Chimney Sweep

How a Korean-American Farmer Is Sharing Her Heritage By way of Uncommon Seeds

Farmer’s wife Kristyn Leach wants talk about their delicious harvest last year. “Progress is good,” she tells me. By the way, that’s a big understatement. Kitazawa Seed Company, the retailer that sells Leach’s heirloom seeds, reports that sales have increased ten-fold.

“Your seeds are just flying out the door. It’s pretty phenomenal, ”says Maya Shiroyama, the owner of Kitazawa. “If she delivers her seeds within a few days, we have to reorder.”

But that wasn’t an overnight success. Leach has been working the land on Choi and Daughters, their small two-acre farm in Winters, California, since 2012. The farm has grown into a one-stop shop for Bay Area chefs, farmers, and gardeners looking to grow vegetables and herbs from Korea and East Asia. Today, Leach is hailed as one of the newest leaders preserving the 150-year legacy of Asian-American farmers in Northern California.

Born in Daegu, South Korea, Leach was adopted into an Irish Catholic working class family in New York. At an early age she was drawn to her grandmother’s huge garden and toiled on the property of the local community. Her days as a farmer stretched into adulthood, and soon she found herself all over the country, hopping around farms along the west coast. While interviewing for a job in agriculture in Bolinas, California, Leach met her mentor, Farmer Dennis Dierks of Paradise Valley Produce.

The two quickly bonded over their admiration for Korean natural farming, a sustainable practice that uses native microorganisms to enrich the soil instead of herbicides or pesticides. Dierks had first heard of this practice from a Filipino teacher, while Leach knew about it because she was studying her Korean ancestry. Working with Dierks, she says, “was probably the best step for me on my own farm.”

It wasn’t long before she decided to take root in Northern California. The Bay Area, with its diverse and large Asian-American population, provided the perfect ground for Leach’s later dive into Korean seeds. In fact, Leach is only the latest in a long line of Asian-American agricultural pioneers, many of whom made the area their home since the mid-19th century.

Kitazawa Seed Company has a long history of distributing rare seeds from East Asia. Courtesy Kitazawa Seed Company

Asian-American farmers have played an integral role in the history of agriculture in America, particularly in California. When the news of the gold rush spread in 1848, Chinese immigrants poured into Northern California. Some immigrants opened laundries and restaurants, but those from the Pearl Delta region in China, an agricultural hub, began working on local farms and growing vegetables and fruits in their mining camps.

However, the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Law in 1882 stopped most immigration from China and also hampered the west’s growing agribusiness. Farmers from Japan, Korea and the Philippines flocked to the Bay Area to fill the void. Like the Chinese farmers before them, they introduced their farming techniques and seeds to the California community. Today, the legacy of these farmers lives on in humble multigenerational farms and businesses like Kitazawa.

Oakland-based Kitazawa Seed Company, America’s oldest Asian vegetable seed company and the world’s largest distributor of Asian seeds outside of Asia, is one such company. In 1917, Gijiu Kitazawa began selling seeds from a warehouse in San Jose. His business, which offered an amazing selection of Native and Asian vegetables, grew into competing local retailers selling only a handful of popular seeds. When the American government forced him and the majority of the country’s Japanese into internment camps during World War II, business was dormant for nearly three years. But after the war, Kitazawa recovered with renewed energy. To reach customers all over the country, he began shipping seeds abroad, and the company soon gained a loyal customer base that still exists today.

When Leach moved to the Bay Area, Kitazawa inevitably appeared on her radar. As an adopted child who had little to do with Korean culture as a child, Leach marveled at Kitazawa’s elegantly illustrated catalog with its pictures of springy amaranth, bright yellow melons, and hearty beets. To test Kitazawa’s seeds, she placed her first order for Korea Perilla 10 years ago.

