Two Acres at a Time —
Kristyn Leach of Namu Farm
Interview by: Eugene Kan
Audio by: Eugene Kan
Photos by: Eugene Kan
Interview by: Eugene Kan
Audio by: Eugene Kan
Photos by: Eugene Kan
Namu Farm is a quaint two-acre property located an hour and a half outside of San Francisco. In a time when the topic of food and industry generally focuses on scale and size, a visit to the farm is a timely reminder of where our food comes from. The whole operation is overseen by Kristyn Leach, an unexpected representation of the modern-day farmer who aims not only to produce honest, ethical food, but also empowers communities through narratives of food and experience. As a Korean-American adoptee, some of the crops that grace the rows of the farm were not part of her upbringing, but their existence has allowed her to gain a very unique insight into a heritage that was never second nature.
Namu Farm exists as a partnership between both Kristyn and Namu Gaji, a brother-run restaurant group that also includes the more casual dining establishment known as Namu Stonepot. The two have been staunch supporters of revisiting what farming means today and willingly absorbing all the challenges that have come along the way.
A few hours spent shadowing Kristyn with the bright sun beating down overhead yielded some fascinating insights into the complexities of not only how our food makes its way to the table, but also how food and ethnic culture have some positive externalities that help bring light to the stories of the otherwise voiceless.
At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.
Kristyn: There’s a fairly romantic notion of what it’s like to run a small family farm. And just through the years of even working on other people’s farms and working with other young people who were kind of curious about going into this industry, it is sobering pretty fast. Once you actually get out there and see that it’s not all just romantic Instagram pictures of like being around pretty plants and eating delicious food. Just being beholden to do something whether you feel like it that day or not. If you’re not feeling well, if you want to stay out late, it’s like your life is really governed by your farm.
Eugene: I had just landed in San Francisco from an early morning flight and I was immediately struggling to find my bearings.
Eugene (VO): My first task was to get a rental car and leave the mecca of tech for a small, quaint farm some 90 minutes away. I’m not used to driving anymore, let alone solo so It was a long and lonely trip from San Francisco to the town of Winters, California.
As I struggled to stay awake, Google Maps led me to a Wal-greens pharmacy along the way. I went straight for the drink section to pick up a sugar-free energy drink to keep me alert. I then stumbled into the snack aisle and deliberated over a slew of protein bars and cookies. It’s ironic I was fueling my body with these very processed products that run counter to the origins of food, which emanates from the ground and is often immediately edible in its raw, unprocessed state.
As I hopped back into the driver’s seat, I was uncertain of what the next few hours would yield.
After a series of turns on a back road and the passing of a crew of cyclists, I pulled up to Namu Farm. Just an hour and a half ago, I was side-by-side with Ubers and billboards for tech start-ups. Here it was quiet, peaceful, almost eerie despite the abundance of the bright sun beating down overhead.
After searching for a sign of human life, I finally bumped into Kristyn Leach. In all honesty, I had no idea who I was meeting and what they looked like. As one of Kristyn’s partners, Dennis Lee of Namu has said, Kristyn does not fit the profile of a typical American farmer. He couldn’t be more right.
Kristyn: My name is Kristen Leach and I am a farmer in California.
Eugene (VO): Kirsten heads up Namu Farm, a joint initiative between herself and Namu Gaji, a modern Asian-American restaurant run by three brothers that also includes several sister restaurants known as Namu Stonepot who would play host to our MAEKAN and InterTrend Unexpected Connections dinner that evening.
Here at Namu Farm, they supply both Namu’s various restaurants as well as a growing number of chefs. The farm has a unique angle of focusing on various East Asian crops. These crops are critical to a community that finds comfort in linking authentic food with identity and history.
For Kristyn, she was adopted into an American family after being born in Daegu, South Korea. Like many Korean-American adoptees, including MAEKAN co-founder Alex Maeland, food represents a stepping stone to getting acquainted with a culture that feels both foreign and close.
Over the course of the next two hours, I would have all my curiosities around food culture, farming, and the relationship between food and identity answered through Kristyn’s sharp insights. For somebody who spends time willingly in isolation, these moments devoid of interaction and even music allows one to really crystallize their thoughts.
Eugene: How did you originally get into the world of farming?
