I’ll have a little booth at the Sunday Sebastopol Farmers Market to introduce people to my Flour Share. Come by if you’d like to say hi.
Tuan passed away yesterday.
He woke up every morning to water houseplants, light incense for the altar, and read the news.
Until he was hospitalized.
And, there, he died alone.
Because he had Delta, they cremated his body immediately, then sent his remains to his now orphaned daughter.
The light bulb donning its conical hat illuminated the white wall to which it was attached and the pavement halfway across the alley, enough to illuminate my cousin’s moped. I felt intimidated by the idea of riding a motorbike, but it was all there was. The rest of the universe remained in darkness. Growing up in urban USA where the streets, sky, and mysteries are lit, and cars encase us in a bubble of protection, the unknown darkness of Saigon’s alley’s whilst my body, exposed, rode through made me nervous.
My cousin came out of the house wearing a crisp shirt as white as the wall with a warm, an encouraging laugh, and an easy, yet grounded walk to the bike before waving me over with his caramel-colored hands. He had a broad forehead, wide eyes, high cheekbones (classic feature in our family), and a square jaw that framed his warm smile. He pointed out all the parts and invited me to sit down. I looked at him so my eyes could convey all my nervousness, and he laughed again before getting on the bike and encouraging me to hop on with him. He drove through the alley, chirped light honks to neighbors he knew, and helped me shake off my jitters that completely fell away as we came to a stop. “Your turn! Then you’ll really be a Saigon girl.” Motorbike truly was the best way to get across the intricate metropolis along with the millions advancing by way of critical mass. I started the engine and proceeded into the darkness, never looking back… because turning one’s head throws off the balance and I was scared AF! My anxious heartbeat sounded the bass line to an exhilerating ride wherein I caught the wind with a different, sweet smell of Saigon and the pace of life seemed faster, yet still more humane than the highways of California. I came back around the corner and stopped next to Tuan. He smiled and said, “Saigon girl!”
Tuan, my cousin, is the oldest of the cousins and I’m the youngest, by Vietnamese traditional measures (it’s not by age, it’s by our parents’ age/birth order). Between us is time, our 60+ other cousins, an ocean, and a vastly different set of life and cultural experiences. He grew up during the violence and famine of war and transition to communism. His mom, my aunt, died when he was eighteen, and the year after he was drafted to fight the Khmer Rouge.
I’m one of the few cousins born in the US who’s gone back to Vietnam, and Tuan is one of the few cousins in Vietnam who took time to show me around one-on-one. Thanks to him, I’ve ridden an elephant, fed alligators, and learned the critical skill of riding a motorbike, which served me well on my later journey throughout Southeast Asia. The last time I saw him, we ate in a large dinner hall with family based in Vietnam and the US. He got up on stage and sang, standing between white ionic columns and before red velvet curtains. I bought a red rose from a vendor walking amidst the dinner tables, and brought it up to Tuan. He gave me a smile like the one he did when I finished my motorbike circuit. Growing up worlds apart, we’re still family.
Today, Tuan is only able to take in 80% oxygen into his lungs–not enough to be cogent or functional. The Delta variant is winning. He was up to 95% a few days ago such that the hospital discussed returning him home and free up the much-needed bed, then his health regressed yesterday. We’re able to get news because a few of his friends work in the hospital he’s in (visitors, even close family, aren’t allowed). Though in different wards, one was able to send a photo to our family. Tuan, who I’ve known as a fit, strong, tall man has been reduced to a skeleton during the weeks he’s been hospitalized. He originally didn’t want to be admitted, even though he had the rare opportunity since he’s a veteran, because the common perception is that anyone who goes in doesn’t leave.
Vietnam was a stellar case of non-contagion, albeit under authoritarian mandates, until Delta came along. Delta developed people refusing to take COVID precautions–masking, distancing, quarantining. It was preventable. Now my cousin, along with so many in countries that can’t afford vaccines, oxygen tanks, and hospital infrastructure, are needlessly suffering. Tuan’s brother, Tuyen, told me that his neighbors on one side experienced 11 people in their family getting sick, four of them dying, and the neighbors on the other side suffered five deaths from Delta.
