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Regional Interests

Growing Asian Produce Helped This Sonoma Farmer Connect With Her Taiwanese Heritage

(Photo by Sarah Deragon; design by Rebecca Kao)

KQED’s Eating Taiwanese in the Bay is a series of stories exploring Taiwanese food culture in all of its glorious, delicious complexity. New installments to the series will run daily from May 19–28.

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]cross from a few sheep bleating and baaing behind a fence, rainbow pride and Black Lives Matter flags softly wave in the wind. A “Stop Asian Hate” poster is propped against a wall. Around the corner, the property opens up to a 1.5-acre farm filled with trellises of bitter melon, rows of napa cabbage, and hoophouses holding dozens of other Asian herbs and vegetables. All signs, perhaps, that this is a farm with a strong sense of its own identity. 

But when Leslie Wiser founded Sebastopol’s Radical Family Farms in 2018, she didn’t necessarily feel very connected to her Taiwanese and Chinese heritage. Over the course of the past three years, however, she has become one of the go-to local farmers for Asian produce—and she’s learned a lot about her roots in the process. Wiser runs the farm, and her partner, Sarah Deragon, grows flowers there. It is, as Wiser describes it, a chemical-free, low-till small farm specializing in Asian heritage vegetables and herbs. Wiser says her Chinese-Taiwanese background informs her choices, and in turn, she is also giving back to the culture here in the Bay Area through farming, food and education.

“The farm has been great in terms of personal exploration of this side of me that I didn’t know about,” Wiser, who is in her early 40s, says. Her mom grew up in Taiwan as part of the generation of people who left mainland China during the Communist war (a group known, collectively, as “waishengren” or the “1949’ers”); her father’s side of the family is German and Polish-Jewish.

Growing up in the Midwest—in Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota and Indiana—Wiser says she never celebrated Chinese or Taiwanese holidays such as Lunar New Year. Her family did hold on to a few aspects of Taiwanese culture, including ordering a thousand copies of Fu Pei Mei’s popular cookbook from Taiwan in the early ’80s, and her mom sometimes cooked Chinese dishes. By and large, though, Wiser didn’t have much contact with the Chinese and Taiwanese sides of her identity in her day-to-day life. Before growing them herself, she had never even tried some of the vegetables on the farm, such as bitter melon. 

“[The farm is]…a way for me and my kids to hold on to our Asian heritage that has, for the most part, been assimilated,” notes Wiser, whose children have Chinese, Korean, Scandanavian, German and Polish-Jewish ancestry. 

As for the “radical” in the farm’s name, Wiser says that’s a nod to her family story: Her parents married shortly after the Loving Act of 1967, during a time when interracial marriages in the Midwest were not the norm. Wiser, who is queer, is mixed race, as are her children, and the farm takes an intersectional stance on social justice issues—hence all of the flags waving proudly out front.

Wiser (back right) started Radical Family Farms in part because she wanted to give her kids the experience of growing up on a farm. (Paige Green)

Wiser doesn’t think any of her Taiwanese family members were farmers, but there is a rich history of agriculture in Taiwan, from its tea farms to its lush fields of sweet potatoes, pineapples and rice. Her own path to farming was somewhat circuitous: The summer after her sophomore year in college, after taking a class on food and farming, Wiser worked on a farm in Alaska for one season, staying with a family with young children who also helped out on the farm. 

Though Wiser enjoyed the experience, she never envisioned that she would pursue farming as a career. “I never thought I could…have the land access,” she says. 

Instead, she finished college, then graduate school, and started working in digital media, marketing, animation and project management. After having children, though, she started to dream of raising her kids on a farm the way she’d seen that family in Alaska do. 

“It took years of thinking about it and wanting to do it,” Wiser says. She looked for land in the Midwest, but eventually moved to Sonoma, completing a master gardeners program there, and eventually found the three-acre farm in Sebastopol.

