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A Conversation with Farmer Mai

The first time I met Mai Nguyen was through a Zoom meeting that connected my Santa Barbara room to her Sonoma County home. A San Diego native, Mai looked like me: dark hair, round face, thick lips. She wore an orange sweater and wide glasses. In her background, nature prints and paper lamps. Not at all like the overalls and straw-in-mouth farmer on a prairie portrayed in American media.

I wanted her story, her definition of land stewardship, but Mai asked for my story first. It was difficult not to feel humbled and honored in her virtual presence. I knew this was not an interview but a conversation. She wanted to know the marriage between my Chinese and Vietnamese roots. She wanted to learn about my cultural upbringing. Most of my stories—she reciprocated with her own learning experiences. I felt very disconnected from my roots, moving to Santa Barbara and pursuing a career where most people did not look like me.

Mai nodded her head, humming with understanding. She had similar questions about her cultural identities. Therefore, after she graduated, she left to backpack through Vietnam. In addition to being an ambitious hustler, she was mindful of the various changes in Vietnam from French and Chinese influences like how the North had less material wealth and the South had more agrarian abundance.

Volunteering with the International Rescue Committee a few years ago, Mai saw the realities of the refugee camps developed after the Vietnam War. Her family left one of these refugee camps to find a home, but the same fears and concerns her family had were in the faces of these refugees. Mai contemplated, “What does it mean for us to make this our home now? What does it look like?”

I thought home meant where the people were. A Thor: Ragnarok conclusion. But home is more than people. Home is also created with cultural food security. When there is so much change, so much to adapt to, having familiar foods is significant to maintain a sense of safety.

Mai explained, “Having this [cultural food]—that's really fundamental, that has so much memory, engages all of our senses, and has ties to recipes that are part of family rituals. But we can't practice with our whole families anymore because of separation.”

Her cultural curiosities crystallized the world of land stewardship into something Asian Americans like me could digest. Land stewardship was something stolen from our families. The Vietnam War forced many families to distance themselves from their land, to lose this connection important to cultural identity.

Mai’s family settled in San Diego. The local grocery stores sold food to a variety of demographics including Vietnamese, but not everyone was satisfied.

“People wanted it fresh. They wanted to support local farmers. And then there were people who wanted to grow it themselves, because they couldn't really find other work.” Mai sighed, “It's not like they were proficient in English or had transferable skills of what white collar capitalist economy really values.”

I saw her words in my memories. The immigrant parents in my Los Angeles neighborhood sew in factories, looked for recyclables, washed dishes. Little skills needed. My mom was one of these people. She craved for a garden and planted in every balcony and window space we had. She would appreciate that people like Mai existed in this world.

Working with a team, Mai materialized solutions to these problems into reality. They created a large urban garden—two and a half acres with thirty five plots—and ran a farmers market to help these people make a living out of the food they grow. They assisted these farmers in developing transferable skills: keeping books, market designing, and understanding market regulations.

Land stewardship through farmers markets needed more than farmers. They needed collaboration. Locals wanted to support these farmers markets, but affordability and sustainability danced awkwardly together. Then, they founded the first Market Match program in California, that matched dollars spent from federal financial assistant programs like Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Although this market match program grew, sometimes WIC or SSI were left out. Mai explained, “SSI is for people who didn't work in the US, and can't get social security, so they get this other stipend. If you're a refugee when you're thirty or forty and you didn't get to pay into that system or in your sixties with the war and reeducation camps, you weren't necessarily let out until much later in life. It was really important to me that the match for SSI existed, which, unfortunately, has not carried out to other places.”

It was also very important to Mai that there were organic Vietnamese crops being sold at the farmers markets. Food was not just something for survival. Food had significance for bringing cultural communities together.

Mai’s practice of land stewardship began when she studied soil at Berkeley. She grew concerned about the food scraps piling up from living in a housing cooperative of fifty people. Extremely wasteful. Mai wanted to compost all the scraps, return the nutrients back into the soil where it belongs. She continued, “Waste is sort of a linear process for what happens to objects and materials but really, it's a cycle. I grew up with the Buddhist thinking that everything is connected and everything is going to come back.”

Mai started small: managing a compost site for a student garden and taking a class in basic gardening. Mai was only interested in composting. She already learned what the class taught her from watching her grandmother maintaining the backyard garden. In summer, where all the students left, Mai felt a deep connection with the crops bursting in abundance, especially in the garden and in the kitchen. It was this abundance that made her feel more shame and guilt in watching food become waste.

Mai said, “When we think about the processes of grieving that we have, across cultures, grieving takes place communally. It's a time of remembrance of accounting for what has happened, including trying to address harms that have happened and kind of like cleaning those up. And we don't do that with the materials that we have in our society.”

