Marketing my grain is a mouthful

By Mai Nguyen

My grain is a mouthful. It is  identity-preserved, non-Plant Variety Protection (PVP), incrementally upscaled heritage seed grown using rain-fed, on-site fertility, carbon sequestering, integrated pest management, nonsynthetic sprays, low fossil fuel, no-till practices and brought to market as stone milled whole grain flour. That’s a mouthful that the commodity market can’t swallow. But that’s okay because what I do isn’t only palatable to the public, it’s craved.

In my first year, I took my grain to my local farmers’ markets. My booth stood out from the pepper baskets, vegetable pyramids, and flower bouquets. People aren’t used to seeing grain at the farmers’ market. I wondered how many people would stop at my booth, and before I finished that thought I saw a tuft of curls shoulder past the casual market strollers. “I’ve been waiting for you my whole life!” she exclaimed as she reached for jars of whole grain. “The market manager posted on Facebook that you’re selling whole grains—whole grains with names and flavor. This is what I’ve wanted my whole life!” This woman, Carol, seemed increasingly excited as she perused my display of farm photos,  the hand-drawn histories of each grain, and the color-coded reusable jars.

Later, another woman came by and expressed gratitude for my endeavors. Her husband had diabetes and needed to eat whole grains, which she had difficulty finding for bread making. Driven by a search for flavor or healthy food, a group of regulars came each week to exchange jars and stories. I learned about how the Red Fife rose, they learned about the next steps in field prep, and we gained a relationship of accountability and care.

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Farming is all about timing, but climate change is changing the rules

By Mai Nguyen

There was a worrying absence of metronomic clicks. I took out my voltmeter and detected only a faint current in the sheep fencing. In search of the impediment, I checked the solar panel output, connections, and electric twine that made up the portable fence. The problem lay in an entanglement of wire and brambles.

I wondered if I should corral the sheep into their pen while I fixed the problem or leave them grazing. It was already late in the day, and I needed the sheep to finish mowing the field before seeding time—before the big rain that was forecasted to arrive three weeks earlier than usual. I decided to leave the sheep to their urgent task as I worked on mine, delicately untangling the barbed twine.

I must have tugged too hard. An adjacent post fell, then another, and the one after that teased the wire’s tautness with a wavering tilt. The domino of poles provided a sufficient opening to new pasture: the neighbor’s vineyard.

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The one thing my farm training never covered: racism

Mai speaking on a leadership panel at the 2016 NYFC Leadership Convergence.

By Mai Nguyen

When I started farming grains and vegetables in California in 2014, I already had a lot of the knowledge, skills, and experience essential to farming. When I was a child, my grandmother taught me to how grow plants and save seed. In college, I studied geography, focusing on atmospheric physics and later on soil science, which enabled me to assess landscapes and their hydrology and microclimates. After college, I created a restaurant that sourced from local farms, which gave me business skills I could apply to my farm.

But this wasn’t nearly enough. I attended every farm conference, intensive, forum, panel, workshop, and field day I could. I sought apprenticeships and internships. I learned from other farmers how to scale up and efficiently cultivate and harvest. Through study and practice, I learned how to take on the immensely complex task of farming.

But no farm conference, internship, or book prepared me for the challenges of farming as a person of color.

I don’t want to be labeled the farm blogger who only talks about race, but it’s something I can’t ignore. Race permeates my life. It is something I live with and through, that we all live with and through, even as farmers. Racism isn’t unique to cities; in the country—in the bucolic landscapes in which we farm—it is also a problem, one that hinders a large segment of young farmers and keeps others from farming altogether. (more…)

Heart and Grain: Farmers are matchmakers between land and seed

By Mai Nguyen

I keep searching for ground to grow on. Literally. I drive up and down California looking for a place to plant my grain, hoping to someday find a long-term lease or even purchase land. This past February, two farmers in Sonoma County offered to let me farm their fallow land, one six-acre plot and one three-acre plot. While I was excited for the opportunity, I was limited by my seed supply.

The seeds I need aren’t readily available. I grow heritage wheat and barley—Sonora, Spanish Spelt, Ethiopian Blue Tinge Emmer, and Wit Wolkering. These varieties have done well for thousands of years in regions with conditions similar to where I farm, but they aren’t available through commercial seed companies. (more…)

Heart and Grain: Meet Mai

By Mai Nguyen

To celebrate the Vietnamese New Year, my family—aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, cousins once removed—gathers to exchange well-wishes for the year to come. I enjoy this tradition. We voice encouragement and best wishes to each person, imagining the happiest future for those we love.

The tradition is especially poignant for my family, as each year we also gather the week before New Year’s Day to commemorate the passing of my grandfather. In Buddhist Vietnamese culture, we hold a memorial for ancestors on the anniversary of their death. These memorials are occasions for us to honor the family members who have passed away. We set up an altar with their photos and favorite foods to feed their spirits—long tables filled with rice bowls, bamboo shoot soup, mushroom salad, tangerines, apples, and desserts. (more…)