America’s Test Kitchen Proof Podcast: The Seeds Worth Saving

Jean Trinh reached out to me a few years ago about pitching a story about my farm. We both had kids, a pandemic came along, and, now, we’ve been able to come back around. Jean said she wanted to do an America’s Test Kitchen Proof podcast episode on heritage seeds. I insisted that any discussion of that topic include Rowen White and Kristyn Leach.

I’m honored and humbled to be in the internet archive as being associated with Rowen and Kristyn, as captured in the recent episode “The Seeds Worth Saving.”

When there is no spring

I sent this for The Digestif, my newsletter, but thought I’d share it here as well. If you’re interested in receiving this kind of synthesis, consider signing up for the newsletter by emailing me at mai@farmermai.com. I’m not, however, a content creator or broadcaster. The Digestif is a means of communication, which requires a two-way relationship. So, if you sign-up, I also expect you to write back.

The full moon before the Spring Equinox is when I’d typically seed spring wheat. Spring planting grain has the benefits of letting nitrogen-fixing cover crop and less desirable plants grow over the winter, to then be mowed in late winter. This is ideal in an organic system for lowering reliance on imported nutrients and on herbicides to remove unwanted plants. Mow and grow!

Spring planting in a dry farmed system such as mine, though, relies on spring rainfall soon before seeding to wet the ground, right after seeding to germinate seed, and at key stages of growth to maintain plant health. This delicate rain-fed system is sensitive, too, to rainfall quantity, duration, and temperature. There needs to be enough rain to saturate the ground, and whether the ground is warm or cold affects how much water is absorbed. What we’ve experienced over the past seven years are droughts, unseasonably warm winters, sudden storms that sloughed off top soil or flooded fields followed by warmth that pushed up weeds faster than wheat.

Without a spring as we know it, there’s no choice in an organic, dry farmed system but to plant in the fall. (I don’t see irrigation in the spring as an option because we’re in a drought.) This isn’t optimal because the high volume of water in the winter can lead to top-heavy grains prone to collapsing in the summer, greater weed competition, and the possibility of death by frost. I began to transition spring wheat to fall-planted wheat five years ago to begin their adaptation. I continued to hedge with some acreage in winter and some in spring, but this year is the first season everything was planted in fall and none will be planted in spring.

I’m not the only farmer who won’t be planting this spring. Ukrainian farmers also plant spring wheat, and the crops won’t be going in this year. Much of Ukraine’s wheat growing region is in the eastern part of the country, which is also where much of the combat is concentrated. They’re losing not only this spring planting, but likely many future seasons. Soil compaction from tanks and toxins from munitions will make it difficult to revive safe, fertile grounds.

Ukraine and Russia supply 30% of the world’s wheat, so, with reduced global supply this year due to drought and war, some US economists strongly urged unlocking the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). These are 22 million acres lands left in reserve for emergency planting. Getting these lands up to productivity would require a massive amount of synthetic chemicals for nutrients, pesticides, and herbicides. Tilling the soil would release incredible amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They would also require water that we don’t have in our drought-ridden west. So, even emergency measures are stymied in our lack of spring.

Ultimately, the Biden administration and USDA decided not to use the CRP. While this is a relief from an environmental perspective, this still leaves African, Asian, and SWANA regions that depended on Ukrainian and Russian wheat with little supply. We will likely see suffering on the scale of 2008 or greater. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian agricultural administration declared that it will keep the wheat it has for domestic consumption.

Given disruptions to roads, work, and utilities, I wonder how the reserve wheat and other foods will be distributed through Ukraine. I think of my mom’s stories about needing to stock food in case of shortages, clean dirty, rationed grain, and ferment foods for when the family was forced to hide for an indeterminable duration of time. I think of how the youth of my parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins–the spring of their lives–was taken away by war. In that time of blossoming, many lives were lost before even budding and others pushed into life’s latter seasons too quickly.

