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  • Hanna Lee

Namu Farm: Reclaiming our culture through food

In a place plagued by drought, the Wild West is where only the bravest would dare to tame nature. Only those with the most courageous and unbreakable spirits can adapt to thrive there. People made of resilience and emboldened with purpose. People like Kristyn, a California farmer looking to sow the seeds of education, with literal seeds. Her dream to one day have control over food access and supporting Asian American farmers, is one that she is making a reality as you read this.

I have to admit, when I imagined how this interview would go prior to meeting the Namu Farm founder, I didn’t anticipate the rebel spirit behind the person I was sitting down with. Her life experience and fortitude extend beyond her years. Her mission couldn’t be clearer as she says: “Being in white areas can feel very isolating, and can be hard, psychologically, and emotionally, to deal with how communities of color have been pushed out. And, the ability to have land—I see this shifting more, and understanding this—is part of our shared history. And, erasing the contributions that our community has been responsible for helping to create, we’ve become invisible.”

One of Kristyn’s recollections of her earlier years working on other farms was that she got to a point where it became obvious there was a disconnect from the vegetables she saw at farmers’ markets. She remarks on how they didn’t seem to be reflecting the communities that she was surrounded by—catering more toward the perceptions of who a farmers’ market is for. Fortunately, there were many Asian American chefs in the Bay area interested in having access to organic produce. So, Kristyn started her side project of growing primarily Korean vegetables.

“Korean ingredients don’t have a good substitute. It’s something very special to speak to that relationship when something is distinctly ours. As immigrants, people were resourceful and traveled with different seeds because there wasn’t anything similar,” she explained.

Kristyn shared that she’s putting most of her energy into seed preservation, and ways that she can gain access to seeds and ensure that they’re kept within loving and respectful environments. Her focus is on trials and breeding for seed production and seed banking. Up until now most seed banking has been held by governments that are only concerned about crude data and the utility of potential breeding schemes.

“If you look at places that have had wars or civil unrest, governments go to take seeds from those places. But that often doesn’t show cultural diversity. It shows a narrowness to those whose tastes are being catered to.” She went on to explain that her hope is to be able to strengthen the narrative and bolster economic channels. “Reclaiming our culture through food.”

Namu Farm was manifested into existence out of pure love. When I asked Kristyn what made her decide that farming was her passion, she explained that at an early age she recognized how valuable this skill was—a way to have the means to make sure that the people she loves are taken care of. For her, that meant tapping into the most primal of needs—food. She admitted that she wasn’t strategic about the long term when she was younger, and that she has found that a lot of her progress has felt accidental in very serendipitous ways. Finding that many of these opportunities were simply connections she’s become aligned with while riding a current that’s lead her to communities of many other young Asian American farmers who are returning to agriculture. Kristyn herself confirmed that the people who have been most responsive to the success of her farm thriving have been people around her own age that are wanting to teach their children about these traditional Korean foods.

One of the biggest challenges that requires regular adaptation to is drought. “It’s not so much a drought, so much as a constant state of being,” she laughed. Heat and dry conditions have been the central stressors working on a farm. Soil management and finding natural ways to reduce tillage have remained an ongoing focus. Kristyn explained that they use earthworms to create pathways through the soil to mimic tilling. Namu Farms has also utilized natural farming methods from Korea and East Asia in order to disturb the soil less, and operates using the elegance that eco systems do. Endless hours are devoted simply to the time spent calibrating to the surroundings. However, the rewards are far greater than the struggle.

Kristyn’s connections throughout the years have created some of the most meaningful partnerships. Namu, a restaurant in San Francisco, buys produce to use in their modern and creative eatery. She describes their food as being able to feel both new and very old by not only looking to the past to take cues about what makes us Korean, but giving the latitude to move forward, evolve, and reinvent those traditions. “Chefs provide such an amazing platform. The rise in food culture is this glamorous thing, and chefs are powerful storytellers. It means a lot in terms of farms trying to diversify,” she said.

It has been incredible to learn how many different channels there are linking us to food and the history and stories behind what makes Namu Farm so vital. Not only is this a retreat to learn about plants, culture, and the effects of climate change, but it’s also become a place where children and families can find a real sense of collective ownership of. Kristyn holds community events and programs sharing about food and cooking. She shared: “In these moments when we’re experiencing this trauma, talking about food builds trust so quickly and also gives us something to talk about. In this climate where there’s been this really, kind of noxious narrative and contempt toward Asian communities, that’s always been here historically, but for kids to find these inroads of being really proud and recognizing that these stories are linked to ancestral wisdom. There’s a sense of collectivism and accountability moving forward. It’s hopeful for young people to be saturated in a positive narrative, and [they] can have this solid footing in being proud of their culture and their food.”



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