Farmer Mai: From Climate Scientist to Heritage Grain Farmer

Farmer Mai: From Climate Scientist to Heritage Grain Farmer

This is part of a series highlighting AAPI individuals bettering the food system. Each person was handpicked for their dedication to creating a more just food system.

Mai Nguyen is a former climate scientist turned farmer and social justice activist. She specializes in growing heirloom crops using organic, drought-tolerant, and soil-enriching methods. A force of nature herself, Nguyen is dedicated to creating a more just world through farming. Read more about her story below.

Why did you want to start farming?

In my heart of hearts, I started farming to tackle the two greatest issues of our time: climate change and social inequality. The dominant farming system has been a major contributor to climate change, but it hasn't always been that way and doesn't have to be when we tap into traditions still maintained in other parts of the world today. Food should nourish us, but how we farm and what we farm has been oriented towards profit not people, at the expense of our human and environmental well-being. I wanted to be part of the alternative to that and grow healthful, diverse food locally.


I wanted to farm so that we have our full diet available locally and that needs to include our staple crops to have food that can be stored year-round. And California, with our gigantic population, really needs to ensure that we meet people locally with these drought tolerant crops. We need to be able to save these seeds and, as farmers, be able to share them with each other, because that's a part of our resilience. Last year when everybody went into pandemic gardening mode and started buying all these seeds, it took a toll on farmers.


The most reliable seeds are the ones that have survived for thousands of years through many different conditions. Additionally, what I've learned in my personal growth is that there's a recognition that it's important to eat a whole grain. And our whole industrial food system has normalized that we get basically half of the grain. What's missing are all the things that are important for our digestion [which has] been then substituted by industrial and oftentimes petroleum-based additives. You read [these ingredients] as niacin, diamine, etc, but the public doesn't know that those things are derived from coal tar and is upholding our extractive carbon economy. So, growing whole grains is about the environment.


And then there's interest [in what we're doing at organizations like the grain campaign], then competition comes in and just crushes that community. I've seen three iterations of that now.


Farmer Mai holding a bundle of wheat smiling. A golden wheat field in the background.

Image courtesy of Mai Nguyen.

When you talk about those three iterations of communities trying to rise up and provide those whole grains to people, is it usually Big Agriculture that takes that consumer base that's been built, and the supply chain, and just changed their marketing to increase their competitive edge?

For grains, the iterations have been mostly because of bigger agriculture, bigger in both production skills and marketing staff. It's relative. They've typically created their own sales channels, but they have their own wealth. They are multi-generational farmers, so they inherited land, they don't have that cost. They might've made it big in some other more lucrative products like meat or vegetables. So, they're then coming in and just dominating and using their marketing prowess in addition to their larger product base and take over.


Here we also have to talk about subsidies and structural racism. Certain people can be big because they've been subsidized by all of our tax dollars. There's a big apparatus--the government, global trade policies, neocolonialism--that cleared land, opened markets, and paved routes for them, and maintain them. The infrastructure for big agriculture has been a multi-centuries investment.


The people in the US who've benefitted have been white men. So, even if white men aren't operating the big ag businesses, their model for how to be a business, survive, grow is based on that of putting one's self first and scaling up by being one not scale through collective action.


It's sort of what we've seen with heirloom tomatoes. Small-scale growers thought heirloom tomatoes were so delicate that there was no way anyone would ever dominate the market. And now, it's everywhere. It's a term that people in the U.S. know. Organic was another thing that small scale growers [thought] no one would be able to replicate. And now it's a rigorously enforced, but also narrow set of definitions of what organic means such that more, big agriculture can use it.


So, I'm seeing with grain that if we don't have a public that understands what really goes into grain production that is healthy for the planet and people, and we don't have those solid relationships with people where they feel the loyalty to us because they really trust us, then we are more prone to that co-optation by people who are larger than us and have less integrity.


A pie with wheat above it on a table.

A pie made from Nguyen's grain. Image courtesy of Mai Nguyen.

How do you think that learning of building those relationships played out into the present day? Is there a fourth iteration going on now?

