Kristyn Leach on Incorporating Community Care, Seed Saving, and Peasant-led Movements in Her Farming
Interview by Harriet Kim
Audio Edited by giant doma
Hey, this is Harriet, and I am so excited to bring you this conversation I had with Kristyn Leach of Namu Farm. Based in Winters, California, Kristyn is a Korean-American farmer and seed saver. She grows Korean and East Asian produce using traditional, natural farming methods.
I first heard of Kristyn from an article on Civil Eats(1), which is an online news and commentary site about the US food system. This article featured a program called Nonghwal, which she organized with community activist Yong Chan Miller. The program connects the Korean diaspora in the US to Korean history and the contemporary food justice movement, which I think speaks to the kind of work that Kristyn does generally.
When talking about the theme of jip-bab and the systems and forces that allow us to enjoy it, I'm sure the connection to farming and farmers is obvious or self-explanatory. Kristyn and Namu Farm, in particular, came up early for us in the curation process, given the ways she infuses community care, global and Korean socio-political history, and so much more into her farming practice, which I think you’ll hear in this conversation.
And with that said, this conversation was recorded in Toronto, which is the traditional territories of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Wendat, and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. Kristyn spoke with me from Winters, CA, which is the home of Patwin people.
Harriet Kim (HK) 01:36
To start, can you tell us what a day on your farm looks like right now?
Kristyn Leach (KL) 01:40
Sure. I mean, it pretty much gets started when the sun comes up, and I'll head out to the farm. I live about 10 minutes driving distance from where I lease land. At this time of year, just going, opening up the greenhouse, making sure all the seedlings in there have water, generally checking on things, and walking around all the different plots that we manage. Right now, springtime is predominantly planting seeds, either directly in the field or in the greenhouse, and then transplanting seedlings from the greenhouse to the field and laying out irrigation. That's pretty much it for right now.
This is kind of the busiest time of year in a certain way. I think people think of harvest season as primetime on a farm, but this is really the biggest push just in terms of the physical demand and the kind of mental load of everything and where you really need to be deliberate about your stamina. Just because everything's starting to get going, and there's just so much work and care on the front end of getting these plants prepared and strong enough to actually get into harvest season. So that's what we're doing right now.
In Winters, California, what kind of climate are you working within?
Yeah. Well, we're in the Central Valley, so we have a typical hot, dry Mediterranean season. This year we're in, I think, it's the third driest year in California history. Typically, in my town, we get between 16 and 18 inches of rain each year, and this year, we've gotten a little under six and a half inches.
We're in an area where it's great for a lot of things, and we're in a really robust agricultural area. Our town produces most of the walnuts and a lot of almonds that get exported all around the world. We've historically been a big canning tomato region, and Campbell’s had their cannery here; so, a long history of tomatoes, wheat and sunflower, and many seeds, actually. Most of these big seed corporations have campuses and fields here, where they do a lot of their breeding and trials, just because it's such a great seed climate. It's the one thing that dry heat is good for. We can grow practically any type of crop, and we have that long summer to dry down seeds and let them dry down and mature in the field. Basically, it just feels like you're in a pretty dry sauna all summer long, and then in the winter, we get a fairly modest amount of rain.
I’ve heard you reference in other podcasts and interviews, times where and when you've learned something new, the ways you've adapted those lessons, or what you've kept the same. It was in a different context, but recently, I heard someone describe this sort of thing as a “show-your-work citation process”(2). I don’t know if you’d agree with this, but it feels very appropriate to apply to your work and the way that you work. It’s as much as you being generous with sharing your knowledge and your process as it is you acknowledging the lineage about where your farming practices come from, and not just in terms of cultural or ancestral lineage. I also heard you mention some of the elders you work with and the relationships you’ve developed with them, specifically in relation to the legacy that comes with seed saving.
I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your seed saving process? How does that play a part in your mission to grow ethically, or how it might be a response to the climate crisis?
Okay, I'll try to think about the different things that you just asked.
