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A Radical Farm’s Roots Stem From Revived Korean Heritage

Natural farming, practiced for generations in Korea, has a new home in Northern California’s public urban farmland.

Natural farming, practiced for generations in Korea, has a new home in Northern California's public urban farmland. (Photo: Namu Farm / Instragram)

Sometimes, finding your way home takes you to the other side of the world and back. That’s the journey that brought Kristyn Leach, a Korean American who was adopted as an infant, back to the country of her birth, and then home again to Namu Farm in the San Francisco Bay Area. Built on about an acre of Alameda County’s publicly supported urban farmland, her tiny farming venture has combined two farming cultures in a method of small-scale agriculture known as “natural farming.”

Originated in Korea but now spreading across the world through the ecological farming movement, natural farming eschews artificial inputs and pesticides in favor of homegrown fungi. It also favors natural irrigation methods, diversification of crops and “no till” harvests. Natural farmers often specialize in heirloom Asian vegetable varieties, such as boutique breeds of purple-leaf mustard and delicate bok choy. The experimental approach, practiced for generations across the Korean Peninsula and more recently in Hawaii, for both vegetables and animal husbandry, diverges sharply from monoculture, and even from conventional commercial organic farming.

Leach showcases her specialty produce at the avant garde Korean American fusion restaurant Namu Gaji in San Francisco. This arrangement provides a steady income stream and gives her the creative latitude to set aside commercial concerns and focus on growing innovation in urban America’s backyard.

And as part of a wave of 1980s adoptees who spent a childhood eating processed American food, Leach has unearthed her ancestral roots in the Korean countryside, where collectivized natural farms still form the heartland of the rural economy, and where indigenous cultural landscapes have resisted the ravenous spread of industrialized agriculture and the global commodities trade.

In this interview, which has been edited and condensed, Leach reflects on how the Namu Farm project embodies her hope for a new alternative form of farming and more importantly, a more inventive approach to fostering diverse, ecologically conscious foodways.

Michelle Chen: What’s different about your approach to small-scale agriculture, “natural farming?”

Kristyn Leach: It’s really centered around low-capital, low-to-no input, closed farming systems. I think the promising thing is that it’s a return to a kind of sustainable framework for farming just based on not having access to other synthetic fertilizers — things that predate the way that the industrial revolution infiltrated agriculture. What’s particularly exciting is that, in thinking about [natural farming’s] application to the future, it offers a little more of a hopeful perspective and forecast for food production, in terms of weathering climate change and depleted natural resources. For us in California, it’s about higher drought resistance and resilience.

When we started, I was drawn to the farming practices of Korea. In a certain way it was just based on personal interest, being Korean American; there was sort of an ethnocentric streak from the beginning. But definitely, in terms of my own learning process, from those Korean cultural foodways I certainly learned a lot about the different local cultivars available in Korea, and learned so much just through this process that I didn’t necessarily have in mind from the beginning of the farm.

My curiosity really sparked from that sort of ecological perspective, of how peasants maintained fertility for so long in a way that wasn’t really reliant on having a lot of money, basically. And how that could combat some parts of how the Green Revolution [the modern chemical-driven system of mass industrial farming] has functioned economically around the globe.

Through botany, I reverse engineered the experience of what it meant to be Korean. And I think that food, as this point of entry, was the main way I ever really seriously engaged with my own identity.

[Growing up on Long Island,] the most Asian thing we had in our household was probably instant ramen or something. And we’d get Chinese takeout in New York. Mostly spaghetti, pretty basic things.

How is this type of farming received in Korea?

It’s fairly different, just because of context. This style of farming doesn’t need to be reintroduced as a niche, marginal thing. For the most part, the general size and scale of farming has been smaller, subsistence plots that work collectively within regions, either for that region or for distribution throughout the Peninsula. And so, when I travel to Korea to talk with people who are adamant about practicing natural farming and preserving it, it’s still mostly appropriate for subsistence farming living. There’s not a really clear way to scale it up, because it’s very labor intensive.

There’s an underpinning to this approach to … natural farming, which I think encompasses a little bit of a different worldview, just in terms of not viewing agriculture [purely] as an extraction process.