Kristyn: I just had an opportunity to work on small-scale farms when I was younger in Washington where I was living and I really liked it. I liked being outdoors. I liked working with plants and then at a certain point decided to try to apply myself and take it a little bit more seriously.
Eugene: So maybe you can talk a little bit about where we are right now.
Kristyn: So we’re in a town called Winters, which is in sort of Northwestern part of the Sacramento Valley and it’s about an hour outside of the Bay Area but it’s really hot. We’re in a really beautiful kind of watershed along a creek called Pitta Creek. It’s just really rich soil here. Just really beautiful landscape.
Eugene: Over the course of this morning, I’ve been following Kristen a little bit through her daily process and what I found most interesting was the way you approach this. It’s not mechanical. It’s very much a relationship between you and what you’re doing versus.
Automation anything like that, so maybe you can talk a little bit about why this type of approach is what you’re interested in and why you’ve decided to go about it this way.
Kristyn: From a selfish standpoint, it was just something that gives me a series of really robust relationships because I get to know all the plants that are growing on my farm in this really close way because I just observe them in ways that are intentional and unintentional I get to notice things that are not about just purely visual acuity and I think in terms of being a commercial farmer, it translates into into the quality of the produce as well just because you’re noticing how the quality changes or how it’s not just like there’s four seasons.
There’s each week and each day can feel like a different season depending on how the plant responds to what’s happening.
Eugene (VO): Kristyn is often working in the fields alone. What I witnessed with this zen-like approach where the repeatable actions of picking are met with deep thinking around uncertainty. The uncertainty is often elements out of her control whether its pests, the weather or simply figuring out the looming socio-economic challenges of the food supply.
This results in a rather intimate relationship with her crops, which like the perilla leaf are far more complex than just being voice-less plants.
Eugene: Yeah, what are things that you start to pick up on that are beyond just maybe the obvious aesthetical?
Kristyn: For instance, the herb were sitting by the Korean perilla. You know, it’s a really broad leaf and so by nine o’clock, by the time you arrived, it was already quite hot out and so with large leaf plants like that, their conservation method is to shut down the pores on the surface of their leaves so that they don’t transpire water, which both saves water and the ground and it prevents the plant from being too stressed.
So when we’re picking that herb, we just would never pick that past 9 o’clock in the morning because of that reason of knowing kind of what the plant is experiencing in relationship to environmental factors and what that translates to is better flavor because if we pick it at the right time, its essential oils are all circulating, the flavor is a lot stronger, and then it also keeps in a refrigerator much better. And so if we pick it at the wrong time, and its vascular system essentially is trying to shut down and go dormant, then the leaf just can’t really recover. We could dunk it in ice water. It just won’t be as robust as it could be.
Eugene: From a flavor perspective, I think ultimately a lot of people are when they’re buying stuff, they’re buying it because it tastes good. How does the current farming system prevent maximum flavor and whatnot? For someone that is less familiar with how that whole process works and off-the-vine ripening.
Kristyn: Sure, yeah. I mean I think because of how industrialized and globalized our economy is at this point and how cheap people expect food to be mechanization has played such a huge role in shaping our agricultural practices. And so a lot of plant breeding really revolves around what is going to keep the longest, what’s going to be able to be shipped across the country.
So it’s for these networks that are possibly sending fruit and vegetables thousands of miles before it even sits in a refrigerator. And so you have examples like Eastern shipper, Western shipper, long shelf-life cantaloupes, where it’s basically trying to get a musk melon that can sit off the vine for eight weeks at times.
When you think about just what that means in terms of good flavor is the production of sugars and these interesting kinds of micronutrients. It’s really about a kind of complex biochemistry. And we’re trying to essentially flatten that for the sake of our system that we’ve built.
Eugene: I know that before I remarked that when you’re picking, you’re not really listening to music. No podcast, nothing. What are some of the big things are big ideas that you’re thinking about? (Kristyn laughs) That’s the thing I would say. I’ve noticed over the course of even just knowing you from the last hour and a half, two hours, there’s a lot of like interesting things that you’re thinking about that maybe are personal. Maybe it’s more. More in the whole vein of farming in general and like how I guess our sort of global culture and society interacts with the world of farming and our expectation around food.
The solution seems so complicated to try to parse out, but food costs are going to go up just because of the cost of fuel and the insecurity around peak oil and if industrial agriculture keeps consolidating the way it is, even if food prices go up, it doesn't mean that that price ends up going to better wages for workers. It might just mean it's creating a further wealth divide in terms of who owns those corporations.