I think saving seeds is obviously a really integral part of what we should all be thinking about in terms of strategies to just purely survive these kinds of ongoing climate catastrophes. I think it's not to be underestimated the value of these different plants that we've cared for and that we've grown with, sometimes over these long expanses of history, like so many of our domesticated crops have been tended to for centuries. With each passing year for an annual plant, it's learning, and it's remembering, and it's cataloging all of this information to keep growing year to year, as opposed to strategies that have mostly gone around collecting germplasm and seeds from all around the world to bury it under a glacier as this sort of notion of a doomsday vault. It's that idea of ex-situ like Svalbard(3)—it's taking these seeds out of context to safeguard them. But we're part of a seed community, and in this movement of people that really want to convey the importance of in-situ, or seeds staying in context, and seeds growing from year to year so that they can learn and adapt and be reflexive. And not only that they should be grown from year to year so that they can continue to see the type of stressors that different communities are dealing with, but also that they should be held in a cultural context. They should always be balanced with this sense of history, just so that we at least can acknowledge what blind spots we have, because if you look at the sort of biodiversity that's been created on this planet, so much of it is about the coevolution of people and their respective plant communities.
Each decision that people made in terms of just starting to set up these permanent agriculture systems and different, more stationary societies and civilizations is really just based on this feedback loop of noticing interesting things and interesting mutations or evolutions that a plant was participating in as it grew and then saving seeds from that, because it was desirable to us in some way, right?
You can think about different wild forms of teosinte(4) becoming domesticated. So many multitudes of different kinds of corn, different kernel sizes, and levels of different enzymes that make it glutenous or not. You have this wonderful expanse of genetics, and that's really tied to that ingenuity of humans and the things we created in terms of culinary and medicinal legacies. It has to do with the places we inhabit and how we grow in those places together. Climatic events are super severe now, and we're at this real flashpoint where our species’ survival is really kind of questionable, given the state of the world and how we participated in it. But certainly, these big changes, if we look back at the history of this planet, all these plant communities and lots of different species of life have witnessed so many different iterations of the world that we live in and so I think that ability to be adaptive and be smart is something that we can really learn from seeds.
All the work that I've tried to do is partially fuelled by just a personal interest as a Korean American and wanting to connect more deeply with my community; wanting to really learn and understand my heritage more, but that's equally part of a sense of my also being kind of an outsider to that community. I didn't grow up in a Korean family. I didn't really grow up with a lot of Korean customs or even Korean food. And so, as a farmer, when I started growing these crops, I had a lot of farm experience. I’d worked for a lot of other people. I was pretty confident in my sort of capabilities as a grower, but when it came down to it, I would grow these Korean crops, and having never eaten them sometimes before I actually grew them, I had no frame of reference, but I did realize that decisions that I would make as a farmer, in terms of what plants would look like, what they taste like what are the things that someone who grew up with these crops will feel nostalgic for? What will be the thing that when they taste, they can transport them to all these rich stories and memories of their family in their community?
I felt like a lot of my process was fuelled by that sense of responsibility and accountability, to just say, “I love these plants for who they are, I love them because I get to see them grow,” and I've become so close to them in my tending to them. But I also want to balance that by bringing these crops to these different functions and having them be with people that really appreciate them and have that kind of deeply ingrained, visceral sense of their grandma feeding it to them, or their mom cooking it for them, or watching it grow in different people's gardens throughout their childhood. And I think that feels very important. It feels like a missing piece of even the organic seed world that we're a part of that tends to be really Eurocentric in terms of who stewards those seeds and whose narratives really dominate the kind of framework of biodiversity and you see that within organic and ecological agriculture, right? They're thought of as these kinds of novel ideas that were introduced by white people in the US sometime in the 60s or so when really, those are concepts and systems that have been cared for and innovated within by predominantly peasants around the whole world.
So those are the legacies that we wanted to really think about and hold at this particular unique moment in time. And with a seed, the beautiful thing is that it's not like other objects that we receive as heirlooms, right? They are living beings, so it's a really unique position to be in to tend to history by also thinking about evolving something for the future. That this little seed in your hands, you would be doing a disservice to it to just try to only reproduce history because we are facing these sort of unprecedented problems as we grow these different crops. For where I am, obviously my main stressors are heat and drought. All of the crops that I grow on my farm, I'm trying to see how can we be intentional enough in our growing and seed saving practices so that all of the plants that grow here feel a little better equipped to deal with those stresses. We could talk about that later, participatory breeding(5), but it's just this unique thing of holding and feeling that sort of infinite loop of being here in the present, being responsible to the past and also being imaginative and brave and creative and thinking about the future.