In the Bay Area, more small-scale, Asian American-run farms specializing in Asian vegetables have cropped up in recent years: Namu Farm led by Kristyn Leach in Winters, CA; Shao Shan Farm in Bolinas; and Mai Nguyen in Sonoma, who also founded the Asian American Farmers Alliance.

Wiser’s farm grows as many as 50 different crop varieties on the 1.5 acres that she currently uses: Japanese eggplants, Thai and Italian basil, si gua (aka sponge gourd or loofah), rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), kabocha squash, bitter melon, winter melon, sweet corn, Chinese broccoli, perilla leaves—and a lot more. Wiser is even experimenting with planting things that likely have never been farmed commercially in the Bay Area—red quinoa, a grain eaten by indigenous Taiwanese people, for instance. Most of the seeds are from Oakland-based Kitazawa Seed Company, which was started more than 100 years ago by a Japanese American man named Gijiu Kitazawa and specializes in Asian vegetable seeds. 

The farm reminds me of my wai po’s—my maternal grandmother’s—backyard trees in Southern California, as well as my parents’ backyard, where they planted Asian fruits and vegetables that were hard to find in markets here in the United States. For immigrants from Taiwan, these fruits—persimmons, guavas, longans and Taiwanese mountain apples shaped like bells—are reminders of home.

Radical Family Farms isn’t just a tribute to the farmer’s family ancestry—it’s also a business. It mostly operates under a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model during its May-through-November growing season. The every-other-week CSA produce and herb box is delivered throughout the Bay Area, with pickup points at many popular, Asian American–run restaurants. (There’s currently a waiting list to join.) Wiser’s partner, Sarah Deragon, manages a flower CSA box, which can be delivered together or separately with the produce.

Harvesting began this month, and Wiser and her small staff are busy checking on the seedlings, chasing away gophers and admiring some of the produce that’s already flourishing. In a matter of a few days, the gophers have eaten more than a dozen cabbage heads. “You can do your best to plan ahead but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way,” she says.

Quinoa seeds from Taiwan are among the Asian varietals grown on the farm. (Momo Chang)

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n many ways, Radical Family Farms’ exploration of Taiwanese identity has extended far beyond the borders of the farm itself. While the farm is only starting its third season, Wiser has already established working relationships with a number of Taiwanese and other Asian American restaurants in the Bay Area such as Lion Dance Cafe, Taiwan Bento and Good-to-Eat Dumplings, which all source from the farm and have become collaborators of sorts. (They are also CSA pickup points.) 

Oakland’s Good-to-Eat Dumplings specializes in handmade Taiwanese potstickers. Co-founded by Tony Tung and Angie Lin, the restaurant, based at Original Pattern Brewing in Oakland’s Jack London neighborhood, had been looking for locally grown, Asian produce to use for their Taiwanese-style pan-fried dumplings and gua bao. Instead of buying packaged fermented mustard greens, which are readily available at most Chinese markets, Good-to-Eat Dumplings ferments their own version using mustard greens grown on Radical Family Farms. The fermented greens are used in their pork belly gua bao, “one of the most famous Taiwanese street food staples,” Lin notes. 

Starting this year, the farm will sun-dry the mustard greens for the restaurant on new drying racks, an idea inspired by a Radical Family Farms CSA member, Henry Hsu.

“Through the partnership with Leslie, we learned a lot too,” Lin, an immigrant from Taiwan, says about figuring out which Taiwanese fruits and vegetables can grow in the Bay Area.

Christopher Yang, whose parents were born in Taiwan, began sourcing produce from the farm for his two Taiwanese-inspired pop-ups, Hén-zhi and El Chino Grande, in 2019. Yang turns the farm’s wax gourd, or winter melon, into a syrup by cooking it with sugar, then strains it into black tea. Or he’ll braise the winter melon with smoked shoyu dashi broth, serving it with a shrimp coconut leche de tigre. The relationship between restaurant and farm is “symbiotic,” Yang says. “I love to develop menu items with products [Leslie] is excited about.”