Even for us to try to talk about collecting data [with other farmers], the perception of yield is a very narrow one. If we had a way to kind of talk about the other things natural farming yields, like the habitat for other species, the kind of robust ecosystems that develop from these systems that aren’t just purely about what we’re taking off of the field, then I think we would have a much more lively conversation [about food production]. But for now, the sheer pounds-per-acre [that we harvest] is honestly not the bottom line.

Could this practice of natural farming be scaled up to become a mainstream part of the food system?

In terms of this being scalable to feed the world’s population, it definitely couldn’t. I think that what it offers is just an urge to be a little bit more imaginative. And I think contextually it becomes more relevant when you think about tailoring it to different settings.

I don’t think I can make the case for you right now that this stands up to even industrial-scale organic farming, which many people wouldn’t entertain as a solution, anyway. But for me, I don’t really know at this point what really fits as a mass solution. Instead, I feel like there’s just going to have to be a lot of innovations in a lot of different ways on this local scale.

[Especially in the Bay Area, where there isn’t much farmland], I think having something that protects really small-scale microfarming ventures like this becomes increasingly important because we don’t really have the option of just producing whatever the most nutrient-dense per acre monoculture would be. We’ve got less than 100 acres of prime farming land to feed a population that’s reaching 2 million, just for this county alone. If we think about urban design policy values, think about how to not devalue that one- to 10-acre small farm, then I think there are ways that [natural farming] builds in a little bit more resilience.

But rather than establish a straightforward solution, part of your project is to get us all to think outside of the box, in terms of all these other systems that your type of agriculture calls into question, right?

I think that part of my excitement just has been that there has to be some criticism of the way we devalue things, because it’s attached to a really particular notion of efficiency. [In Korea, for example, using a village-based community-supported agriculture distribution system, the small farmers] just build a cooperatized network of small farms to suit the growing need as it develops. If I were going to want to meet more local demand, say, from people who want this type of produce, we would just end up trying to work with other farms that have an interest in this style of farming … and we’d probably form some sort of loose cooperative or collective of farms. So I like the ways that even the things that are limitations, that are maybe intrinsic to this practice of farming, make you start from scratch and think about designing a system that suits those values, and suits the type of integrity you want, instead of making this fit to be more commercially valuable each year.

[Some natural farmers in Korea] are concerned with the constant development of land, the lack of protection for land in small-scale agriculture, so that mirrors a lot of other places. The advent of industrial agriculture being exported to Korea has marked a way to keep people really enslaved by debt. A lot of people there understand those things. Farmers have really been at the forefront of a lot of social movements over the past few decades. As a teenager, that’s how I mostly started to learn about Korean farming, because of the role of Korean farmers in food sovereignty movements and anti-globalization movements. So when a Korean farmer killed himself in Cancun [at a 2003 protest], I was like, “Wow, that’s really impactful,” to think about what that signifies.

How would this practice apply to a typical crop that Namu would grow?

[The natural farming approach is] about trying to find low-capital ways of farming and saving on overhead … but it is also just about wanting a native ecosystem to come through, for that health and vigor to just feel present. Like, if you set foot on a farm, you want it to have this sense of being alive and cared for.

As a member of the Korean diaspora, do you feel your generation has something to impart, because you have grown up in a much more globalized world?

There’s a certain irony to feeling like such an outsider to Korean culture for pretty much all of my life, and then, through having this opportunity on the farm, feeling a very special duty and responsibility to the country where I was born.

There is something with most of the [Korean] farmers…. In their hearts they understand. They care about this reverence for land. It’s just really deeply part of the story of the Korean people. So it’s weird to have a really small farm, that’s maybe fairly trivial in its economic impact, but feels significant, in terms of just having this ability to be a placeholder for these other narratives, for the older seeds, and to just collect them and to care for them in a way that they wouldn’t be lost, and to nurture that.

Especially for people my age, there’s a sense of wanting to return to a … tradition or studying history, just because people are processing all the different ways of living in diaspora, being assimilated as young people. And so there’s this interesting opportunity from our place in the US to delve deeply into it, because what I noticed from talking to people in Korea is, they don’t have to question what makes them Korean. They don’t have to feel this existential burden that I think someone like me has probably held for most of my life. So it can be dynamic, it can go in all these directions. [There in Korea, cultural practices] will just continue on this trajectory, and whatever iteration it is 20 years from now, people will still know they’re Korean. Here, people are just really interested in learning tradition and keeping alive this dialogue about what it means for everyone to have that as part of their identity.

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