Rootstock Radio Interview: How Food Can Turn a ‘Place’ into a ‘Home’

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Talking with Theresa Marquez, host of Organic Valley’s Rootstock Radio, was so much fun! Her curious mind and warmth comes across very clearly in conversation, so it was easy to talk about a wide array of topics with her. You can listen to or read the transcript of our conversation here, and I hope you’ll listen to the other interviews at Rootstock because they’ve selected many of my heroes and inspirational farmers to speak on the show.

My Grist Op-Ed

Posted on has been covering climate change news since 1999, and I’m glad to have contributed a farmer’s perspective on climate change and solutions to it.

If ripened green beans aren’t picked, the whole bean plant begins to wither. In 2014, as a farm intern in Northern California’s Mendocino County, I went to harvest beans, despite the thick smoke from a fire 10 miles away. The farm couldn’t afford to lose the plants for the rest of the season; we needed to get the produce to the farmers market where the farm earned a third of its revenue.

I wet a handkerchief and tied it around my nose and mouth, donned my hat and gloves, and began picking. The last thing I remember was a haze thicker than smoke before my coworkers found me slumped over a bucket half-full of beans.

Farmers are experiencing climate change in our fields, our communities, and our lungs. The increasingly long periods between rains force greater reliance on a lowering water table that hardly replenishes our wells. And a drier climate means more fires. This year, our eyes sting and chests ache, not only from the smoke of the Mendocino Complex, Camp, and Woolsey Fires but also because of what our California neighbors have lost.

You can find the published article here, where you’ll see how you can take action.

I was, understandably, limited to a narrow aspect of addressing the fires, but my original text included observations about settlement, how we generate and distribute energy, and an alarm call for the rest of the nation.

Many of us farm close to or amidst logging forests and conservation land because farmland is not affordable near cities or towns (the cost of leasing farmland has doubled in 10 years, from $500/acre to $1,000/acre). But private logging companies often leave dead, undesirable trees on their land, adding to the fuel load for a potential fire.  And, despite meetings with residents and fire chiefs, the public had no recourse. (It’s worth examining the links between the logging industry and who ends up directing CalFire–our state department of forestry and fire.) We must reconsider how private landholder decisions have public consequences. In a shared ecosystem, our communities need democratic decision-making processes that are accountable to all residents—loggers, farmers, and residents.

Overhead power lines from clusters of development constitute another serious fire hazard for farmers living further out and near the forests. Those power lines break in gusts of wind and cause fires, as they did in the Redwood, Sulphur, Atlas, and Nuns fires among others. The centralization of power generation to provide electricity across wide expanses of landscapes under varying degrees of ecological management continues to pose a threat. We should also ask why we are spreading out these lines far afield. I encounter people isolated in the depths of forests who reside there to “escape society” (aka avoid taxes), though remain connected by power-lines, and who want nothing to do with government…until a fire comes and they expect to be rescued. We must ask ourselves about power utility concentration and about where it is sensible to inhabit and develop infrastructure.

The physical and emotional toll is real, and the rest of the nation has yet to feel the financial cost. California is one of the wealthiest states and we have relied on cheap prison labor ($1 a day) to fight these fires, thus mitigating costs for the rest of the country. But the home and fire insurance companies have gone bankrupt from these relentless fires, we should and will one day compensate all firefighters fairly, and it is only more likely that we will have more fires. In short, fires are expensive. Climate change is expensive. Let’s invest in fighting climate change and staying alive rather than paying for our funerals.

The Unbearable Whiteness of Farming in the Pacific Northwest

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During my time at this year’s Tilth Conference as keynote speaker, the organizers of the panel “The Unbearable Whiteness of Farming in the Pacific Northwest” invited me to join them. I felt honored by their welcoming of my perspective alongside theirs, which was intended to focus on the black farming experience.