When devalued, a lot of products that are composed of numerous materials are simply thrown away. These products are not properly deconstructed so the materials are not returned to where they belong and their toxins leach to the environment.

Mai shared the lesson of soil damage. Especially in industrial models, if ripped several feet of the soil, the soil tells a story of pain: years of flooding, fires, and toxins. The signs were all there under our feet, under the concrete. The industries that make our world today ignore this land trauma. The cycle has been broken.

Mai said, “The soil mirrors the violence that was done to the peoples who have been removed from the lands.”

The responsibility of remediating this broken cycle had fallen on land stewards. Farmers like Mai learn from land practices that have worked for centuries. Under indigenous stewardship, land is full of nutrients. Healthy and alive. Honoring the healers and fighting the abusers is a core responsibility of land steward today.

Mai reminded, “We also have to recognize that those people [who harm the land] need to heal as well.”

Just like other land stewards, Mai intends to lead by example. Teach them how to heal, teach them how to show gratitude by giving back. Teach and share and remediate the cycle of life so those people who harm the land will adapt into this land steward community.

When Mai came back to California, she practiced dry farming with rice, but she was hit by a semi truck and gave birth, Starting both a family and a dream at the same time felt unsustainable. Then, Mai found out about wheat flour, “Wheat flour was a symbol of food, but with no substance.”

She told me how wheat had been reduced to fifty percent by the time it ended up on the plate. Commercial wheat leads to numerous preventable diet-related problems like diabetes and constipation and in a country that did not have universal health care, it was a slow death.

“It seems absurd that I even have to make that argument. Right? Like food should feed us and nourish us.” Mai said.

Mai is one of the very few farmers who's making real whole wheat available, not just a mock up “Frankenstein” kind, where supplements are “patched” to enrich the flour. The commercial wheat industry bred wheat to develop bigger endosperm, smaller bran, and smaller germ. The bran has the fiber, minerals, and nutrients and the germ has the fats and oils which are important to brain development. The endosperm is where the gluten is. Typical wheat flour is produced by milling wheat into a roller mill to remove the bran and squeeze out the germ. More gluten and less of the other nutrients.

Mai explained, “The microbiome [in our digestive system] relies on having fiber from our food. So we can drink as much kombucha as we want, but like, the kombucha needs to live on something inside our guts in order to work its magic.”

Without the bran and germ, the wheat flour can be shipped long distances and lasts for a very long time. During the slave trade, the market for wheat flour boomed. This process became more and more refined. More food for colonies.

This is only good in the eyes of industry. What the companies did not bring awareness to was the health problems that came along with this process. Deep sores. Developmental problems in children. Celiac disease. The enrichment process does not return all the necessary nutrients in the wheat flour for wellness. Over fourty nutrients essential to preventing diseases are lost.

Some enrichment nutrients are sourced problematically. Some are derived from coal tar which encourages demand from fossil fuel industries.

When the United states decides to aid other countries with this wheat flour, this lack of enrichment affects citizens of those countries too. Mai explains, “I see it as how our capitalist society tries to strip away all of our diversity to just focus on what is most useful economy, just like this white flour, the center's firm, what is most useful for an economy supposedly feeds people that can make those like burger buns or whatever, it strips away all of the work that went into preserving the wholeness, that is also tied to the farming practices, the seed selection and breeding and all of those efforts.”

Mai wanted to write an entire book about this “all purpose” flour one day. I would buy it.

So what do land stewards do about this problem? Heirloom varieties.

Heirloom varieties survived thousands of years. They survived for a reason. Mai scoffs at the farmers who use young and recent varieties, “It’s like asking a ten year old to make dinner instead of asking someone with more experience.”

I imagined the wheat fields—the wind swaying the grasses on her website. Mai’s wheat becomes fluffy and light flour, a perfect one to one substitute to all purpose flour but with all the nutrients from the bran and germ.

Mai explained, “With the pandemic and climate change the global wheat stores that we had taken for granted are vastly diminishing very quickly. So we need local wheat as much as possible.”

This means asking our ancestors for advice and learning how to look forward with long term goals towards the future.

“I truly believe that our only job in life like our number one job is to take care of each other.” Mai swears by her organic and pesticide free wheat.

In this book, I read by Michael Pollan, he interviewed potato farmers about pesticides. The farmers would never eat those crops. They would grow separate plots of land for their family without pesticides. What are we getting sold at the grocery store then?

Mai would let her farm workers eat the wheat. She would let her child eat her wheat. “It is the thing that my partner and I high five for like when we make pancakes. We're eating this food and we know exactly what we are eating.”

It is the best pay off as a land steward. This transparency. This community trust.

I never felt closer to somebody three hundred miles away. Just like Mai, I wanted to give back, honor the plants that fed me. I want to understand what It will be the best I want to do.

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