Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are Reclaiming Culture through Farming

May 27, 2021
by Eric Meredith, MEd, MS, RDN, CHES

According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders comprise less than 1 percent of the farming population. More than 95 percent of full-time farm operators in the U.S. are white. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Asian Americans leveraged their land ownership, farming expertise, and knowledge of growing traditional foods to participate in the agricultural economy. Laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the California Alien Land Law prohibited Asian Americans from owning land, eliminating them from agricultural production. These discriminatory laws significantly decreased Asian American farming production resulting in socioeconomic inequities still being felt today.

To address years of discriminatory agriculture practices, numerous Asian American and Pacific Islander farmers are reclaiming their agricultural roots and culture by growing traditional foods. This blog highlights six innovative Asian American and Pacific Islander farmers reclaiming their culture through farming.

Ariana de Lena – Kamayan Farm

Ariana de Lena, a Filipina American farmer, owns and operates Kamayan Farm, which strives to weave together the stories of land, food, medicine, and culture. Kamayan Farm is a vegetable, flower, medicinal herb, and education farm just 25 miles east of Seattle. According to Kamayan Farms, “kamayan” means “with hands,”  in Tagalog and refers to a traditional Filipino way of eating. On her farm, Ariana grows long beans, bitter melon, and ginger.

Before becoming a farmer, De Lena worked at environmental justice nonprofits and found new meaning in growing food as a means of cultural reclamation.  She felt farming was an easy access point to learn more about Filipino food and how it’s grown. Ariana uses food to do more storytelling about Filipino families and culture and help people build a reciprocal and reparative connection to land.

Leslie Wiser – Radical Family Farms

After earning a master’s degree in media arts and working in the corporate world for ten years, Leslie decided it was time to start a family. However, Leslie realized that she wanted a different lifestyle for her children. Born to a German father and a mother from Taiwan, Wiser wanted her own children to eat German and Asian food and to learn more about their mixed-race identity, which led to the creation of Radical Family Farms.

Radical Family Farms, located in California’s Sonoma County, aims to reclaim Asian American identities and centers LGBTQIA+ Mixed-Asian American heritage and culinary culture through the vegetables, herbs, meals, and events produced on their farm. Their customers vary from home cooks, restaurant owners, and families who prioritize heritage cooking and identity exploration through food.

Mai Nguyen – Minnow

Mai Nguyen, a first-generation Vietnamese American farmer and co-director of Minnow, acknowledges that structural racism and discrimination against Asian American farmers and other farmers of color persist today. Minnow engages in political organizing that centers farmers and farm workers, builds economic democracy, and advances racial justice in the food system. In 2017, Mai helped pass the Farmer Equity Act.

The Farmer Equity Act of 2017 amended the California Food and Agriculture Code to include a more diverse set of farmers in the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of food and agriculture laws at the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture. The bill created staff to help socially disadvantaged farmers navigate the agricultural landscape and provide recommendations for future assistance.

Kristyn Leach – Namu Farm

Through Namu Farm, located in Winters, California, Kristyn Leach provides unique opportunities for Korean Americans to connect with their heritage and explore their identity through food. She mainly grows traditional Korean and East Asian produce, using traditional subsistence methods that guide organic and biodynamic practices without the use of any fossil fuels.

Like many small-scale farmers of color, Kristyn is fighting to protect their agricultural traditions and seed sovereignty.  As part of the Asian American Farmers Alliance, she advocates for the community’s right to define its own agriculture, food policies, and practices. This food sovereignty enables people to establish food security and ensures that the food produced is environmentally sustainable and socially just.

Scott Chang-Fleeman – Shoa Shan Farm

After his Grandfather’s entire family was killed during the Communist Revolution, Scott’s Grandpa fled to the United States.  His Grandfather had a deep desire to assimilate, which meant Scott’s family lost their connection to Chinese culture. Scott wanted to reconnect with his cultural roots, so he began experimenting with growing Chinese vegetables and selling them to local Asian American Chefs.

Seeing an opportunity to bring fresh, organic Asian vegetables to customers in the Bay Area who have never had access to them, Scott launched Shao Shan Farm.  Shao Shan Farm is a 5.5-acre farm that specializes in growing certified organic Asian heritage vegetables like gai lan, choi sum, chrysanthemum greens, and kabocha for Asian Pacific Islander chefs, grocers, and the community in the San Francisco Bay area.

Hokuao Pellegrino – Noho’ana Farms

According to a 2020 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, approximately 8% of Hawaiian households do not have access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. Since Hawaii imports 85 to 90 percent of its food, the state created the Sustainable Hawai’i Initiative to double their food production by the year 2020 and beyond.

The Sustainable Hawai’i Initiative is made up of members like Hokuao Pellegrino who started farming in 1998 to produce crops that his Native Hawaiian family has grown for generations. On Noho’ana Farms in western Maui, you’ll find wetland taro, kukui nut, bananas, coconut, and historically significant breadfruit trees. For Pellegrino, growing breadfruit or ‘ulu, is a matter of cultural preservation.

Hokuao points to the loss of breadfruit cultural preservation as a result of the rise of plantation farming following European contact in the late 1700s. For Hokuao, it’s important that ‘ulu growers understand the history behind a fruit so intimately tied to Native Hawaiians, including their folklore. According to one legend, during a period of famine, the war god Ku sacrificed himself and transformed into a breadfruit tree to feed his family. His wife’s tears from his passing helped grow other trees throughout the islands.

Eric Meredith was a cultural competency consultant for Feeding America. He currently serves as a Tribal Relations Specialist at a large government agency. Before his current role, Eric was a community nutrition education program manager for the University of Illinois and the federal government.