The first portion of the panel was dedicated to creating a welcoming and safe space for our ancestors and each other, then to provide context for why this topic was proposed. The conversation soon shifted to a question and answer mode wherein audience members asked questions of the panelists. We were asked to elaborate on food deserts, defining food justice, and how to be an ally.

I won’t go into responses here because we covered much ground and I am reluctant to represent others’ reflections inaccurately.

Ovini took the initiative to follow-up on unanswered questions by email. They asked me to contribute to the answers, and this was the result:

A) In a sense I feel like the problem and the solution (I am here at the workshop after all). Is there utility in feeling both?

MN: In the abstract, yes, there’s utility in feeling as both the problem and the solution. If you felt completely removed from both problem and solution, then there’s no utility at all. If you felt only to be the problem, then we don’t get anywhere. As a solution, effective ones come from a clear understanding of the problem. The problem and solution draw from each other, so it is helpful to be in both.

Getting to specifics, one’s position depends on the problem itself. In this panel, we addressed structural and systemic racism — undoubtedly big problems. Within them, what are the problems you feel part of? What are ones that you benefit from, but didn’t create or intentionally perpetuate? What are problems that you’ve created, yet cannot and should not be part of solving? It is in these specific questions wherein our position may vary that we can make change. Assessing our relative position requires engaging those most affected with humility, openness, and a readiness to put, as Ovini aptly phrased, hands in.

B) How is the conversation different when people of color dominate the numbers in the room? I’ve only heard these conversations in white dominated spaces and would like to know how the conversation shifts.


  1. Numbers and dominant culture are different.
  2. Numbers and power are different.
  3. There are skin-folk, and there are kin-folk.
  4. ‘People of color’ is not a single, homogenous group. Intersectional, layered identities factor into the dynamics.

C) Other than speaking to and addressing racism we see, how else can white farmers encourage and support farmers of color?


  1. Shift capital and inheritances
  2. Undo systemic and structural racism in your family and community.
  3. Get political. Dismantle racist lending, zoning, compensation, and the multitude of other laws premised on and that perpetuate racism. Create policies that address historic inequities.

D) What is your favorite food you produce/aspect of farming and why?

MN: Non-patented grains. I feel connected to 10,000 years of humanity, and that I am contributing to sustaining it for awhile longer.

Resource List

Books and Articles

[From Ovini Sinclair unless noted otherwise]

Emergent Strategy: Adrienne Mae Brown

Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide To Liberation of Land: Leah Penniman

Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement: Monica White

So You Want to Talk About Race: ljeoma Oluo

White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism: Robin Diangelo

50 Years of Cooperation: History of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (MN: Pretty much a guidebook to grassroots organizing and institutionalizing social movements for racial equity)

Collective Courage: A history of African American Economics and Thought, Jessica Gordon-Nemhart (MN: includes agricultural history and how cooperation can lead to collective liberation)

The Next American Revolution, Grace Lee Boggs (MN: multi-racial direct action for food sovereignty, fighting climate change, and taking back ownership of the commons)

Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader, Robert Ji-Song Ku  (MN: I referenced Nina Ichikawa’s article in this book as it tells the history of grocery stores that source from local farms, premised on the work of Asian Americans)

Labor and the Locavore, Margaret Gray (MN: In part on the ethnic shift from Black to Latino workers. Relevant to anyone thinking about alternative food movements and labor.) With an analysis that can be applied to local food concerns around the country, this book challenges the reader to consider how the mentality of the alternative food movements implies a comprehensive food ethic that addresses workers’ concerns.

