is that Trump could get COVID and have cognitive impairments that disable him from making (less) sound decisions?)

What else can we learn from that time? I think it’s worth highlighting the aforementioned artistic movements: a Lost Generation of white men and the fleshing out of Black people in the Harlem Renaissance. One of the Renaissance’s notable characteristics was expression of full Black personhood–dynamic, nuanced, and distinct from the old ways of portraying African Americans through a white lens. Black soldiers returning from WWI contributed to this ethos and movement through conveying their experiences of a less segregated Europe. But, the relief from oppression put them at risk during war. Today, we’re seeing deservedly increased attention to Black artists and -owned businesses. It came at the cost of black lives.

The Red Summer of 1919 when riots against police murder of unarmed Black people also inspired artists of the Renaissance. Have we learned from those artists? Have we built on the work of the anti-police activists and prison abolitionists? How was our Summer of 2016, or Spring of 2020 much different from the Red Summer of 1919 nearly a century ago?

Examining these long-standing ethnic and racial tensions connect to helping us understand the systems that failed all of us in ensuring our health and safety in the past year. Racialized and gendered agricultural and care-related labor are parts of why our society has neglected those critical sectors. Our society’s bigotry and sexism harmed all of us, and let’s not turn away from that.

What reflections and processes will help us reengage without reopening old wounds, without creating another world war?

Hiatus

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Hello from Jello Town, also known as the hospital. I’ve been unwell for a week and am not sure when I’ll be in the clear. No diagnosis yet, just a prescription for a clear liquid diet for the foreseeable future. Send any good recipes my way!

Also, guess who is on ABC Good Morning America’s Inspiring Asian American Pacific Islanders list? 😀

Article: Fresh Flour

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Epicurious published “The Power of Fresh Flour” this week, so I hope those of you who are part of the Sonoma Grain Share, SoCal Flour Share, and Power Flour Shares are feeling pleased with yourselves! Same to you, regular customers a la Grist and Toll or The Bagel Mill (see the Grains page for where you can get my wheat freshly milled)!

I appreciate that they highlight the value of engaging in one’s regional grain economy. Each one is different, and what I like about working with Grist and Toll is that we both endeavor to be up front and transparent as possible. A standard flour bag doesn’t tell you the name of the wheat variety (or varieties), of the chemicals sprayed on the wheat while it was growing, or of the farmers who grew the wheat. It doesn’t tell you its protein number, extensibility to elasticity ratio (important for bread bakers seeking a lofty loaf), falling number (also important for bread making), or moisture content. It also doesn’t tell you if it’s truly whole wheat even it the words “whole wheat” are on the bag. Unfortunately, most of the time it’s less than 50% whole wheat. Grist and Toll and I blog, newsletter broadcast, and chat about what went into the fresh flour you’re eating so you can make the most of it. Having a relationship with people in the regional grain economy means you can ask questions and have a more informed relationship with your food, too. I mean, I may be slow to respond, but you’ll eventually hear from me or find me in a chat box. 🙂

30 Tháng 4

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What I’ve appreciated about the past year is the chance to spend more quality time with my parents and learn about their lives. I would be far worse off during the pandemic if I didn’t have my parents to watch the baby while I work and support community needs. I love seeing the bond my kid has with my parents; they all laugh heartily and play joyfully together. And, my parents are infinitely generous when it comes to caring for baby, day or night as needed.

The tradition of care or strength of the care economy in our culture is evident in these daily interactions with my parents, in our community response to COVID, and in accounts of what happened during and following the war that ended 46 years ago on this day. My grandfather made sure to garner enough rice for the large, extended family, and would hand sort through the rations for pebbles and detritus that could break teeth–a tedious job I know too well that any parent wouldn’t have time for when taking care of kids and trying to survive post-war destruction. Neighbors with long-trusted relationships shared food, clothes, childcare, and alerts. Needs were met through each other, not money.

While the pandemic hasn’t been like a war, I learned from my family’s post-wartime experience of a devastated financial economy to apply during the pandemic. After the Fall of Saigon, the new communist government forced everyone to turn in their money, and each family, regardless of what they turned in, of their family’s size, or of any personal factors, received 200 dollars. (My mom told me of the suicides in her neighborhood as a result of this new, instituted poverty.) With limited money, even more services needed to be met through family or other relationships. So, haircuts, dog walks, picking-up food, and other monetized services are things I’m receiving or doing for people to reduce the burden on our already strained budgets.