One thing that stands out to me about your work, out of many things, is how expansive your relationship is with your crops. I mean that physically, as the person growing them, but I also mean that in the ways in which you situate yourself as a Korean farmer, growing Korean crops in particular in the US, with an understanding of the bigger context of history, geography, politics, science. And in a place like the US, with its 100 plus years of Korean migration, there is this rich history of people bringing their Korean dishes and their memories associated with them, from cooking meals at home to starting up restaurants and so much more. And I think that is a narrative and experience that I think a lot of people are familiar with and can relate to, but I do think there is this disconnect or gap between the history of that culinary work and the history of farming Korean crops on Turtle Island / North America. Although that’s not to say Koreans don’t have a long relationship in regards to farming on this land because I know in the US, some of the earliest folks to come were and worked as farmers. But it does feel like we are now collectively at this juncture, where things feel like they are shifting and we are bridging that gap, at least in a more general way or in the public eye, between growing Korean crops in North America and connecting that with our diasporic experiences of Korean food, politics, and history and in a way that feels more transparent? And it seems like you’re a part of this movement to bridge that gap, so I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about your journey in learning about the Korean historical and socio-political context and how that relates to your farming?
Yeah, I think that for me, a lot of my adolescence was spent in these spaces around New York where I grew up in community gardens and art spaces and with these conversations within New York, about the role of those community spaces and the disappearance of them, because of the neighborhoods where I was spending this time were rapidly gentrifying through the 90s.
A lot of the communities in these places, like in these gardens, were displaced from these other ancestral lands. It meant a lot of adults that were coming from Chiapas(6), and places that were in a real kind of moment of upheaval at that time, like around Zapatista(7) and organizing against different types of trade liberalization that the US was involved in. At a pretty impressionable time, I was really fortunate enough to be in these communities having these conversations about the US’ role in these global affairs and how it affected land-based people.
Who tends to most of our communities in terms of growing food? Who owns land? These types of questions about the landless workers and different peasant movements organizing made a very big impact on my mindset and in thinking about the role of place and how it shapes us. I obviously have my own experience being born in Korea, and then adopted to the US, and so, I think that question of migration, and especially just forced migration, has always been kind of a curious one and that became really conflated with peasant-led movement building.
And that in turn, I think I've been really politicized around those things. And then in 2002, in Cancun, at the World Trade Organization's (WTO) Ministerial, a Korean farmer took his own life to protest the WTO(8). And to just draw attention to the fact that those types of multinational agencies and the type of trade deals that we saw happening in so many parts of the world were things that just decimated regional food systems. They really destroyed food self-sufficiency for these countries that really left nothing for peasants in terms of them having a livelihood—small scale farmers—everything became bent on this other consolidated narrative.
I think, all through growing up, I always kept an ear out for things that were about Korea. Like when I was I think six or so, the Olympics happened in Korea; it was just one of those things as a kid, I felt so proud because I never really heard anything about Korea. I felt like no one I grew up with knew anything about Korea or even knew where Korea was on a map. So, all those things that just started percolating through, I was just trying to capture and hold it in my head. I thought when I was a child, “Oh, I want to have a Hyundai when I grow up.” And I don't think a lot of kids think, “wow, when I grew up, I get to drive a Hyundai,” you know? But it was the one Korean car company that I knew.
I think it was fitting that I was becoming very politicized and learning all these things, and hearing about the experiences of these different parts of the world. And then, that farmer's sacrifice made me think, “wow, this affects people in this place where I was born, too.” The Korean peasant movement was so strong and gaining steam all through the 90s. I just felt kind of proud in that regard, for saying, “wow, we're just tied to all of these other kinds of amazing movements,” and also, just sad to know that the kind of exponential growth experience in Korea was tied to something that really disenfranchised huge portions of their population in service to something that at that point I felt highly critical of.