The Case for Reparations, Ta-Nehesi Coates (MN: For an understanding of specific ways structural and systemic racism have taken effect on African Americans, as part of a case for reparations)

The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience, and Food. Natasha Bowens


[From Ovini Sinclair]

Ear Hustle: Ear Hustle and Radiotopia

Delicious Revolution: Chelsea Wills and Devon Sampson

How to survive the apocalypse:The Brown Sisters

Healing Justice: Kate Werning

On Being: Krista Tippett

The Racist Sandwich: The Racist Sandwich PodCast


Women in Bread and the Fibershed at SHED

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Brief highlights

  • The logic of the hegemonic system created by white men: life can be owned as property. Womyn as wives, people of color as slaves, and natural resources as commodities;
  • The expectation that owners have of property is that they should function according to the owner’s expectations, and that property can be manipulated to meet those expectations. Females are expected to be well-behaved, pretty, and docile at the expense of health, safety, and agency. People of color are expected to produce goods for consumption without being compensated. Seeds and landscapes are transformed for quantifiable use-value despite near and long-term ecological damage;
  • I announced that I’m pregnant; and
  • The California Grain Campaign (Grist & Toll and I) and Fibershed met to discuss coordinating our efforts to push for construction of scale-appropriate infrastructure for regenerative agriculture.

Farmers at the Capitol

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When I first went to the Capitol to testify before the house agricultural assembly, I told myself that the next time I step into those halls that I would bring other farmers of color. I said that my voice would be in a chorus.

And it was so.

I wrote this summary of my return to the Capitol for the National Young Farmers Coalition California newsletter. This time with the voices of farmers from across the state, gathered in a report I will release in winter.

The California Farmer Justice Collaborative organized Farmer Justice Day in Sacramento on September 18, 2018, and invited NYFC’s California Organizer, Mai Nguyen, to present findings from the California Young Farmer Report that summarizes results of the listening sessions and state-wide survey conducted earlier this year.

Senators, assembly members, and legislative and California Department of Food and Agriculture staff filled the hearing room to its capacity, yielding only space for standing on the periphery. Importantly, over a dozen farmers of diverse age, geography, production types and scale, and ethnicities took time out of the peak season to hear what their fellow farmers expressed as their priorities and challenges.

The presentation opened with a dedication to young farmer Xamuel Lara, who grew Azteca crops and revitalized their indigenous names. Lara began farming at the famous South Central Farm in Los Angeles, then became as UC Santa Cruz CASFS apprentice before starting a farm in Mendocino County. They advocated for young farmers and farmers of color, and had planned to join us at the Capitol. Unfortunately, our farming community lost Xamuel Lara to a fatal accident the Friday before the Hearing. Thus, the presentation about young farmers was dedicated to his life and work.

Highlights from the report spanned topics as broad as land, water, and technical assistance access, to those as complex as structural racism and climate change. Farmer voices were shared through direct quotes from listening sessions, and further humanized by a panel of farmers who spoke at the end of the presentation.

Kristyn Leach is the owner and operator of Namu Farm in Winters, California. She spoke of the need to have farm advisors who reflect the diversity of farmers and farming practices, and to recognize and compensate for the work of farmers of color who have long used practices that increase soil health, facilitate capture of atmospheric carbon, and combat climate change. The process of uplifting farmers of color is “part of the need for reparations.”

Moretta Browne is a landless farmer who, after years of participating in farm training programs including UC Santa Cruz’s CASFS, farms in marginal spaces while looking for land security. Among many issues, she pointed to her college student loan debt as a significant factor in hindering her ability to afford land, and thus encouraged support for farmer student loan forgiveness.

The hearing wrapped up to give farmers time to talk with legislators. The recurring feedback from legislators and their staff was that it was powerful to hear directly from farmers across the state and in the room. Notably, the representative from South Los Angeles looked up South Central Farm after hearing about Xamuel Lara. He expressed interest in understanding the farming history in his district and how he might support urban farms.

We heard from farmers that they were struck by seeing a presentation that captured their experience in a way that helped them not only feel less alone, but also connected to a movement and a solution. For NYFC, the hearing reinforced the power of young farmers’ voices. The stories of those present and those no longer with us have the effect of grounding, inspiring, and coalescing our work.

Capitalizing on food waste

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A few months ago I expressed my frustration with the misdirected efforts of food waste reduction organizations in this blog.