Even before the pandemic, I grew up seeing how our strong economy of care served us as we eeked out a life in white supremacist USA. Structural racism hindered us from gaining employment, well-paying jobs, job security, job and salary advancement, so we needed to meet our needs with less money. And money can’t buy your doctor’s respect to take your pain seriously, a mechanic’s attention to do a good repair job, or a real estate agent’s care to find you a safe home. That is to say, we’d still be shut out of quality services even if we had money, so we built things ourselves and served each other with deserved respect and care.

It’s in those exchanges that we got to know each other and appreciate each other across differences. And I think this is part of what we’re losing in the US American over-emphasis on the financial economy above all others–care economy, spiritual economy, gift economy: an opportunity to appreciate each other. We are caught in an increasingly financialized world wherein everyday life is commodified (e.g. self-care is about buying skin cremes, houseplants are bought instead of propagated and shared, cooking lessons for millennia-old practices shared for free now cost hundreds of dollars) and the cost of living is skyrocketing (read: rent. The cost of food hasn’t substantially gone up since the 1970s, adjusted for inflation.).  Financializing all aspects of life is 1) unevenly accessible, especially in an ableist, patriarchal, white supremacist society and 2) damaging to our resilience and adaptability.

Don’t get me wrong. We still need money, and a better, more equitable distribution of it. (Moreso, wealth, but that’s a different conversation.) But as we see consumer goods get more expensive, pandemics proliferate, and climate change-related disruptions to trade increase, it is worth examining what money can’t buy us and what riches lay in our relationships.

 

2021 Outlook

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This dry year necessitated moving spring plantings from April-May to February-March. Even then, soil moisture levels were low such that I didn’t know if seeds would germinate. Since I dry farm, meaning that I rely exclusively on rainfall for irrigation, I have to time planting with the right amount of rainfall, while also depending on soil moisture, for germination. In 2018, we also experienced a warm, dry winter, but the soil was too moist to get onto for planting, without risking compaction. Some farmers planted before the end of February, but I and many others didn’t. We had to wait until late April, and when we could finally get in we were met with two heavy storms that caused soil erosion and flooding in many parts of the county. So, we want rain, the right amount, and at the right times.
Not much going right this year. I’ve received several messages from fellow California grain farmers asking if they can purchase my grain because their crops didn’t germinate or survive past March. When I made a delivery to Stockton a couple weeks ago, wheat fields stood only two-feet tall instead of three or four, and wheat heads were stunted at 0.5-1″ by water stress . I’m hearing from small organic and large commodity growers that they’re going to till under their struggling wheat. A friend told me that at the most recent Wheat Commission board meeting, each region’s representative reported they’ll be tilling under their crop.

This regional shortage is set within a broader context of lower wheat stores than previous years and high international demand, worsened by shipping delays. As you’ve likely noticed, flour bags don’t label when the wheat was harvested (or milled!), and that’s because knowing that the wheat could be as old as 10 years would turn off customers. We’ve long relied on overproduction to tide us over, but we’ve been tapping into reserves for the past ten years. Floods have lowered Midwestern yields for years, then in winter 2019 the government shutdown disabled farmers from receiving subsidies in time to purchase seed for 2020 plantings. Afterwards, heavy flooding befell those who did plant. Floods also affected China’s grain producing regions, so they increased purchases of US grain. They couldn’t purchase from India because the sudden pandemic shelter orders disabled wheat harvesters in one state from traveling to the wheat producing states.

 

Going into 2021, Texas, another large wheat producer, lost crop during the big winter freeze that also caused the power outages. While parts of the Midwest are faring ok so far this year, and they have some grain from last year, it’s been sold to China-based buyers and awaiting shipping. The main hold-up is the shipping container shortage; typically, shipping containers with products coming from Eurasia arrive in California ports for unloading, then get sent to the Midwest to be filled with grain, and returned to East Asian ports. Because North Americans, mostly US Americans, have dramatically increased online purchasing of overseas products (think Pelotons, home office furniture, etc.) such that orders outpace shipping container production, the containers are sent back before getting filled with grain for overseas customers.
What’s tricky about assessing the US wheat supply is that it’s been geared towards overproduction since the Great Depression and accelerated during the Green Revolution, under the premise of food security for US Americans but has been a tool for destroying other global economies and creating dependence on the US. As supply constricts, certain supply chains are deprioritized, namely ones going to aid purposes, to the global South, to people of color. One doesn’t have to trace these chains far to reach the migrant crisis and impacts of climate change.
As activists have long said, we have what we need, but it’s a distribution problem–of food, resources, and power. Under Biden’s administration that is focusing on secure food supply chains, racial equity, and infrastructure, let’s call upon our government to distribute funds towards regional grain processing and food infrastructure that connects everyone–breaking down urban and rural food apartheid, and make it easier for farmers like me to reach you.