Even as people across the world, increasingly children, become infected by COVID and its variants, there are those who complain of the inconvenience of safety measures. Cases among children are dismissed because many recover, which overlooks the fact that the virus is learning about our last line of defense through our children’s (anti)bodies. Our society needs to look beyond ourselves and immediate families as to who we are protecting. We farmers who care for community and earth have made great sacrifices to our health on a daily basis by working in smoke, heat, and storm to feed society. Wearing a mask is hardly a sacrifice, and refusing to do so is a display of ingratitude for how we receive our basic sustenance, for our global family of human beings.
My uncle passed away a few weeks ago and three of my friends’ fathers passed away this month. I don’t want to lose another person.
I’m going to send financial support to my cousin’s daughter, his only child. If you’d like to contribute, please Venmo me @farmermai.
Seeing the distant thunder cloud caused my body to tense up. Muscles fusing like ice forming across a water’s surface. Rigid, tight, and terrified.
As I mentioned in my earlier post about the Megadrought, mainstream discussions of the drought doesn’t address that heat causes water to evaporate and stay in the air. Water has a higher heat capacity than air, so when it vaporizes the atmosphere can hold even more heat than if it were mostly air. This positive feedback of increasing heat capacity that correlates with increasing atmospheric moisture makes for humid days. And grain does not like humidity.
In late July of this year, I harvested 6,000 lbs of rye one day and woke up to rain clouds the next day that brought me scrambling to the field in order to tarp the combine holding that bounteous harvest. That batch was spared the drizzle, but I still had grain in the field. That meant I had to wait several days before I could harvest again, during which I had no control over whether the grain would absorb moisture and mildew. A few warm days passed such that I could harvest again, but I could tell the grain was more moist than usual.
A neighbor asked what the big deal was about a little drizzle. The maximum wheat moisture level for safe storage and clean milling is 13%, but 11% or less is preferable. One percent makes the difference between whether a farmer can sell their crop or not. I tested the Chiddam Blanc de Mars that was harvested after the drizzle, and it was at 21%! To bring the Chiddam to a salable moisture level, I needed to take it to a dryer, ironically, which was a 6 hr round-trip drive.
When last week rolled around, I had a few acres left to be harvested and about ten acres of wind rowed grain–a means of letting grain dry in the field. (Those ten acres yielded nearly 20,000 lbs of Wit Wolkoring, which is worth $65,000.) My colleagues in the raisin business laid their grapes on the ground to sun dry, just as they’ve done for decades, but this time rains splashed dirt into those shriveled nooks. There was no historical reason to be concerned about moisture. And that was the flaw in our reasoning.
Climate change brings what we thought was unlikely. It’s perpetual uncertainty that makes farming more than just risky. Risk is like a die toss with equal chances. But, climate change is more than risk because it holds unknown unknowns. Who would have imagined Sonoma having a rainstorm in early September? Not only rain, but thunder clouds. Thunder means lightning, and summer lightning now means wildfires. Seeing that thunder cloud brought up feelings from seven seasons of fire, from evacuating, from passing out due to smoke inhalation. Trauma and uncertainty is exhausting.
I’m a millennial, and we’ve grown up with uncertainty. We’re the generation that grew up under Boomer banners welcoming multiculturalism and watched Rodney King brutalized by a police mob. Crippling violence can befall you anytime and the police and a watching world will not bring justice. TVs were rolled into our classrooms to see the OJ Simpson trial verdict and how being a celebrity who appeals to ‘race blind’ white supremacy may give you a pass. We started high school when Columbine became the first mass school shooting, so any of us who displayed difference as we came of age were scrutinized by peers and principals. Our Junior year was when the California curriculum impressed US history and government upon us, highlighting our civic duty to vote. That’s when we saw a candidate win the presidency and not become president. In our Senior year, as we began applying for colleges, the World Trade Centers and Pentagon were attacked and shook the security of mainland USA. We saw the President who wasn’t really elected kick off what would become decades of war based on lies, and witnessed our Muslim and South Asian fellow citizens become demonized and subject to deportation.