Stephen Satterfield’s recent article for Civil Eats digs deeper into this issue by covering Phat Beet’s open letter to Food Shift shines a light on an example of the recent capitalizing on food waste at the expense of small scale producers.

I want to reiterate that we need to think of systemic solutions, such as shifting our values away from overproduction at all initial and human costs and towards equitable distribution of quality regionally- and culturally-relevant foods. Doing so requires creating new infrastructure to cycle nutrients instead of relying on (and blaming) individuals.

California, climate, and farming

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I wrote this as part of the National Young Farmers Coalition California Newsletter, but this portion was not published. I want people to know how the state government of California understands climate-smart agriculture.

California Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross hosted a two-day event September 11-12, 2018 centered on climate smart agriculture (CSA) as an affiliate event to the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit. NYFC’s Western Program Director Kate Greenberg, and California Organizer Mai Nguyen attended this 100-person invitation-only event with the intention to represent young farmers.

La Crema, a Jackson Family Vineyard operation, opened its immense glass and steel doors to international delegates, multinational corporations, lobbyists, state employees, and select farmers. Renata Brillinger of CalCAN took the stage to moderate the first panel focused on farmers, which as Renata said was “a fitting place to begin.” Farmer Jimmy Emmons of Emmons Farm in Oklahoma and No Till the Plains, spoke to his hundreds of acres of no-till, conventional grain farm. The two other panelists work with farmers or farms — one in Malawi and three of its surrounding countries, the other with the 1600-acre Rio Farms that conventionally grow vegetables in King City. Zwide Jere gave a brief overview of the farmer participatory research conducted across hundreds of farms with the support of his organization, Total LandCare. Jocelyn Bridson said that Rio Farms practiced climate smart agriculture by adding compost to their fields and installing drip irrigation systems.

Over lunch, attendees were invited to try wine from the estate provided in abundance at the dining tables. This sampling was the precursor to visiting the origins of the wines, a tour of the vineyard where La Crema showcased the use of drip irrigation, cover crop trials, and selective tillage.  

Returning to the grand glass room, Soren Bjorn of Driscoll’s, Keith Kenny of McDonald’s, Jerry Lynch of General Mills, and Tina May of Land O’Lakes took to the stage to discuss their sustainable sourcing. McDonald’s praised  their financial commitments to regenerative agriculture, Driscoll’s said they would address labor, and Land O’Lakes touted their role in providing the cheese for McDonald’s cheeseburgers, which they see as contributing to a “closed-loop regional economy.” This panel yielded time for one question, wherein someone asked about compost. Because the panelists could not speak to farming practices, answers were short, such that there was precious time for one more question. An audience member requested the panel speak to the “critical role that GMOs play in combating climate change.” Kenny disclaimed that there is not enough evidence, but that he believes GMOs will certainly help combat climate change.

Without time for additional questions, the stage shifted speakers from the food value chain to global policy makers, and then to an evening reception of California players — principly agricultural secretaries past. They spoke of climate change as though it is happening abroad and made no mention of the everyday effects in the state, let alone the county they spoke in which burned into the most costly fire to date.

This first day demonstrated a clear absence of:

  • carbon-sequestering and greenhouse gas reducing practices
  • communities of color (97% of invitees in attendance were white)
  • traditional and cutting-edge climate agriculture
  • diversity in size
  • meaningful farmer perspectives

The second day, on two coastal, multi-generational ranches, reinforced the emphasis on monocropping on large acreage as the solution to climate change. Dairy cows grazed on gently undulating tan hills spanning hundreds of acres. Sheep grazed neighboring plots and convert plant carbon into wool that fills a new line of North Face jackets.

NYFC was glad to bear witness to the conversation as it stands, and to be able to report back to our membership about what is noticed and what is overlooked by our representatives. We noticed that many farmers are missing, and with them their important contributions to our human and environmental ecosystems. We left emboldened to continue our work of empowering young farmers to be represented in critical forums. We know that all farmers are part of the solution, and that scale can be achieved by connecting, sharing, and collaborating.

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 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.