Kristyn Leach is well aware of the importance of food in maintaining and sharing cultural heritage. She also realizes how easy it is to lose track of food origins. During the 10 years that she's run Namu Farm, Kristyn has focused on growing vegetables significant to her Korean-US background. ‘We can't preserve crop biodiversity if we don't understand the diversity of perspectives that have maintained those varieties,’ she says.
Kristyn's crops have drawn a strong response from the community in northern California, where the farm is based, leading to people sharing seeds and plants particular to their own families and regions. ‘I've realized how crops can be vectors for cultural conversations and how important seed preservation is,’ Kristyn says.
This realization began when Kristyn connected with the Kitazawa Seed Company, started in 1917 by Gijiu Kitazawa, who came to California from Japan, and began performing field trials for the company. ‘They were curious about varieties that were doing well on small-scale farms or that restaurant chefs were responsive to. I did trials, growing different things and making recommendations for what could go in their catalogs beyond the large-scale stuff,’ she says.
It was during this time Kristyn decided to focus on the under-served part of the Asian seed market – ‘the things that people's grandmas are growing, but we aren't seeing in the commercial sector. Because I was growing a lot of things that were important to Korean-Americans, it had a strong response from families and community members. A lot of people started sharing seeds. There was a cross-section who wanted to support local farmers, but also wanted to maintain a connection to their culture through food.’
When Kitazawa was sold to a larger company, it gave Kristyn the push to create her brand, Second Generation Seeds, which prioritizes having a dialog with the wider Asian-US community to determine the crops and seed varieties that are most desirable. ‘The seed can come from anywhere,’ Kristyn says. ‘It could be something shared among the community or brought back from Asia or a seed left by a grandma that has been sitting in a drawer.’
Turning these finds into commercially viable seeds is no small task. The first stage is usually years of multifaceted trials to make sure it's even feasible to grow the seeds. Then, through a large network of small-scale farms, Second Generation Seeds sends new varieties out to see how they do in the hands of other farmers. ‘We keep expanding the trial to see how things grow across multiple variables,’ Kristyn says.
Seeds, though, are only part of the equation. Kristyn wants to ensure the right conversations are had with the right people, so that the development of commercial seeds is an inclusive process. This has led to the launch of a virtual platform called Seed Stewards, to engage the community, which has resulted in input at every stage.
Second Generation Seeds wants the support it gives its community of growers to result in a rich variety of seeds that will preserve Asian-American food culture for years to come.
This article was first published in 100 Ways to Make a Living 2022. To purchase a copy or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.