Mai Nguyen grew up in San Diego to refugee parents from Vietnam and studied geography at University of California, Berkeley before becoming a farmer. In between, they have worked on refugee resettlements, farmers markets, and waste management, a journey that’s taken them from farms in Mendocino, California, to camps in Southeast Asia. The common thread in their work is settlement — of people and seeds — and equity.
For Nguyen, what started as wanting to grow a full diet locally now has other farmers calling them “the grain queen.” They see climate change and social inequality as the most pressing issues we face, and makes explicit that the conditions in which crops thrive are linked to the conditions that allow people to thrive.
To that end, Nguyen has organized young farmers in groups like the National Young Farmers Coalition to advocate for the next generation of growers. As a child of displaced people, Nguyen’s take on farming as a link between past and present is even more meaningful.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
YS: As a farmer, how do you see the problem of hunger?
MN: Hunger is a structural, human-made problem. Anyone who’s ever grown food finds that plants create abundance. When you scatter seeds, they try to produce more, so that they can survive and there can be more of them. In turn for us, as people harvesting, we have a lot. Then through human intervention, we’ve created even more through genetic modifications.
The problems of hunger today have so much to do with distribution and what people call “food apartheid.” Certain geographies and people become the centers of infrastructure that creates food, and then in other regions, people are left out.
It’s been clear that we overproduce particular kinds of crops. Those get dumped onto other countries and have created dependencies that are volatile. We look at our southern border and all the people who have come there because of climate change and catastrophes in their regions. They were also forced to rely on the U.S. for food supply, which has been shrinking because of climate change and our decreasing yields — all of those have been push factors for people to move.
Of course, we know that there are neighborhoods or even cities and rural areas where food is produced and sent away. For example, farmers in Fresno, who are the main producers of food in California, don’t get to eat the fruits and vegetables that they’ve grown. They have the highest rates of diabetes and diet-related illnesses as a result of not having fresh food, despite having grown it.
YS: How do your other experiences inform how you approach the problem of hunger?
MN: Having worked in refugee camps and on resettlement projects has led me to ask: What does it mean to be resettled? What does it mean to try to create a home permanently, maybe never going back? For us, there’s absolutely no choice. In both what it takes to acclimate to a new place and, ideally, to set new roots, there’s a component of food.
We ate Vietnamese food almost exclusively. It was really important to be able to have produce so that we could eat something; it was just one less thing to worry about. As a farmer, I have a greater appreciation for this idea of resettlement and how it relates to food. It takes 20 generations for the seed to adapt to a new place.
Adaptation relies on us being able to be in one place, which is really challenging. As a newcomer farmer, land is unaffordable. People can relate: It’s hard to buy a home. Then there’s the issue of seed availability. There are seed monopolies that have decreased our seed stock, such that we only have 6 percent of our seed diversity from a century ago, which correlates with the decline of cultural diversity through colonialism.
Think about the Intuit up in the Arctic. They can digest fat, and have very different metabolic rates than those of us in equatorial latitudes. That’s a key adaptation for them to be in that place where they’re eating those kinds of foods. As a farmer and a person who is only the second generation here, I think “What am I doing for the next 18 generations to set them up so that they can adapt to this place?”
YS: How does farming relate to your family history?
MN: It’s an honor to be a part of such an old system with so many elders. It’s essentially a network of people to learn from in terms of how people have approached this. I acknowledge my dual lineage as a Vietnamese person where farming and liberation is a very fraught notion for us. I hear that when I talk with my Cambodian peers and those who are from China and went through the Cultural Revolution.
The communist ideal was that you work with factory and agricultural workers for this transformation of the land for liberation. That transformation took the form of massacres — really violent, atrocious acts — that were a part of a civil war that has left us homeless.
A large part of my farming is looking at how our current commodity and industrial systems also mirror how it treats humans, and how we think about both differently. How can farming for the whole also be fighting for a whole society? And yet, there is a very recent lived reality of pain that I also have to hold and contend with.