 

[dropcap]E[/dropcap]ven the farm’s CSA members get more than just a box of produce; they, too, have an opportunity to learn more about Taiwanese food culture. And here’s where the farm really puts “radical” front and center—where farming and activism intersect. 

Two years ago, for instance, members gathered for a reading of Ugly Vegetables, a children’s book by Grace Lin. The family-friendly event started with a land acknowledgment by Christine Su, a CSA member and one of the farm’s first customers, honoring the coastal Miwok and Pomo people, who still live in the area. “We are grateful to be settlers on this land, and also are responsible for stewarding it carefully while sharing our own cultural traditions,” Su told the audience. The book reading was bilingual in Mandarin—by Su, whose family is from Taiwan—and in English, by Adrian Chang of My Kitsune Cafe. After the reading, children had the opportunity to look at and eat some of the vegetables from the book. Many of the plants were labeled, so that kids could see how a bitter melon, for instance, grows on the vine. 

For many Asian Americans at the event, this celebration of vegetables not found in many Western grocery stores felt incredibly moving. “I never imagined sitting on a haystack, reading to kids in Mandarin about our vegetables, and then touring the same veggies like bitter melon and A-choy growing a few feet away, with the same kind of reverence I feel like is often reserved for heirloom tomatoes in the Bay,” Su says. “I really wish that I had had that growing up here in America.” 

Many of the CSA members, 70% of whom Wiser estimates to be Asian American, have become friends and co-conspirators. “We all want to learn more about our own Asian American culture and heritage,” Wiser says. 

There is a lot to learn. Not everyone knows how to cook a winter melon, after all. One CSA member, Linda Tay Esposito, a food business consultant and a cooking instructor, has created a monthly itinerary based on the seasonal produce that comes in the boxes, including a Zoom cooking class that started this month. “The CSA is a community; we’re all tied together through food,” says Esposito, who was previously the director of La Cocina’s Municipal Marketplace in SF’s Tenderloin district. 

Last year, the names of the vegetables in each box were written on beautiful hand-lettered cards created by artist Jess Wu, which were made available to CSA members on the farm’s website. The cards were written in pinyin, bopomofo (the phonetic alphabet used in Taiwan) and Chinese characters, and some were also translated into Korean, Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese. CSA members also get access to a website full of recipes, many of them submitted by fellow customers, such as Chinese sweet and spicy pickles and winter melon soup.

The produce from one of last year’s CSA boxes, each vegetable labeled with its Chinese name. (Sarah Deragon)

While most of the farm’s focus is on the family’s Asian roots, Wiser is also exploring her father’s ancestry. She lived for some time with her paternal grandparents in Indianapolis, Indiana. She saw how her grandmother, an immigrant of German and Polish-Jewish ancestry, yearned for her own homeland—the way she shopped for vegetables, baked goods and pantry items that were tied to her culture. “I learned sourcing from my grandmother,” Wiser notes.

Last season, Wiser began planting varieties of gooseberries, currants and kohlrabi in honor of her grandmother, who passed away in October before she could taste the fruits of her granddaughter’s labor. When I visited the farm in April, Wiser showed me one of the gooseberry plants—waist-high scrubs that will eventually have little green orbs popping out. “I think my grandmother would be very proud.” 

Near the gooseberry bush are a few other berry plants that speak to the farm’s mission and identity: Sichuan peppercorns, with their prickly heat that helps form the foundation for Taiwan’s national dish of beef noodle soup, and sweet goji berries, whose medicinal qualities infused the soups my own mother made for me after I gave birth to my daughter—part of a rich tradition of taking care of each other through food.

Momo Chang is a freelance writer based in the East Bay and the alumni coordinator for Oakland Voices, a project of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. Follow her on Twitter @_momo_chang.

Copyright 2021 KQED