My introduction to a lot of that was through this experience of being an outsider, being part of the diaspora but being very critical from living within the US, and being super critical of the US as this kind of militaristic and imperialist endeavor around the globe. So those are the kind of things that shaped a lot of my perspective and my way of relating to and understanding Korea from the 80s to the present day. Certainly, those are things that became really important in choosing the way that I farmed, the seeds that I wanted to grow. All of that is still informed by that critique of imperialism.
So then, would you say from the birth of Namu Farm, working with the Korean diaspora, farming as a form of liberation, and organizing with the community towards food justice has formed the basis of your work?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, becoming a farmer, wanting to learn how to work on farms... I mean, I turned 38 this year, and I realized that means half my life has been working on farms, because I started working on farms when I was 19. And all of that just felt like… at first, I just liked being outside. My friends had farms, friends worked on farms. I was very curious about learning and had the opportunity to. And then at a certain point, I just realized, this is really important, it's really necessary, and this is the one thing that I can do with my abilities to ensure that my family, my community will always be okay.
So it was, I guess initially, my idea around farming was built around a notion of self-reliance. And I think the beautiful thing has been that the more that I learned from my experiences as a farmer, the more I came to see that the strategy is more interdependent, if anything, you know? Starting out, I want to make sure that people around me are going to be okay. I can see my community, that regardless of what happens, if you can grow your own food, you're going to survive. Then just realizing, all this is a much more complicated web of relationships and reciprocity and all of these types of agreements and commitments you make to these plants, the places where you're all growing, the people that you're feeding, and all of those things are actually a lot more dynamic than I think I had initially started out as. And I think that's been one of the most profound, reverberating lessons to learn. Starting off with that self-reliance narrative, a lot of it is really informed by just fear and scarcity, and spending enough time really connecting to land and being humble enough to really listen, you get to learn something completely different from that and I think that different cosmology has been the most valuable thing. More than just the food and the calories, and even some of the stories and things, I just think, when you get to really live within a totally different story than the one that is so kind of pervasive in this type of Western culture, was such a good release.
I think that's been the most valuable thing: the farm functions as a place where those conversations can happen. I see more and more just how important that is compared to what maybe a younger activist-y self would think is the thing that is transformative or what we need to transform society. Seeing this deeply personal level starting to unravel, like our intrinsic belief of our right to dominate any other type of life seemed wrong, and just how deeply humbling it is to try to grow and care for these plants, balance the needs of an ecosystem, and see things be emergent and more dynamic with more actors that participate and more robust forms of life that are fostered. It doesn't mean everything always goes your way. In fact, many times it doesn't, but you're balancing it against the needs of how a place is going to be the most okay for the most amount of species that depend on it. And so, you are constantly thinking about those things, and in a drought, it’s really handy to have that refrain.
It's worse for me as a farmer who is farming as my livelihood because that balancing of means sometimes that doesn't always work out great for a small business, right? We had the super dry winter so we abandoned our winter and spring plantings because we just couldn't justify budgeting of pulling water out of our water tables that early in the year or to get us through the winter, when usually all we're doing is replenishing that aquifer. It's those things where you take a pretty big hit financially to do something like that but you're thinking about, overall, how to just participate in getting through this, all together, with that sense of solidarity with all the other beings that rely on the place, where my farm is, to survive.
Especially as you were describing that, I think about how you move through this nexus of food and community. I know that the agriculture and business side of it is very much at the center of what you do as someone whose livelihood is farming but I do get the sense that it is more than just the crops that you put into the soil. It’s also about the ways that your work brings in and highlights that growing food is something we do with people we care about and in spaces that we’re invested in and that is not just at any given point in time. It is also about how that care and investment changes with the changing needs of the communities and ecosystems around you. So given the time that we’re in, I would be remiss if I didn't ask you how you are feeling during Covid-19, especially as in-person community elements have changed so much. Has farming in terms of solidarity and justice work, does that look different at this moment?
It does. I mean, because I lease my farmland and my landlords live on the property, their family lives in town too and they have grandkids. We just felt especially cautious just being essentially on their land and having a lot of shared infrastructure.