We need spring’s warm sun, cool breezes, nourishing rains, and sweet scents to prepare us for subsequent seasons. Otherwise, the summer heat is too hot, fall decay is too soon, and winter more barren. So, what happens when there’s no spring? I suppose we support each other to make the best of the remaining seasons, and, during them, to endeavor together to stop climate change and prevent violent conflicts such that future generations may experience spring.

Your farmer,
Mai

Roots of Resilience Recording

RoundWaterDesign_Soil
Real Food Media and The New School at Commonweal invited me to speak with Vera Allen on soil as a medium for collective liberation on February 18, 2022. I participated under the auspices of my organization, Minnow, and shared reflections from my experience as a farmer and social justice advocate. Key concepts were captured in this illustration by Round Water Design, and you can now watch or listen to the recording through the links below:
Soundcloud
You can also find and subscribe to the podcasts on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

Bread and Pizza for the Busy

My family has pizza night once a week, and that’s also when I bake bread. Why? Because I only have to make one giant ball of dough and turn our house into a furnace once a week!

So, I’m going to share my human and oven energy-conserving approach. I use the Grist and Toll Sourdough Bread Formula because it’s designed based on flours like mine. These are the tools I find useful:

  • Rubber spatula
  • Proofing basket
  • Bench scraper
  • Baking stone
  • Combo cooker Dutch oven (the lid that doubles as skillet, or, more significantly in this case, surface with side handle is why I prefer this over a standard Dutch oven)
  • Lame (razor with handle because who wants to bleed on their bread?)
  • A tea towel or old T-shirt

The night before

While I eat my toddler’s half-chewed bits and bites, clean-up from dinner, and determine whether this unlabeled jar will give up its real estate for leftovers, I take out the sourdough starter goo from the fridge. I don’t feed it between use, so it’s pretty flat. I scrape out all the starter into a mixing bowl–about a cup’s worth, give a sniff for how sour it is, and then add enough flour and filtered water to quadruple its volume while retaining the same consistency. Once thoroughly mixed, I cover the bowl with a tea towel and take care of my kid’s bedtime routine before collapsing into slumber.

Day of bread + pizza night

Around 8 or 9am, I check on the ferment to see if it smells sweet without sour or funk, and I look for bubbles. If it’s a bit funky, I know it became very active and I add a bit more flour to appease the spirits. Otherwise, I add 8 cups of flour and 3 Tablespoons of Kosher salt (I use Diamond), then mix with a rubber spatula. I haven’t used my hands yet because I’m also making breakfast for my kiddo and it’s their job to make the utensils and handles sticky. Once mixed, I add filtered water in one cup increments and stir until the dough is shaggy. It looks like a Lion’s Mane mushroom, or the Abominable Snowperson’s coat. It’s shaggy. That’s when I form the dough into a ball and let it rest. Alex reminded me that whole wheat takes about 30 minutes to absorb water and stabilize. So, I don’t judge whether it’s hydrated enough until after I’ve had breakfast with my kid.

Once breakfast is over, I check the dough for elasticity. If it can stretch the length of my forearm, I don’t add water and drizzle 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil onto the dough and mix. It’s a trick I learned from Adrian Hale that makes the crust a bit more tender, which is our preference. If I don’t get the stretch I want, then I add 1/4 cup of water at a time until I get the dough I want. Then, I turn the dough in the bowl, pulling from the bottom to stretch it over the top, which forms a ball.

All that takes less than five minutes. I leave it alone in a warm, not drafty place for 30 min in the bowl with a fabric on top.  I work Pomodoro style, so I stop every 30 min for the next three hours to stretch the dough from below and pull it up and over itself. Sometimes I leave it for an hour before turning. Sometimes four hours. The dough is pretty self-sufficient.