Kristyn: Yeah. I mean sometimes it’s not like I consider myself a very profound thinker, but I think that to be farming and have the liberty to farm the way that I have the opportunity for me to just — one of the great gifts is that it feels like this real invitation into a really different cosmology. You’re just at a different pace, time moves really differently when you’re on the farm. You get an invitation to just pay attention and so sometimes, it’s like just trying to be as present as possible and quiet my mind to just notice all the things and all the lives that are being lived in this space.
But certainly, it’s also really repetitive work and so I still have a tendency to just zone out or try to think about any number of what’s happening in the world or personal life. I try to not really read the newspaper in the morning just because it feels really distracting or distressing.
Eugene: Every morning when you wake up and you come here, you mentioned that you’re always very grateful and you’re excited. What are the things that bring excitement? To this process and just being on the field.
Kristyn: I mean just seeing the fact that things are so dynamic, things change so quickly and so being busy every single day — this time of year, especially — it’s this kind of turning point in the season and we’ve just surpassed the crest of our production where everything is kind of at its optimal peak. Now you just see things progressing to wanting to make their seeds and set themselves up for their next generation. The days are shortening again. So again, you get to just really pay attention and be devoted to two acres. It’s very small, but you could just notice something. What I appreciate is any organic farmer can think about is just sometimes we’ll see a lot of different pests. Right now, all the tomato fields in our area just got harvested and mowed under, so there’s this explosion of whitefly, which is a pest related to that type of tomato culture.
So now a lot of our plants are covered in these white flies because they’ve lost their habitat and food source, so they’ve migrated. But even though it’s slightly stressful because they can have a negative impact on plants, I also after all this time know that even though there’s a surge of them right now, it’s only a matter of time till I see another insect population pop up because their food source is now arrived.
So getting to see cyclical things. And to know that when I was younger, I would get so stressed out and I try to fix what I perceive to be the problem. And now I just feel like I’m not the only one responsible for that problem and the only one responsible to fix it. After years of spraying little homemade insect remedies or deterrents and then finally knowing that it just takes the arrival of ladybugs and mantises has just been a nice shift.
Eugene (VO): The one point that Kristyn made really opened up my eyes to an alternative way of thinking. The attempt to forcefully solve a problem in farming can result in unexpected and unintended outcomes elsewhere. Instead, a better approach is to simply improve and prepare as best you can knowing this season’s crop are part of what will hopefully be an infinite number of seasonal yields.
One thing you mentioned in the world of farming. It’s something that you aim to do year after year, season after season. So how does that reflect on how you look at things around you because it’s not about “oh, I’m going to get the best harvest and I’m going to try to improve upon it.”
It’s more about that consistency in that long-term approach. I think a lot of people get caught up in exponential growth or always growing at this unsustainable rate, but farming itself, there’s obviously a lot of things that come into the mix, but like from your perspective, it seems like it’s more about aiming to do things right sustainable and continue this.
Kristyn: Yeah. Definitely. I mean, I think that because we do a fair amount of just seed saving and in that process of seed saving, we’re always trying to select for the best kind of plants in a population.
My parents joke around that even when I was growing up in New York when I was a kid, I told them I wanted to be a farmer and they thought it was very weird. When I was younger, I think when I thought about it, I probably just had a very All-American sort of version in my mind. I was like, 'I'm going to have pigs and I'm going to have a grain silo.' So I guess that's that sort of evolved. I didn't realize how much it would be personally transformative.
Eugene: Can you explain seed saving for those that aren’t familiar?
Kristyn: Yeah. I mean, it’s just the practice where most of our vegetable crops are annual and so they have a phase where they’re growing vegetatively or maybe fruiting and then they will be trying to mature that seed. And so instead of buying new seed from year to year from another company, we just save all of our own seeds and with that, it does end up being reflected in their genetic code, this kind of attunement to farming practices. For us, seed saving is just like one very practical because we’re don’t have to buy more and two, it just affects us in a number of ways just because it means that with the plants we see doing the best, if we save the seeds from that, it means that next generation will most likely be able to thrive in our conditions better than plants that didn’t.