Usually, we host a ton of events and farm tours. It's really an active social calendar for the whole season and all that was canceled. I mean, obviously, a lot of the groups that host tours also canceled their in-person programming. But I did still have volunteers on the farm just because my partner and I had a baby last June. And so, when we were planning this and thinking ahead of when our daughter was going to be born, I realized I'm gonna actually need some help on the farm because usually, I just work out there alone. And so, a handful of people did stay on and we just came up with the type of protocols we needed, but it was great to still be able to have some people out there, especially just with the new baby, it was just jarring to be so isolated. My parents are flying in from New York this weekend, but it will be the first time they will have met her. And yeah, just the inability for people to just come with the normal rites of passage in terms of becoming parents just didn't happen. So, it was really nice to at least still have our community here in some regards and people were so generous with bringing food and things like that.
And the other thing is, we started a CSA Program(9) —like most other small farms do vegetable boxes for families—but because of the seed saving... some of the practical things with when you're saving seeds, you grow a lot larger populations than you would for just pure fresh market production. Just because you're kind of trying to always get the cream of the crop each time and so you want to grow, for example, like with our perilla, the kkaennip, we grow. We planted 2,000 seeds. We end up putting about 1,000 plants into the field, and then from those 1,000 plants, we end up saving about 100 plants to take seeds from, and we harvest several pounds of seed from that. But if you think about that, each stage gets a little smaller than the one that came before. You're trying to narrow down in terms of just getting the most vigorous seeds from the most vigorous population of plants. You just end up growing at a scale that's very different from what’s just for fresh vegetables.
A CSA isn't a great model for me, because people typically want their box to have upwards of a dozen different vegetables and for those vegetables to change out really rapidly. On my farm, we try to put minimal successions of plants in. We try to disturb the ground as little as possible. We're growing a little bit less diversity but we're growing a lot more volume of that diversity just for the sake of the seed. We tried to tailor our CSA box to that, and also to just meet the moment. I don't know what it's like for you where you live, but the Bay Area, it's this real tech hub. And from having so many friends in the hospitality industry, things were going in this particular direction where people weren't going to a restaurant for the experience of being with their friends and enjoying a thoughtfully created meal. People, more and more, just kind of wanted food to be delivered to their house at all kinds of day and night and I think Covid kind of put a hard stop to that, or it made us question or lament the fact that now we couldn't actually go and gather. I think in some ways, the silver lining is... I feel like people recognize what we stood to lose in terms of a culture to gathering, right? There's a reason to go out and going to a restaurant being this special thing, instead of it just about pure convenience. I think the same thing kind of applies to CSA boxes and vegetable home delivery.
We're going in this direction where people want just that maximum convenience and I understand it. People are super busy. You know, preparing a home cooked meal is hard, let alone completely from scratch. It's super intimidating. But I think a small farm like mine, on the other hand, I can't compete. We've got tons of distributors that can run logistics on something like a CSA in a way that a farm can’t. A CSA used to be that you build a really distinct relationship with your farmer, you kind of get whatever is in season, and you're helping subsidize some of the risks. If something doesn't work out, I can always sell your CSA box with something else and you're just kind of signing on more to support the farmer because you want this relationship. And now it's like you can order a box that's aggregating from 40 different farms. You can cherry pick exactly what you do and what you don't want in each box and that box could be delivered to your doorstep at any time.
For the most part, a lot of small farms stopped doing CSA because we're being outcompeted by these bigger companies that have the refined backend to do that type of logistic management. So again, it was sitting with this, sitting with the landscape of the business side of this for small farms, knowing that every farm was really turning to this direct-to-consumer model, and saying, “Okay, well, if I want the CSA to be something that's not just getting me through this kind of heinous year of Covid, in the long run, what would be the most inspiring thing to create?”
So, we made a CSA program called Seeds Stewards that's going to be tailored to our production. So, each month of the season, we have a theme and we highlight a certain crop. It'd be like cucurbits and that includes cucumbers and melons and summer squash. And then things that are more specific, like a box with perilla. You see kkaennip, you see shiso and tia to; all the different varieties to understand, even something like this kind of unique, specialty crop. There's actually a ton of diversity within that as well.