I think there, there is another iteration happening. And for me, especially with the pandemic, my approach to things as a person of color, who's recognized that like our communities are not going to be served or even acknowledge, during emergency times, is that I need to put my effort into the people who are not going to be seen. I created a grain share in Sonoma and then one in conjunction with a mill in Los Angeles. It's building this relationship with a tighter group of 120 people who, every month, I'm interacting with, they're getting grains, and they're learning about [grains]. Shares are sold at a sliding scale so that people are financially supporting each other to get these healthful grains.


At this point, it's just going deep rather than going wide and trying to do that well is where I'm focused. I'm curious to see what [else happens with] grain, but I think we're really seeing, especially in this pandemic, who has been hit hard and who had an inconvenience and are still doing business as usual.


The grain share you started, is that for farmers, non-farmers, or both?

It's for anyone who wants to eat flour, freshly milled grain that they can get once a month.


You had mentioned with people starting to garden more at home during the pandemic, you said that affected farmers. Can you speak a little bit more to that impact?

When people wanted to suddenly buy seed they reduced the seed stock, which also affected the ability of the seed suppliers to be able to ship out orders. Other farmers that I knew who were relying on seed so they could plant so that lots of people could eat and it was hindered by the thousands of people making all these tiny orders. And I want to connect that to our postal system more broadly. I needed new tractor tires. That's a big object, but one person making that order. And the post office set aside that order to fulfill the thousands of orders that were coming in, as people were doing online purchasing. So [smaller seed purchases] hindered my ability to actually plant food that would.


There's a lack of understanding of how individual actions impact the larger whole in terms of seeds and also all these purchases. What else was aggravating for farmers was this verbiage of victory gardens. I totally support people growing their own food and like having, I think just having fresh food right there and having the experience of having a relationship with plants and soil and like natural cycles is really important. At the same time linking back to the victory garden history is really problematic.


The value of Japanese American farmland [in WWII] was four times more than that of others because they made [the soil] so productive. Japanese American farmers were the main growers of fruits and vegetables in California. Because of the U.S. policy of internment, that whole production collapsed. So there were no more fruits and vegetables and some people created victory gardens to basically make up for the fact that we just incarcerated all of these Japanese Americans. If we actually address the problem of racism, such that people had a living wage and healthy working conditions, and that they could own farmland that close to cities and have culturally relevant foods that go to everybody and not can continue the system of food apartheid, we wouldn't have needed to have planted ["victory gardens"]. Globalized trade had shut down because of the pandemic, but local farms were still producing food and getting it out to their communities as customers who were local. People just have this really myopic view of the solutions and don't see how the solutions are already available if we're not so racist.


In a similar vein, what is your take on urban farming and urban agriculture as a solution for expanding food access and decreasing these race-based food systems issues?

People growing their own food, people, having a relationship with nature and natural cycles is important. Urban farming is not going to solve our issues, though. Especially food access. When we're talking about access, it needs to be it's about culturally relevant and nutritious foods. The reality is that our urban centers have been used as sites for industrial toxic production. And I seen a lot of urban gardens go into the soil without remediating it first. It also comes down to who's actually doing the farming. When I got into food systems work, at that time, it was white people saying urban gardens are a way for people of color to have access to what they otherwise couldn't afford.


When it comes from people of color who want to grow their own food, it's really important for them to have those connections. That's great. At the same time, having it be a solution for the food infrastructure that we've created that has divided people into this food apartheid, is not real in that people have jobs, people have families and to expect them to have come home from their two jobs and take care of their kids and then try to maintain a garden, to produce enough food for their family, is absurd. It's actually just creating more work for people who are already trying to get out of poverty.


And as a person who thinks about grains and our full diets, it's clear we cannot grow grains in an urban setting. Right. There's lots of factors. For instance, due to the heat Island effect, we get different kinds of pests in urban settings and so [urban agriculture] could then also create dependency on pesticides and herbicides and that's also problematic. There's all these layers in terms of the social issues. We actually need to preserve our farmland that's close to the city and support the diversification of farmers.