It’s about noon now and time for a lunch break. Dough isn’t lunch, so I don’t tend to it until after I eat. Then, I prepare a dry cutting board for shaping the dough. I cover the board in brown rice flour because this flour doesn’t integrate into the dough and becomes an easy way to handle what’s pretty unwieldy and wet dough. I scrape out the dough from the mixing bowl being careful not to break it up, then I eyeball half the dough and cut with a bench scraper. I hold one end of the dough up so the whole thing stretches with its weight, and lay it across the board. I begin folding, which is way easier to understand by video and the internet has everything so please consult other electrons. Folds become shaping, and then there are two pretty bumps on the board. I let them rest for 30 min before a final shape.

The final shapes go immediately into proofing baskets lined with brown rice flour-dusted tea towels. I place them in the fridge until 5:30p.

Go time!

I need to get dinner on the table by 6pm, so I preheat the oven to 485 at 5p. The baking stone is in the middle rack and combo cooker on the bottom rack. I take out one dough and divide into four pieces with the bench scraper. I roll one out, slide it onto a pizza peel (I tried to get away with using the cutting board, but it’s an unusually tense situation trying to get a smooth transfer with heat in your face and staving off a toddler from touching the oven), and get the first one baking at around 5:30p. Each pizza takes 8 min to pre bake before a final 4 min with toppings. Once all the pizzas are out, the bread dough is transferred to the combo cooker and placed on the baking stone. This gives the bread dough an additional hour or two of fermentation time compared to the pizza dough.

By the time we’ve eaten and cleaned up, the bread is ready to cool on a rack. My kid gets to see the bread before going to bed, and has something to look forward to in the morning.

Eater Article

Eater published an article by Dayna Evans that’s falling under multiple names:

  • (Almost) Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Flour
  • The Differences Between Processed White Flour and Whole Grain Flour
  • Flour Trip: One woman’s journey into the heart of grain and how our flour is made

These titles give you enough to triangulate what the longform piece is about, and it’s worth a read. I encourage readers (and eaters) to pay attention to the tension points in the article. For example, King Arthur Flour says, “If you look at the definition of whole wheat flour on the government website, it has to be 100 percent whole grain. I don’t see how any company gets away with selling the flour without all its parts back in it.” Yet, the  “2020 study in the Journal of Food Science commissioned by Community Grains, an Oakland-based miller, looked at a sample of grocery store flours labeled as whole wheat and found that they contained up to 40 percent less of a certain whole wheat protein than the 100 percent whole grain standard.”

When asked about this discrepancy, I pointed to a few examples among the many unenforced policies we have. Take our federal language accessibility policies. Do you see all federal documents available in multiple languages? No. Policies are meaningful when enforced, and there’s no one going around checking on flour wholeness. And I said that a person can tell the difference when they’ve interacted with truly 100% unsifted, whole wheat flour. Do yourself a favor and get some actual whole wheat flour and give it the ol’ sniff test. Let your senses help you discern the difference between true whole wheat and what’s labeled as such.

There are additional tension points and unanswered questions, namely how do we make true whole wheat available? That’s what I’m trying to answer on my farm, in collaboration with Grist and Toll, and in community with bakers, chefs, and people who will invest in and advocate for the policies and infrastructure needed to sustain whole grain economies and, in turn, us. Reach out if you’d like to join us.

A Glimpse at Going Against the Grain

My grain farm is unusual in a globalized, commodity grain-dominated industry for many reasons, which means I often need to create my own infrastructure or get creative with what’s at hand. This starts with how I acquire seed, through how I farm, and all the way to the customer. That sentence hardly captures the complexity of component parts that I haven’t the time to share because I am dealing with those component parts! But, today, I’ll shine a light on one element: the online sales platform.

I provide Flour Shares that involve a one-time payment for monthly packages of freshly milled flour over six months. This is similar to the community supported agriculture (CSA) model, except true CSAs are purchased before the planting season begins in order to cover all the costs of farming. What’s more common now among diversified fruit and vegetable operations are subscription boxes wherein people pay monthly for weekly.