Refreshing perilla was the inspiration for Leach's work with Korean heirlooms.Refreshing perilla was the inspiration for Leach’s work with Korean heirlooms. Courtesy Kristyn Leach

Shiroyama, the current owner of the company, still remembers that order today. “Back then we were selling very few Korean vegetables,” says Shiroyama. “Your order was definitely focused on that, so it caught my eye.”

After her first encounter with Kitazawa, Leach wanted to try growing her own Korean seeds. Already a loyal customer, Leach partnered with Shiroyama to produce a batch of Korean chili seeds for the retailer. Today she continues to add new seeds to the Kitazawa catalog through her seed conservation collective Second Generation Seeds. Local demand for Korean seeds is higher than ever, and Shiroyama and Leach have been business partners, confidants, and big Perilla fans ever since.

On the phone, Leach lights up when she talks about Korean perilla, which is still her favorite plant. Many home gardeners seem to agree: it’s one of their best-selling seeds at Kitazawa. Perilla is a leafy green herb with a pungent taste that is often compared to anise and licorice. In Korean cuisine, the plant turns into a delicious pickled side dish or a refreshing wrap for grilled meat.

Leach’s Perilla experiments opened the door to further collaborations, this time with second-generation Korean-American chef Dennis Lee of Namu Gaji, a San Francisco restaurant group run by Lee and his two brothers. “She came through our front door with Perilla and of course we were super excited,” he says. “I know it was love at first sight.” Under the guidance of the Lee brothers, Leach began moving more Korean and East Asian vegetables from their farm directly into Namu’s kitchens.

This light apple melon is valued for its sweetness and crispness.This light apple melon is valued for its sweetness and crispness. Courtesy of second generation seeds

Whether it’s bright red chillies, yard-long beans, sweet chamoe or Korean melon, Leach takes pleasure in growing seeds that people associate with their heritage. On tours of her farm, Leach experiences how visitors experience nostalgic memories all the time. “When you see people stop and turn on their heels because they’re so happy to see or reunite with a plant,” she says, “their response is definitely the most rewarding.”

Leach himself took every opportunity to experience her own Korean culture. In 2015, Leach flew to South Korea on a mission – to learn everything about natural cultivation techniques from the experts. Her journey took her to see farmers and heirloom keepers who gave her a collection of seeds. Enthusiastic about sustainable farming in Korea and equipped with a new group of mentors, Leach flew back to California, determined to “grow and distribute many of these crops because they were connected with such interesting stories”.

Some of their seeds are valued for what they can produce, such as the wild Lady Hermit pepper, grown as the ideal base for fiery gochujang paste. Other Leach treasures for what they represent, such as the Sagwa Chamoe Apple Melon. These tiny, old melons were largely supplanted by other varieties during the Japanese colonial era and are considered a truly Korean specialty.

Leach sells both Lady Choi and Lady Hermit peppers.Leach sells both Lady Choi and Lady Hermit peppers. Courtesy Kristyn Leach

With nearly a decade of momentum behind it, 2020 was still a challenge for Leach and its operations. News of the pandemic in early March shook their restaurant product orders. Then terrifying California forest fires in late summer created an eerie orange sky over their fields. During this time, Leach has developed several new business models to keep their operations afloat. The farm introduced boxes for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), distributed invitations to virtual potlucks, and launched a range of agricultural education activities for children.

But it’s their seed preservation business that gets going. In quarantine, people seek control over – and meaning – over their food, often in the form of home gardening. “A customer left us a comment saying, ‘Thanks for the care, Second Generation Seeds. It’s time someone sold us relevance, ‘”recalls Shiroyama. “That was of course an extreme compliment to Kristyn. Anyone who is an experienced gardener definitely wants to try new things and be challenged. “

As she ponders 2020, Leach is hoping for her eight-month-old child to reaffirm her purpose on the farm, particularly her long-term investments in sustainable farming practices and seed conservation. “I hope when she’s old enough to stand and I tell her about the year she was born, she’ll tell me, ‘Wow, I can’t even imagine a world that’s so insane and so terrible. ‘”She says,” And I’m thinking about what it takes to get there. “

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