2018 Harvest

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How is your summer going? Did you have a juicy peach? How about a crisp watermelon?

It’s harvest season and I’ve cleared two fields. The stand looked good: even, tall, abundantly tillered, and few weeds. But when I transferred grain from the hopper (where wheat goes in the combine harvester) into totes, I noticed much green matter. The goosefoot weed I saw in the field was more abundant in the bag than it seemed in the field. I worried about the moisture it contributed to the wheat, which needs to be dry.

My concern was justified. Of the 10,000 lbs I harvested, I got 2,800 lbs back from the grain cleaners. The hot conditions in Chico, where the only available cleaners were located, caused the wet matter to rot and mold the wheat. The spoilage and clean-out between varieties led to this significant loss in sellable volume.

The abnormal abundance of goosefoot has to do with our changing climate. We experienced an unusually dry winter, then a warm, wet spring that brought up goosefoot to be taller than the already tall heritage wheat. Spring wheat needs a succession of moist and cold conditions, rain, and then heat. In another, wetter spring I would have brought sheep to weed, but, as I predicted, we didn’t receive spring rains that would have allowed wheat to regenerate after a grazing. Instead we received an intense storm, then nothing.

Organic farming with nature during climate change… it’s devastating.

In post-harvest, crop loss could have been prevented by having a seed cleaner on site for a preliminary separation of wet and dry matter. I’ve been working for years to save for a cleaner and to create a cooperative to own a cleaning facility with other farmers. Someday people will value human and environmental health and food security enough to invest in this infrastructure. Someday farmers will see past their egos for personal and common good. Until then, major loss of seeds for the commons, whole grains for health, and capital for this farmer.

This year’s poor harvest amidst another season of fires brought a disillusionment as thick and stifling as the smoke that engulfs the north. This is not the exhaustion of harvesting wheat. This is the exhaustion of reaping the results of over a hundred years of extractive capitalism and colonialism, and the harvest is poison. As farmers, we face this poison first. Society is buffered by global imports that mask our diminishing diversity and local resilience with an abundance of toxic crops.

Immediately after harvest, I went to meet my co-workers in Durango, Colorado. I got to relish in a richly flavored, refreshingly sweet, slurp-inducing peach. My supervisor brought these peaches along with southwest Colorado’s prized watermelons and cherries to share at our Western team strategic planning meeting. I savored each bite as I worked on our strategy to save farming in the face of climate change and consolidation of wealth. Each bite reminded me of what’s at stake. Will these fruits, these flavors be available again in my lifetime? Will the farmers whose hands delicately handled these peaches be able to harvest again, or will they be busy packing their belongings?

We sat on a patio to escape the still, indoor air and instead found ourselves stifled by pervasive smoke. Colorado, California, the West is burning. I thought of the Mendocino fires currently blazing a few miles from where I used to farm. We used to console each other with ecological optimism and say that fire will clear the brush to make room for new plants. Our voices falter now that we see the same areas burning again — more frequently than in previous generations and with insufficient water to germinate growth. Only fifteen years have passed since the last fire in that area, the same fifteen years of our drought state.

The scarcity of California’s water and the urgency of our fires blinded me to my Colorado compatriots’ experience. While in southwest Colorado, we visited a farmer I met a few years ago. Mike Nolan is from California and, after a circuitous path, settled in Colorado with his now partner, Mindy Perkovich, to start Mountain Roots Produce. Mike showed us their twelve acres, of which they only farmed seven this year. The water shortage forced them to cut down to nearly half, and as they farm they could see neighbors driving to the neighboring water district to fill up water tanks to meet drinking water needs. Wells are dry and the district shut off the water. For Mike and Mindy, this meant cutting down the number of crop rotations as well. “I told our CSA members that they’re getting the last of the pole beans, whatever we have, but then I have to pull them out. We can’t keep watering them. I’ll put in a cover crop so the ground isn’t bare, at least.”

Keeping plants alive has been a struggle this year. “I’ll water for hours overnight, and the next morning the ground is bone dry. It just migrates or evaporates before the plants can soak it in,” said Mike. Not enough water, and too many pests. New pests. This unusually hot and humid summer was punctuated by a sudden hailstorm that brought an unprecedented two inches of rain. This rare combination of hot, hail, and high water hatched an insect hardly seen: the false chinch bug.

There’s nothing false about the ensuring damage they lay on all of Mike and Mindy’s succession plantings. All of it.

With no water in sight and not enough income from this year to kickstart next year, they’re considering not farming next year. Mike is considering ramping up his time, ironically, to mentor other young farmers. Mindy will take on other odd jobs as they see what the next season brings.

Before I left Colorado, Mike dropped off some wheat seed that he promised me two years ago.

Farmers are connected through seed, solidarity, and hope. We are also connected as land-based people who are on the front lines of experiencing climate change on behalf of society. Society may not notice that climate change is happening because a global economy that amasses abundance from across the world obscures this patchwork of famine. As farmers, we see it in our fields and we know that climate change isn’t a moment, like the Christian concept of an apocalypse. It’s not a climactic event of judgment wherein some will be absolved. Climate change is now, is all the time, is everywhere, and none are spared.

So, let’s take action now, everywhere, all of us. We are our own saviors.

Hello Giggles

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“We see how society worked. It can no longer work that way again.”

These words set the tone for the first installment of Pabst Blue Ribbon’s documentary series, America Dreaming. The YouTube series examines how the most diverse generation in American history (43% of young people identify as multicultural, according to the documentary) is fighting for a country that actually abides by the tenets of the American Dream, which Dictionary.com defines as the idea that every person “should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.”

But for as long as America has existed, we know that oppressive systems have been in place so that only certain people — those who are white enough or rich enough or male enough — can achieve success and prosperity, no matter how hard they work.  America Dreaming follows young people who are transforming their communities and “redefining the American Dream” through social justice — people like Niecee X, a founder of the Black Women’s Defense League (BWDL) in Dallas, and Farmer Mai (Mai Nguyen), a Northern California farmer focused on organic farming, sustainability, and food justice. I caught up with Niecee and Mai in Downtown Los Angeles’s Arts District right before they discussed the documentary series on a panel called, “A Conversation About Today’s American Dream,” hosted by Flaunt, Vice, and PBR.

…Read more at Hello Giggles.

Changemaker: Hungry for Change

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I’m honored to be counted as a Changemaker among many of my inspiring peers. You can read about us in the book written by Berkeley Food Institute (BFI).

Here’s what BFI has to say about the Hungry for Change project:
BFI announces Hungry for Change, a project featuring California innovators working to transform food and agriculture systems within their community and beyond.

Hungry for Change grew out of BFI’s Changemakers project and takes the form of a print publication, written by Sarah Henry, and a 10-minute movie, produced by Fabian Aguirre and Maya Pisciotto of The Understory.

Highlighted are 20 up-and-coming trailblazers who represent a broad range of geographic regions, area of reform, and socio-economic backgrounds. What these leaders have in common: a desire to remake food systems in order to bring about greater equity, justice, sustainability, and health for all.

What motivates these pioneers? What challenges do they face? How do they measure success?

Meet these advocates for reform and remember their names. You’re sure to hear more about them in the future.

PS I finally watched this and am tearing up. Agh! I love all these people and their truly inspiring and amazing work.

(wheat) Berry Good Foundation Dinner

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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.  

Cal Ag Roots: Digging Deep

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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.

Small Farms and Land Access: Farm Dreams Deferred

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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.

Rediscovering Grains Panel

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I spoke at FoodInno on how the rediscovery of grains is a process of confronting colonialism, building a just food system, and humanizing our world.

Below is a transcript of my opening talk:

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.