Whenever I've asked USDA representatives what they're doing to support farmers of color they say they're supporting urban agriculture. And I wonder why it is they're still falling into that nineties trap that urban equals people of color? We exist everywhere and that's been true for centuries. In terms of the possible linkages that are positive, because in urban areas we do have greater diversity and density, it's a place where people can grow out the seeds that immigrant refugees are bringing over and scale them up and then be in solidarity with farmers who could scale the seeds up even more and make them into food that even more people can eat. We could use schools to show children the life cycle of food -- these foundational opportunities for people to connect with each other around food, understand these different types of crops we need for our diversity.


What was the turning point for you to go from your previous work as a climate scientist to transition to farming?

I was in the Arctic [measuring carbon] and I was just thinking "what am I doing at like the top of the world?" I was so far from my community, uh, did so much to like, make it possible for me to be here. And the disasters coming from climate change or so [apparent] that I thought why was I just measuring carbon? We already knew what was happening. We just needed to do something about it. So that's when I went into refugee resettlement work worked in refugee camps and did disaster management.


It was climate change in action. People are being affected; people are dying. So, I went into that and then was recognizing that my family tried to get out of refugee camps and I thought about what it looks like to actually create a home. A major part of creating a home is having food that we know, and that is fresh and delicious. And that was always a priority for my family growing up. So, I wanted to be a part of that. It wasn't an immediate transition from my climate work. I went to grad school for waste management and then opened up a farm to table restaurant working with farmers and just recognized [their work with] whole grains.


Multi-colored heritage grains in a bucket being sifted by hands.

Heritage seeds. Image courtesy of Mai Nguyen.

That's like quite a journey. When you talk about social justice, so much of it sounds like has also been, understandably, about racial justice. You also started the Asian American Farmers Alliance. Do you have any updates from that group?

We've increased our membership a lot recently. When I was farming, I experienced a lot of racism from technical assistance providers and equipment rental places. Sometimes they just didn't think that I could even drive a tractor. But, also, things like telling my white friends’ stories like a police officer pulled me over and pulled his gun on me, and then they would ask if it really happened. It just makes you feel more and more alone.


So, I sought out other Asian American farmers and the closest one was 120 miles away (Kristyn Leach). It's grown a lot since then. We talk about the technical challenges [of farming], but also to chat with people that get it when [interpersonal dynamics arise]. More recently, with all the attacks on Asian Americans, it was wonderful to have one of our members host a space where [we went through] a process of healing.


There's a lot of people who are trying to connect to their heritage by growing [heritage] crops, and I think that is certainly important. And I also I don't want to fall into this idea what is Asian is about a product or an object. It further objectifies us and doesn't recognize that we are full dynamic people with philosophies and creativity and ideas. So, when we have a healing circle, we tap into our own histories and ways of doing things. And the Asian American Farmer's Association is really a space for that.


In recent years, regenerative agriculture has become more in vogue as a term to use to signal sustainability in agriculture. How you feel about how people talk about the term regenerative agriculture and how it is in practice?

To start, everybody has different definition of regenerative and the ones that have come to the top are the ones that have the most money and are the most white. Like Patagonia getting together [with other organizations] to try and get a regenerative certification. There's that world. Then there's people who are indigenous and who have been using the word regenerative and that has a different meaning to them. What I see is that people want a different form of farming -- a more sustainable, healthy agricultural system. I wish people would get together based on what is the world that we want to live in and not get caught up in all of the politics of this jargon.


Especially the white world of regenerative is a dim-sum-cart-picking of practices from all over the world that [they try to use on] big thousand-acre farms. That conversation is really distracting from the core issues, which is that we need farming that supports the people who are doing the work, people that have a different worldview than what has dominated or agricultural system, and a system that actually feeds and can continue to feed people everybody. When we're not having that conversation, I don't want to be a part of it.


Are there any last thoughts that you have that you feel like we haven't covered that you think is important for people to know?

I think I've driven in the main point that indigenous people, people of color, we already have the answers, just listen to us. And in terms of pragmatics, find ways to be a part of food justice, racial justice, buy CSA boxes, and elect representatives who are going to further racial equity.

Keep in touch with Farmer Mai through her website. Please also see the below resources recommended by Farmer Mai to help create a better food system!

Buy CSA and elect reps that will further racial equity