Online sales platforms assume of two things: a sale is associated with a one-time shipment or with a subscription that needs to be renewed. The first is rather ubiquitous in the US since the pandemic, and are oriented towards shipment. If any in-store acquisition happens, the platform assumes that is because the customer went into the shop that is the point of sale. This type of platform isn’t ideal for me because I have multiple pick-up sites, which I’m not able to list (It assumes there’s only one store, and you have to show proof that you’re the store owner, which I’m not.) Additionally, I have to choose between whether I will list share type or pick-up location as the variable during purchase. Since share type is associated with cost, which is relevant to the check-out process, I list that. Pick-up locations, then, are manually assigned based on their address…for over 200 customers! It’s not so easy as correlating an address with a pick-up site. Perhaps a resident of Los Angeles works in Santa Monica or regularly drives to their parents in Pasadena. So, there’s a process of assigning and confirming.

Why not ship? Shipping involves purchasing packaging materials, doing the packaging, and dealing with lost packages during an epic strain on delivery systems, to say the least.

Back to online platforms and their second assumption, the subscription model accommodates much of these and more products, but costs three times as much as the other kind of platform each month. And I don’t need the service for more than a couple months out of the year. Those numbers make a big difference for a business of my size.

Between the two types of platforms, I use the former. The benefit is that it’s simple and relatively more affordable. The negatives, in addition to what I mentioned, is that I must go through a long business validation process each time I make the store live. Questions include where I get my product from, evidence of procurement, documentation of shipping, etc. The platform assumes that a farmer–the ultimate source–isn’t using this tool. I also can’t get paid out for the purchases until I confirm that the sale has been fulfilled. This is tricky because I need the money before all six shares have been picked-up, but the orders technically aren’t fulfilled for six months. What happened recently was that I indicated that all orders were fulfilled in order to be paid, so the platform notified all the Flour Share customers that their purchase is being shipped! (If you are a Flour Share customer, please ignore the Shopify email!) You know that feeling when you said you’d send an attachment in a high-stakes communication, but you forgot the attachment. It’s that same feeling, but from the opposite action!

While we clearly need a different food system, we need to be available to build all the structures to support it. Reach out if you want to create an app for me/us :).

Limited Edition: Tiger Bundle of Joy

Since giving birth, I’ve developed rituals to help me rest my mind during what is never ending work. One of these rituals includes sipping on a special tea, which doesn’t require going too far out of my way while also differentiating the moment. I love oolong teas for their depth and fragrance, and wanted to find a tea made my small, organic farms like mine. After much searching, I came across Three Gems Tea owned by Diana Zheng in Los Angeles and Ayumi xx.

Their tea is grown organically in Chaozhou, Fujian, and Taiwan by small family farms, and each is fresh and incredibly distinct. (I also appreciate that 3% of their tea sales support water projects like DigDeep and LA Waterkeeper.)

Two years into incorporating Three Gems Tea into my household and well-being, I met Diana through Jessica Wang of Gu Grocery–a specialty shop of Taiwanese goods. Jessica is delightfully creative and generous in her food curations, fermentations, and cooking, which I’m so glad is newly manifested in Gu Grocery–one of Jessica’s many projects.

The three of us got together (maybe we are three gems, too!) in hopes to putting something together to spread a little joy, a little ritual, and a lot of deliciousness for the year of the Tiger. In particular, how can we foster connection with dear ones when we cannot gather. So, we created the Tiger Bundle of Joy with the idea that two people could receive a bundle and share in a monthly tea break. There are twelve tea pods, my flour with a recipe, a Go Grocery solar and lunar calendar, and monthly prompts for reflection.

We created a free raffle on Instagram that closed before Lunar New Year, and now, on the lunar new year day of grain, we’re making eight bundles available for purchase!

And if tea is not for you, I hope you and yours find ways to remain close as we continue to be physically distanced. <3

In collaboration with our friends Farmer Mai and Gu Grocery, we put together a Bundle of Joy for the Year of the Water Tiger 🐯 Reflecting on the past year of drought and isolation, we called for water, perspective, focus, and ways to tend to our relationships in this new year ahead.