So it encourages you to think for the long term too, to think of your other question because sometimes there will be like a disease or a pest pressure. When you’re seed saving, in some ways a negative stimulus can be still a positive thing in the long run because if you have a large enough population and you see fifty percent of them die but fifty percent of them live, you can just be curious about why that other fifty percent made it when the other ones didn’t.
So through saving that seed, you can start to distill down. It lets me make different decisions too that I think for other farmers, it’s so much pressure when you have to monetize row by row: if I put melons in and then I start seeing cucumber beetles or something, if I know I have to make x amount of dollars from those melons, I might want to spray something or try to kill the cucumber beetles.
You get caught in that sort of trap because then it’s like you’re doing an action that will prompt action on the part of this other species. Like cucumber beetles then will have no choice but to evolve because they have the will to live. But if you let your melons be a little stressed out, if you take the hard road and just forfeit a bountiful crop in the long run, what you’re forcing is your melons to evolve rather than the insect, if that makes sense.
Eugene: Do you think that most people understand how much work goes into farming? How do you think our relationship with food would change if they understood the amount of work that goes into it? Because I think right now, there seems to be a disconnection between the price of food, how we view food, the people creating the food and is there some sort of new equilibrium if people understood this? Would be less food wastage? Would you buy less food etcetera? I’m just curious if there’s an opportunity to shift the paradigm or is it like you said, out of your control? Are there things you can personally do?
So it's for these networks that are possibly sending fruit and vegetables thousands of miles before it even sits in a refrigerator. And so you have examples like Eastern shipper, Western shipper, long shelf-life cantaloupes, where it's basically trying to get a musk melon that can sit off the vine for eight weeks at at times.
Kristyn: I would like to think that hearts and minds could change if they did work a whole day on a farm and I think there’s a fairly romantic notion of what it’s like to run a small family farm. And just through the years of even working on other people’s farms and working with other young people who were kind of curious about going into this industry, it is sobering pretty fast. Once you actually get out there and see that it’s not all just romantic Instagram pictures of like being around pretty plants and eating delicious food.
Just being beholden to do something whether you feel like it that day or not. If you’re not feeling well, if you want to stay out late, it’s like your life is really governed by your farm. So I think even just talking with Dennis and the Lee Brothers and staff at Namu, people who work with food all the time who have a deep understanding of food in their respective ways, they still got to learn a lot by seeing and volunteering on the farm and just seeing really what went into that.
Eugene: So what’s your exact relationship with Namu?
Kristyn: So we partner with them. Pretty much all of the produce that I grow goes to Namu and they figure out how to feature it. It’s like a huge portion of just the vegetables that they serve in their restaurants. Most importantly when I met them, it was about a more creative spark between us all, I think, and just thinking that in terms of each of our individual Visions, there was like a place where that can come together.
Eugene: What does it mean when you have a restaurant that you know this stuff behind me has a place to go. Versus the uncertainty of “oh, I need to bring this to a market and see if someone will buy it.” Does it change the way you grow, how the farm is operated?
Kristyn: Yeah, definitely. Because two acres I think sounds small, but it’s actually quite a lot of space and there’s a lot of food that you can grow within that space. And so I think for me, it’s like: within these two acres, it’s highly diversified. We have grown anywhere between like, 60 and 80 different crops each year. So within that, it lets us take risks like what I mentioned before of being able to work from a place of more curiosity.
Like, if something starts to go wrong, we don’t have to attack the problem in a way that only prioritizes short-term outcomes. We can see. Not always is it that linear, but sometimes you can just prioritize the long-term consequence and I think that comes from just knowing that because of how diversified we are, we can take a certain amount of calculated risks because we’ll certainly have enough food to bring them.
We have so many varieties that even if two or three crops go downhill, we still have just so much other stuff to supplement it. So I think just that diversity in general is good as a farmer. The risk sharing has been good and just sometimes, we’re growing a lot of things that are like Korean heritage crops and crops that are important to East and Southeast Asia. I think that even though the Bay Area is so diverse, when you’re working with crops that don’t already have a ton of established markets, can be slower to grow that business.
And so I think with Namu, the thing that’s been great is they’re just willing to try anything and they’re so talented and creative that even if they’re not familiar with an ingredient, they can taste it and think about it and figure out what to do with it. So I think that can help, really shine a light on ingredients that are maybe specific to different ethnic communities, but give them this nice stage to talk about their history but also provide them in an interesting context.