YS: What might a business model centered on family and communities look like under this capitalist system?
MN: Capitalism, coupled with neoliberalism, has really eroded a lot of our structures. But when we talk about our economy, it also means care, exchange and maintenance. Some communities, like the Indigenous, have really strong economies of care. We don’t have as strong of a language for those elements in the capitalist financial economy. But as we’ve seen during the pandemic, it’s our neighbors checking in on us; it’s friends, family. These forms of the economy of care are what’s gotten us through.
We can tap into what we already have. It’s not creating something totally new; that template of the economy of care already exists. It’s still sometimes dominated by a transactional apparatus, but it also has corporate and international principles that center community and responsibility for each other. In my work with cooperative development, a lot of immigrants from all over the world very quickly resonated with that model because it speaks so deeply to their own ways of being with each other.
I think about how our capitalist system takes so much labor for granted. It’s creating the language for articulating these elements so they don’t seem so invisible. When we name it, we can own it and wield that for collective power.
YS: What do you wish people knew about farmers? Are there any misconceptions that you often hear?
MN: I do a lot of organizing with farmers of color. The assumption is that when they bring up farmers of color, people imagine farm workers or people farming in urban areas. According to farm reports, the vast majority of agricultural labor that gets us our food is being done by people of color, mostly women.
At the same time, there are farm owner-operators such as myself, who are people of color. There’s this assumption that a farm owner is white. And while that is the most prevalent case, by ignoring the fact that the rest of us exist, it becomes a major problem when it comes to representation around policies, in terms of trying to get relief funds for farmers of color.
Any time you ask about including farmers of color, policymakers will say, “Yes, we are definitely working on urban farming incentive programs.” There’s this very ‘90s idea that people of color only exist in cities, with “urban” as a codeword for Black and brown people. It makes it really hard when we talk about politics. That was acute in 2016 and Trump’s election; people are like, “We’re just going to write off rural white America.” There are Black and brown people there.
When it comes to size, there’s this assumption that people of color only farm on a small scale. It’s a self-reinforcing perspective. I was on a call yesterday with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and they wanted this new Relief Program to benefit farmers of color. They put an acreage cap. I asked “Is this an equity proposal? Or is this a small-scale producer proposal?” Because if it’s an equity proposal, you should not put an acreage cap on it. If it’s a small-scale producer proposal, it doesn’t say anything about farmers of color. Those are some of the primary misconceptions that have real limiting impacts on our ability to thrive.
The future of farming and beyond
Although the future of farming might look bleak, Nguyen and other young farmers aren’t shying away from it. Nguyen founded the Asian American Farmers Alliance and is a co-Director at Minnow, which secures farmland tenure for California’s farmers of color while advancing indigenous sovereignty and land rematriation. Together, they advocate for solutions that support production that is going to sustain us, versus continuing to put toxins into our environment that are going to outlive us.
For young farmers of color, equity is a must in the future of farming. “Equity would be connecting local farmers, ideally farmworkers who have been able to become farm owners, to get the food that they’re producing to their counterparts in urban areas,” Nguyen said. It turns out that their vision is not so far away. “The way that we structure that is even written out by community-based organizations who read proposals to the local food promotion program. We already have the blueprints for it. We just need the investment.”
As for what part consumers play in this vision, Nguyen makes it clear that we all have a stake. “People see that California has the most intense wildfires ever, floods happen, and all the green that’s been destroyed because the frost in Texas caused a power outage. Anytime people see these extreme weather situations, it means that there’s less food. So we really need people to make those investments and pay us upfront. If people can’t afford that, that is even more reason to take the time to vote on a farm bill where our society, our government, uses our tax dollars to support farmers for doing the most fundamental work for our collective livelihoods.”
You can follow Mai Nguyen on Instagram @farmermainguyen.
Cover photo credit: ARFB
This article is part of the Summer 2021 issue. The Summer 2021 issue centered on the theme of Family, scratching the surface of what it means to be an Asian American family, whether that’s from queer families growing to the ways our AAPI community comes together. Check it out here!