Christina Chan connects with her family through food.
As a first-generation Chinese-American, Chan searches for ways to embrace her Chinese heritage. She doesn’t know much of the language and she doesn’t hold the same traditional values of her parents. But she does share a mutual love for soup dumplings.
And a love for traditional Cantonese dishes. And a craving for simple dishes, like Chinese leafy greens steamed with oyster sauce. When she eats, she’s connected to her roots.
“Not only do we use food to show each other care and affection, but it’s the part of my culture that I can understand the most,” she told NationSwell.
While her family’s shared culture is a major part of her identity, it’s not the only one. She is also a farmer, which is part of why she’s committed to eating local organic produce.
But Chan struggled to find organic versions of her favorite Chinese vegetables in New York. When walking through Chinatown or Jackson Heights, she couldn’t find t organic versions of the vegetables she grew up eating. “It felt like I had to choose between that part of myself or my culture,” she said.
Chan’s struggle represents a bigger problem in American farming. The crops our country grows aren’t diverse, and it’s partly due to a lack of diverse farmers.
The 2017 USDA Census on Agriculture surveyed 2.7 million principal producers in the United States. Of the 2.7 million, only 16,798, or .7%, identified as Asian. 38,000, or 1.4%, identified as black or African American. At 2.6 million of the 2.7 total, white farmers made up a majority of the principal operators.
The statistics in Chan’s home state, New York, show a similar pattern — 97% of farms belong to white men, and their average age is 57 years old. While a majority of owners are white, farmworkers are overwhelmingly Latino.
“A system where over 90% of the people are white men is not a resilient system,” Gabriela Pereyra, the Beginning Farmer Program manager at GrowNYC, told NationSwell. “A system that is resilient, it must have diversity.”
The lack of diversity impacts communities in all kinds of ways. It means individuals living in New York City, one of the world’s most diverse populations, don’t always have access to fresh produce used in traditional recipes. It means young people don’t have mentors in a potential career path. It means that communities are disconnected from farmers, and therefore, disconnected from their food.
So GrowNYC set out to narrow the diversity and age gap between farmworkers and farm owners. “We needed a new generation to bring food to the city,” Pereyra said.
The nonprofit knew there was a population of young, diverse farmworkers, but because many were immigrants, they lacked the knowledge to navigate the U.S. farm system and establish their own business, explained Pereyra.
In 2000, GrowNYC launched the New Farmer Development Project, a program to support Spanish-speaking farmers interested in starting their own agricultural business. A decade later, the program merged into what’s now called FARMroots. FARMroots offers both technical assistance for established farmers and a Beginning Farmer Program, open to any farmer with less than 10 years of experience.
While any new farmer, regardless of background, can apply to the Beginning Farmer Program, the nonprofit is focused on cultivating a diverse group. This year, 40 people applied who immigrated from seven different countries and speak 12 different languages.
The program is structured as an eight-week course where the 15 accepted farmers will learn every aspect of farming: Finances, land ownership, crop rotation, tractor driving, greenhouse management and land access are just a few they’ll delve into.
After the course, GrowNYC pairs the novice farmers with an established farmer. They’ll spend 200 hours on the established farm and gain firsthand experience.
“We’re not only talking about farming. We are creating the new generation,” Pereyra said. “A new generation that speaks about diversity, equity, community.”
Kama Doucoure is one of those farmers. After completing the Beginning Farmer Program in 2017, he launched his own farm this March.
Doucoure, who immigrated to the U.S. 12 years ago from Mali, Africa, had been farming since he was 6 years old, Pereyra said. But when he got to New York, he couldn’t find an entry point into farming. Instead, he worked “every single job you could imagine.”
Meanwhile, his community, which is largely West African Muslim, didn’t have the proper foods to celebrate religious holidays. Doucoure was connected with FARMroots, where he completed the Beginning Farmer Program. After, Pereya worked with him to find the right land and location for his farm — he now works in Saugerties, New York, a two and a half-hour drive from Manhattan.
As FARMroots developed its program, Chan was on a winding path to discovering her career in farming. She had initially planned to attend vet school but pivoted and earned a master’s in conservation science. She quickly learned that fieldwork wasn’t a long-term career route for her, so she went to London to volunteer at an urban farm. “And that’s when I kind of put all of these pieces of the puzzle together,” she said.
Chan loved being outdoors. She loved eating. And farming was at the crossroads.
She came back to the U.S. and started an apprenticeship in Hudson Valley. She then worked as a farmer and educator at Randall’s Island Park Alliance. There she met her boss, an alumnus from the FARMroots program, who suggested she apply.
“They really helped take what is the fuzzy farm dream and bring it into focus,” Chan said.
Chan still works on an urban farm in the city, and once or twice a week she takes the subway to Astoria, Queens, where she grows produce for a local chef in a backyard.
In raised beds, she’s grown four types of basil and Korean perilla. Along the entryway to the garden, Chan points out a Thai eggplant and bright red chili peppers.
“Really this year zero for me is to kind of try varieties and figure out what grows well here, what’s productive, what tastes good and just kind of refine my skills with certain things,” she said. She plans to spend 2020 on a production farm or completing another apprenticeship.
Her long-term goal is to feed the community. She plans to find three to five acres of farmland in Hudson Valley where she can bring produce to the Asian communities across New York City.
“There’s not really many people selling the types of vegetables that are things I would see in my household growing up,” she said. So she’s taking the first step to change that.
Chan has the group of farmers she worked with in London to thank, as well as her boss on Randall’s Island.
But she also has GrowNYC to thank, too. Chan and Pereyra have stayed connected as Chan begins the hunt for farmland.
“You’re not doing it for you,” Chan said. “You’re doing it for the community.”