Kristyn Leach of Namu Farm
By Vianney Ahn (Plant Sciences, '23)
The 2-acre Namu Farm, located in Winters, CA, has enabled Kristyn Leach to utilize sustainable agriculture as a platform to connect the local Korean community, as well as minority farmers, on issues of local farm justice and the preservation of tradition. 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. As a Korean-American farmer herself, she is an active voice for empowering farmers of color, and has a deep passion to defend farmer’s rights of seed preservation and stewardship. Her passions extend to working with the community to tackle structural barriers that disproportionately affect POC-farmers. Through her experimentation with adapting heritage Korean crops to the California environment she has not only been able to find roots that connect her to her identity, but also enabled others to consolidate their own relationships with identity. Kristyn Leach’s commitment to empower farmers of color through the narrative of food as well as to build communities around unified efforts towards food justice makes her an impactful contributor to sustainable agriculture.
While Kristyn’s farm today works to preserve the stories of Korean heirloom crops, she didn’t grow up knowing about her Korean heritage. In 1982, she was adopted from South Korea by an American family in Long Island, New York. Although Korean food became a part of her life later on, in her interview for the Delicious Revolution podcast, she describes that her love of food began when she was young, from being invested in the efforts of organizations like “Food not Bombs” as a teenager, and talks about how her parents’ attitude towards food and its value instilled in her the importance of it to individuals and the community. Growing up in New York’s community gardens made an impression on her about the importance of community spaces that connect people and how food is able to facilitate genuine human relationships.
After moving to the Pacific Northwest to study for college, she became interested in farming through jobs on small-scale farms as a farmhand, and began to question how sustainable agriculture could be, given the various changes that farmers have to encounter, such as issues brought about in face of climate change, as well as unequal distribution of resources and opportunities to minority farmers. It was also during this time that Kristyn first encountered Korean cuisine. She explains the vulnerability that she experienced around seeking out connection to Korean culture having not grown up with it, but how food was something that she could explore on her own and through which she could close the distance she felt between herself and her ancestral origins. In the local community garden, she met older Korean women growing perilla (kkaennip), which proved to be the gateway plant for Kristyn to discover her roots, as she says “unbeknownst to me at the time…[were] the ubiquitous plants and ingredients in Korean food”.
Through Namu Farm, Kristyn provides opportunities for Korean-American members of the community who identify amongst the Korean diaspora to explore their identity through food. She lovingly opens her farm for people to visit and hosts events such as Chuseok, which is rooted in agrarian tradition, and is a traditional Korean harvest celebration. Her passion to share tradition and the experience of this important aspect of culture provides Korean-American members of her community the unique opportunities to connect with their heritage and explore their identity.
Namu Farm is also the site for community members to become involved in farm work itself and organizing towards food justice. In 2017, along with a community organizer Yong Chan Miller, Kristyn started a volunteer farm program called ‘Nongwhal’, which sought out to bridge Korean history to the contemporary food justice movements in local neighborhoods of California. ‘Nongwhal’ has historical roots in Korea during periods of political unrest, where students would volunteer time to work on farms, and their experiences with rural farmers helped to create a united front in the community against challenges for the democracy movement. Today, nongwhal projects are rooted in the same spirit of resistance and community, centering around environmental issues, and is a place where farmers are able to take positions of teachers by sharing their knowledge of sustainable production practices and food justice to community members. For the program at Namu Farm, the initial goal, to preserve traditional subsistence farming practices that are being lost due to industrialization and figuring out ways to systematize a climate resilient form of those methods, has flourished into involvement from the community to protect their voice in defining the system of growth and sharing of food in their neighborhoods.
Kristyn’s activism for POC-farmers in particular has led her program to coalesce around the particular issue of how the community can support farmers of color growing heritage vegetables. This goal can be reflected in her active voice for seed sovereignty and community-based learning and movement towards food justice. There are greater challenges for farmers of color to have access to land and capital, as well as other resources necessary to run successful, healthy farms. She explains “the challenges that asian farmers-- or any farmers of color-- face includes smaller margins in the marketplace because a lot of the crops are viewed as specialty and it’s harder to reach a wider audience”. She flags the existence of cultural appropriation by large corporations dominating agriculture, who lack the knowledge of the ancestral histories and stories of cultural heirloom crops, which have made it difficult for small-scale farmers like herself to protect their agricultural traditions and seed sovereignty. As part of the Asian American Farmers Alliance, Kristyn is active in challenging concerns about historic erasure and goals of solely transactional farming practices when seeds are patented by multinational corporations who have not played a role in prolonged stewardship of those seeds. She works with the community to increase access to seeds for people that want them, and to provide the technical support that is necessary for farmers to keep growing them.
As an avid seed saver, she is able to preserve the story of each plant that she grows, allowing it to continue adapting to the stresses of the local environment, as well as share that history with others. In collaboration with the Oakland-based Kitazawa Seed Company’s Second Generation Seeds program, she shares those seeds of diverse heirloom varieties that she has inherited, enabling the tradition of imprinting ecological and anthropological history of those plants to continue. “Seeds hold a lot for people beyond just sustenance,” and Kristyn’s contributions and passion to preserve heritage seeds through traditional practices has greatly enabled members of the community to have a choice in the crops they grow and eat, without having to sacrifice their general health. It is the activism for seed sovereignty, from farmers like Kristyn, that has been an essential part of enabling establishment of food sovereignty in the community and ensuring livelihood security of small-scale farmers. She is an integral voice for the rights of the community to define its own agriculture and food policies and practices that will enable people to establish food security, and furthermore ensure that the food produced is environmentally sustainable and socially just.