Some of us still went to college and were still told that if we worked hard enough we could be whoever we wanted. The lie was exposed when we graduated into the greatest global recession in history and saw that safety nets only existed for the wealthy. For those who decided to have kids, it was around the time a global pandemic set in and epic wildfires raged across the world.
We’ve known uncertainty.
So, I laughed when I heard NPR Marketplace’s show today called “Uncertainty is the Economic Legacy of 9/11.” Part of the program discusses the mental-emotional toll of 9/11 that is hard to trace but is definitely present in the economy, and has been lasting. “The not-knowing for businesses and governments and us. And 20 years of that, and who knows how many more years, just takes a toll.” It started before 9/11, so the toll is more than they think.
I recently caught up with an old acquaintance who lives in Trinity County where he’s currently immersed in wildfire smoke. We lamented that our children will not enjoy late summer swims in rivers, playing outside for half the year, or know predictable weather. My friend shared that his son said, “The problem is people. People made this problem,” and my friend replied that he hopes their generation will come up with needed technological solutions to climate change.
Yes, some people made this problem. And many people have fought for a different world. And the tools we make are only so useful as who owns them and how we use them.
During these days of apocalyptic despair, I think of how our world was already destroyed. For my family, the water was poisoned, air made toxic, and nowhere was safe. Millions died and millions more suffered. Their world was destroyed, yet they are here and held onto enough hope to make me. We are making a home on land stolen from people whose worlds, ways of being, and relatives were actively sought out for destruction. They are still here with their songs, wisdom, and traditions. And as we watch Kabul crumble into bloody factions, some people are getting out, and some will stay and survive.
Watching scenes from Kabul’s airport reminds me of footage from the Fall of Saigon. Families desperate to leave. They couldn’t imagine what would happen next. My mom knows. She knows about the starvation, destitution, suicides, prison camps. War is often measured by number of deaths, but not the suffering. The suffering that spans generations. The boys sent off by their families to establish a better life, mere teenagers who may manage to survive. Some of my cousins didn’t. Their remains in the mighty Pacific. Some made it here, but fell to vices that were more comforting than the US public school system.
Some must wait. My friend’s brother-in-law tried to get out at the Kabul airport, but a suicide bomber attacked the facility. “There’s no systematic way of getting out. It’s just individual Marines who’ve decided to help people or not,” my friend relayed from his family.
We can survive so much, and it’s our duty as fellow human beings to do more than keep each other alive. It requires equity, humility, and collaborative action. No one and no energy-intensive technologies will save us. We must save ourselves by saving each other.
By the way, I’m moving these blog posts from weekly to every other week cuz ATL.
I was interviewed for the article “The Megadrought is Just One Factor Driving Up the Price of Your Bread” in The Counter that will give you a sense of what wheat growers and users in the US are dealing with, in addition to what I wrote in my post ‘2021 Harvest Outlook.’
What is missing from the dominant narrative about the drought in relation to climate change is what might happen next, and that change can happen soon–sooner than we think, which is the story of climate denial and inaction. There’s coverage of the aridity of the megadrought and how it lends to fires. The lightning storm and humid elements are left out, which point to a more complicated environment ahead. I brought up some of this in my response to the journalist’s follow-up question to my interview:
Journalist: If the megadrought (drought conditions+extreme heat from climate change) continues year after year, is it accurate to say that even the drought-resistant strains you’ve bred wouldn’t be able to survive without intervention in the form of irrigation?
Please don’t contact me during this time. If you do and I respond, I expect a comparably thoughtful response.
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.
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.
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.
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.