Then there's the educational curriculum and virtual potlucks. It was really heartening to see because my worry was a lot of these families that are participating, all of them have kids between the ages of like four and into teenage-hood. So, they're all doing virtual learning, and a lot of the parents are working from home or dealing with being underemployed. So, it's such a stressful year for all of us. So is having this kind of nerdy curriculum, this kind of educational component going to work? Also, we're giving these boxes that have a lot of produce, and a lot of volume of produce, because we wanted people to share recipes and do these community interviews and learn to use things by experimenting with them and trying to develop feedback on noticing the differences between two different kinds of summer squash, learning about different species of things.
To me, this is a little more work than a standard CSA box, but I feel that because it did connect this community to one another, people really embraced it. It was like, “oh, instead of focusing on just pure convenience,” we're saying, “don’t worry only about scrambling to get things on the plate. You also could set aside one night or a couple of nights a week to just actually have an experience that we’ll help curate. We will give you prompts. We’ll give handouts, like we made colouring books for each crop. Let's help infuse dinnertime conversation with all of these questions and probes and let food be the conduit to talking about all these other things.” Saying, instead of just pure efficiency, let's think about fostering the quality of how we spend that time. Sure, you're going to spend more time cooking a meal from our box, but that time is going to feel like some of the more nourishing time you could spend during your week. Those were the things that were really great to see, with just the violence and all the horrors that came up during last year, this was the bright side: what people wanted to assert, what they wanted to see, and what they wanted to build in light of all of that.
I feel like that speaks to our theme of jip-bab a bit, which as a Korean word has a specific Korean sensibility but we were intentional about using the Korean term instead of the English translation or even something more general, like Korean food systems, for example. Aside from the fact that we are a magazine by and for Korean women, we also wanted to use the Korean term because I think there is something about the Korean food experience and something about jip-bab that embodies a type of sharing quality? I don’t know how many of your CSA members are Korean but again, I was reminded of that aspect of the theme as you were talking about how these folks have been able to connect with each other in this way, via this avenue, especially in the midst of the difficulties and the pains of the last year.
Those are all the questions I have and that also seems like a hopeful ending note. Just for fun, I would love to wrap up with some rapid-fire questions.
The first one is do you have a favourite vegetable to grow?
It would be too hard to choose but I’d say yeah, kkaennip and chamoe (Korean melon) and soybean.
Are they also your favourite crop to cook with?
Yeah, I think so.
And do you have a favourite Korean dish?
Favourite Korean Dish? Oh, because I love the perilla so much, I really just like eating kkaennip jangajji (pickled perilla leaves) with plain rice, and maybe some soybeans in there. I just think that's the most delicious.
It was wonderful to speak with Kristyn and to learn more about her and the lessons that have informed her farming practices and principles. It feels like a bit of a full circle moment after first learning about her work almost four years ago and admiring her work from afar over the years and now having the opportunity to speak with her in depth. The last note I would like to end on is her mentioning of not knowing exactly the taste of certain Korean crops when she was starting out. I think about the kind of trust her communities place in her food growing practices and also the kind of trust she places in her community to tell her what they need, what they want, what reminds them of home and of family. So if you’re interested in learning more about Kristyn’s work and her journey, you can check her out on Instagram at Namu Farm and on her website secondgenerationseeds.com. We’ll be sure to link everything in the show notes.
Lastly, a shoutout and a word of thanks to our friends at giant doma for supporting us again with audio editing.
(1) Sonja Swanson. "Nonghwal: Korean Farm Volunteering with Political Roots". Civil Eats, 14 September, 2017.
(4) Teosinte: a Mexican grass that is grown as fodder and is considered to be one of the parent plants of modern corn.
(5) Participatory breeding: crop breeding in collaboration between farmers and breeders, researchers, and scientists to improve crops and develop resilient plant varieties.
(6) Chiapas: a southern Mexican state bordering Guatemala.
(7) Zapatista: short for Zapatista Army of National Liberation, it is an indigenous armed organisation. Beginning in Chiapas Mexico, 1994, they led an uprising, declaring war against the Mexican Government and demanded human rights, independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace.
(9) CSA: Community-supported agriculture, a model whereby consumers buy shares of a farm's harvest in advance.