That’s the inspiration behind this set: more nourishing tea breaks with dear ones.

Each bundle includes:

  • Farmer Mai’s Chiddam Blanc de Mars heirloom flour, with simple recipes to enjoy baked goods with your tea.
  • Gu Grocery’s 2022 Solar/Lunar Desk Calendar + Stand to mark your tea breaks.
  • Three Gems Tea’s 12-pod oolong sampler, one for each month of the year.
  • Farmer Mai’s discussion prompts for monthly tea breaks, inspired by each oolong.

Share one bundle with a loved one if you can meet up in person, or coordinate to purchase two bundles to share the experience with someone long-distance.

San Francisco Chronicle Article

I’m thrilled that my work to grow climate-adapted, heritage wheat got this spotlight in the SF Chronicle article “In Wine Country, One Radical Farmer is Growing an Unusual Heritage Crop: Wheat.” Here’s the article introduction:

Sebastopol is famous for its Gravenstein apple orchards. It’s known as a world-class spot to grow Pinot Noir grapes. And now, thanks to Mai Nguyen, this bucolic town in western Sonoma County is also home to one of California’s most noteworthy grain farms — growing what’s become a coveted insider’s secret among top bakers and a favorite of breweries and distilleries.

Here, in a 50-acre plot near the Barlow shopping complex, Nguyen grows rare varieties of heirloom wheat like Sonora, the first wheat variety cultivated in North America and the base for Mexico’s original wheat tortillas. Hulking seven feet above the ground are tall stalks of Wit Wolkoring, a Sonora descendant that’s particularly drought-resistant.

These are cultivars that “you won’t find in a seed catalog,” Nguyen said. Each of the dozen-odd grains that Nguyen has grown confer different advantages — the Chiddam Blanc de Mars is perfect for baguettes, the Sonora can be cooked like rice — but what they all share is an adaptation to California’s North Coast. These are hardy, survivor grains, selected to withstand an increasingly hostile climate.

The flour milled from Nguyen’s special grains has become a base for esteemed California bakers like Roxana Julapat of Friends and Family in Los Angeles and Crystal White of San Diego’s Wayfarer Bread. Local breweries and distilleries have jumped at the chance to buy Nguyen’s rye; Sebastopol’s Spirit Works just made a rye whiskey, its first liquor using hyperlocal grain.

Recently, home bakers got the chance to dabble with Nguyen’s grains too, thanks to a new “flour shares” program, similar to a community-supported agriculture arrangement, in which customers can buy a subscription to these luxurious, deeply flavorful flours directly from the farm.

The farm’s mission extends beyond simply growing the base ingredient for producing delicious loaves and rye whiskeys. Nguyen, who uses they/them pronouns, sees agriculture as a vehicle for social and environmental activism — and grain, they believe, could play an important role in mitigating the oncoming effects of climate change. The types of wheat they’re growing are not only drought tolerant, but Nguyen also believes that by farming them in certain ways, they can be effective in removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Read more here.

Patagonia Article

Introduction to the Patagonia article titled “Don’t Forget Your Roots”:

With their neatly bobbed, dark hair hidden under a bucket cap, Mai Nguyen watches their daughter swing giddily back and forth on the park’s spring horse—both of their smiles barely contained underneath our time’s ever-present face masks. Watching Mai play with their young daughter on a sunny, warm day in San Diego’s Trolley Barn Park, it quickly becomes apparent why their family and heritage lay at the heart of everything they do.

“We had deep roots in Vietnam—as far back we can remember in our family record we were only living in Vietnam,” says Mai, before explaining that their family immigrated to the United States around the time of the Vietnam War.

“But when you uproot a tree, it’s traumatic and most likely the tree is not going to make it. The best bet is you can save some limbs and try to get them to root,” they add. “That’s me. I’m one of those branches … and so is my daughter.”

Read more here

Don’t Forget Your Roots

Photo Credit: Sashwa Burrous