CNN Opinion: What ‘Minari’ is doing for Asian Americans like me

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minari cnnThough it’s been over a year since I’ve updated this blog, it isn’t for lack of news. This CNN publication of my writing grazes some of what’s transpired.

I began writing this opinion piece in January, then modified it after the attacks on Asian American elders. I revisited it again after more people in my community passed away. And after the Atlanta shootings. And once more after Vilma Kari was attacked. With each submission to and denial from a publication, I thought of Anne Anlin Cheng’s NY Times op-ed that asked the critical question: why does our society only care about us when we’re murdered?

As we say about fighting climate change, or dismantling oppression, yesterday was already too late, but today is better than tomorrow. So, I’m glad this piece is out.

I’ve received lovely congratulatory notes from strangers, authors, former professors, old friends, and colleagues. Many asked what they can do to support Asian American farmers. There are many tangible and political actions we can take that would overwhelm a single blog post, so I recommend signing up for the newsletter of my organization Minnow to stay informed. Minnow is a people of color-led organization dedicated to securing farmland tenure for California’s farmers of color, while respecting indigenous sovereignty and furthering land rematriation. Our work is at the intersection of food, climate change, racial justice, decolonization, economic democracy, and healing. When we examine our wounds together, we can make the right steps to repair.

Impacts on Farmers

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I’ve been talking with farmers throughout California since our governor announced the shelter-in-place order. This is what I’m hearing:

In San Diego, demand for locally-produced food is higher than current production capacity or farmer abilities to harvest AND plant. They didn’t anticipate this sudden surge in demand and what’s harvested now relies on what was planted months ago. They need help securing skilled farm labor, coordinating aggregation and distribution, and connecting with those who do not have food access (low-income, sick, elder, pregnant, vulnerable populations).

In Central and Northern California, I’m hearing from farmers that they are losing restaurant and institutional (schools, hospitals) accounts and suddenly need to move large volumes to different markets. Some have part-time jobs in restaurants, so they are losing income on two fronts.

As activists have long said, hunger is a distribution problem not a production problem.

Up and down the state people are dealing with lack of childcare during care facility and school closures. Some reported there’s a lack of reliable information about COVID, how to reduce exposure, and what we know about risk. A few who have family members in the food processing sector said the workers are being overworked in facilities, in tight spaces, and with few contagion precautions. Meanwhile, farm workers are working with different crews each day and transported all in one vehicle.

This is some work I’m doing as an immediate response:

  • fundraising from philanthropic entities for California black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) farmers to receive direct relief funds paired with financial guidance service; goal of $500k
  • Community supported agriculture (CSA) aggregation logistics to link locally-produced food to English limited, low income populations
  • fundraising for Infrastructure expansion of regional food storage and zero emission cold storage vehicles
  • Advocating for on-farm multi lingual trainers on precautionary measures to limit spread
  • organizing bulk purchasing and home delivery for people in my neighborhood and Vietnamese community

…demanding the things we’ve been building and calling for, just accelerated.

Things I’m trying to get ahead of:

  • potential farm labor shortage due to illness, continued emphasis on harvest and distro rather than planting
  • conservatives furthering anti-immigration/immigrants/Asian sentiments and leveraging that to accelerate deportations or create policies to ban/police/incarcerate POC
  • Militarized enforcement shelter in place and disproportionate impact on BIPOC
  • arguments for replacing farm labor with AI and robots in the name of sanitation and safety

…by trying to leverage existing coalitions for the policy/political work of retaining immigrants, farmland, and farmers, all with dignity, sick pay, family leave, and expanded health care as a state.

As a Viet-Californian who grew up in the 90s, I’m well aware of how this state deals with a massive number of unemployed people of color: death through incarceration or murder. We need to consider the possibility and likelihood that the pandemic will lend towards racist and sexist anger and violence. The more we can help each other have access to basic needs such as food, water, shelter, and health care, the less fear will be stirred into anger.

I’m sure you’re overwhelmed with options of how to be helpful at this time. Regarding farmers, these are the basic things you can do?

  • Get food directly to your door and support local jobs by signing up for a Community Supported Agriculture share. Paying up front before the season begins helps farmers plan and plant early on.
  • Call your city council members and state assemblymembers to support sick and family leave for essential workers.

It’ll be hard for me to find time to write amidst working, farming, caring for baby and family, and responding to emergencies, so my Instagram account may be a good place to keep updated for now. Take care.