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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.

Our family has many spirits to feed. As part of the ceremony, the names of those who have passed are read out loud, starting with my great-grandmother. She was a midwife who was pulled off a train to deliver a child in a secret Viet Cong camp. They killed her so she wouldn’t divulge the location. Next, my grandfather who died of a curable disease after being denied medicine by the Viet Cong. Next, uncles who endured prison labor camps and died young. Next, teenage cousins who drowned at sea attempting to escape the Communist regime.

I grew up knowing my roots in these stories of loss. Though their home had been destroyed, their country lost, my family shared these stories and the traditions around them so that they could keep our culture alive in a new place. This is part of why I became a farmer. For me, farming was a way to contribute to this effort of keeping our present in contact with our past and keeping us in touch with each other.

This informs how I define sustainability: participating in and caring for shared systems that support our collective well-being. When I first started farming, I wanted to create a diversified farming system that incorporated grains. I sought out landrace and heritage wheats like Sonora because they are remarkably suited for conditions in California, where I farm. The genetic diversity of heritage wheats means they can adapt to varying conditions. Their drought tolerance means they can bear California’s recent unpredictable stretches of heat, minimizing dependence on irrigation. Their mowing resilience allows them to lengthen their roots and store carbon when I set the sheep out to weed, while their long straws capture atmospheric carbon that I can reuse for compost and water retention.

Varieties with these characteristics are difficult to find as commercial seed stock. But they can be saved and passed from farmer to farmer. I collaborate with other farmers who grow rare heritage wheat varieties, and I am grateful to learn from their experience and build on their work.

In our working lifetimes, each of us have perhaps 40 tries at growing that Sonora wheat, that spring millet, that winter barley, and learning from the attempts. But through communication, we can multiply the effects of our efforts. We can see, for instance, how a single variety fares in different climes. If we collaborate, we can replenish local seed supplies, share promising practices, increase biodiversity and food security, and contribute to the 10,000-year-old practice that has sustained civilizations.

Now the need for this kind of knowledge sharing is critical. The new president and his administration threaten decreased funding for research and technical assistance, which would leave farmers disconnected from current findings and the lessons of the past. But we are not powerless. We can cultivate citizen science with fellow farmers who also use alternative, soil-building and carbon-sequestering practices. We will have to rely on each other for this knowledge.

Sustainability, therefore, cannot now be just a characteristic of our crops or growing practices. It has to be part of our community. And we need that community to include customers who know the value of all the work that goes into making good food. We need this community to foster markets that allow farmers to live healthy, prosperous lives. We need to ensure workers are healthy, safe, and secure, no matter where they came from. This is why I engage with the public as part of my work as a farmer. I want them to understand what happens on the farm and why their investment is essential to improving farm practices and sustaining farmers. They need to know that they are part of our community.

When I reflect on my work as a farmer, I return to what my family and culture have taught me—how shared stories and a common care can unite us, make us bigger than ourselves, and let us play our roles in sustaining something that is worth preserving.


About this series: The National Young Farmers Coalition and King Arthur Flour present Heart and Grain, a new blog and film series profiling three pioneering young grain farmers. While all farmers face challenges, the high start-up costs associated with grain farming can make it an especially difficult field to enter for new and young farmers. Learn more about the series here.

About our series sponsor: Farmers are at the heart of baking. That’s why King Arthur Flour proudly supports the National Young Farmers Coalition and its mission of empowering the next generation of grain growers. As America’s appetite for sustainable food increases, King Arthur Flour is dedicated to helping farms grow with demand and strengthening people’s connection to real food.
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