Eugene (VO): As a Korean-American adoptee raised in Long Island, New York, Korean food didn’t factor into Kristyn’s life growing up. It was only after heading over to Washington state where she really began to embrace and understand Korean ingredients and cuisine. This bond has provided an opportunity to connect with her culture in a way that is approachable but with a lot of complexity and nuance as you go deeper.
Eugene: Here’s the way that I view the farm itself. There’s a very deep philosophical-like thought process behind what you’re trying to do here. And what you just mentioned about different ethnic crops or what not. What are things that you want people to pull away from an experience with this farm? Not necessarily being here, but maybe trying something that came from the farm or going through Namu as a medium to try things they had never tried before.
Kristyn: I think that the most exciting thing to me is having now built some Korean community around the farm as in the way people would light up to see these crops growing. And for me, I didn’t grow up with a lot of these crops. I learned about them once I was already a farmer and once I was interested in growing these plants. But it brings up a lot of nostalgia or sentimentality that has been probably the most compelling thing that I’m like, “oh, people just really love these things because it’s really tied to their memories or fondness for family and traditions.”
So that’s been the most exciting thing. I think then also to see it not be held in just a really static form. Namu being really innovative is exciting because even if something’s familiar to you or not, they’re usually presenting it in a way that’s still kind of innovative and interesting.
So I think everybody gets to have this process. Maybe something that’s a little bit more esoteric is just thinking about conversations I’ve had with different types of Asian Americans. For me being an adoptee, there’s always a tension for me of what makes me Korean sometimes when I’ve talked to people about that, whether they’re adopted or just like second or third generation, there is just always that slight tension that you’re holding.
That’s been the remarkable thing to think about the opportunity that food presents. It’s that you don’t have to have everything just enshrined in that tradition and think that tradition is only one thing. So to give people room to not essentialize their experience or try to just create a box where this is how you fit into this mold but to loosen that grip a little bit and let things be dynamic. It’s been a good opportunity where people get to see these crops in and out of a certain context and then. Those crops are adapting to a new place. So it kind of gave us all license to like also adapt to that new place.
When you're seed saving, in some ways a negative stimulus can be still a positive thing in the long run because if you have a large enough population and you see fifty percent of them die but fifty percent of them live, you can just be curious about why that other fifty percent made it when the other ones didn't.
Eugene: What is something about the farming world that you wish more people knew about?
Kristyn: I think that in some ways, I understand how living in this part of California, the cost of living is so expensive and I do believe that food access needs to really be addressed because food insecurity is such a problem. But the hard thing is that in a lot of ways, the onus is on Farmers to figure out ways to farm in a way that’s really responsible in relationship to climate change and farm in a way that is really good in our labor practices and stopping being so exploitative towards the workforce that grows your food and at the same time to have food be really accessible or cheap.
I think those things don’t really actually all work together. So for me, it’s just really hard where people are so conscientious and there’s so many challenges, but people don’t really understand that in rural communities, you’re experiencing the same things. Land access is so challenging for farmers. You look at who owns land in this country versus who leases land to grow food and there’s a lot of stark disparities. So I think there’s just a lot more complexity. Yeah, just the sheer economic challenge of having a small farm that I wish people took a little bit more time to really understand that it’s not farmers being greedy or wanting to only serve what are considered more upper and middle-class markets. A lot has to just sort of shift in terms of consumers who are able to kind of prioritize it a little bit more.
Eugene: What do you think would happen if the cost of the food we bought in the grocery store actually started to increase in price? What would that market look like? Would be less food wastage? More opportunity for farmers? Do we need to value food more, is what I’m trying to get at?
Kristyn: Yeah. I mean, I think we do need to value food more. But it just seems like there need to be multiple points of things lifted at the same time because even just with climate change with what’s happening right now, the cost of food is going up, but it’s still that the way that those impacts affect communities differently is so rooted in your economic status and class and that has to do so strongly with your race. And so if we don’t want that to continually be devastating in this type of violence towards the people that are most kind of vulnerable in our society, there’s just multiple levers I think that have to be pulled at the same time.
I think if the price of food just went up to accurately reflect it but other things didn’t shift, then for the most part we would just experience like more exacerbated issues like hunger and public health disparities, which I think would be devastating. So I don’t know. The solution seems so complicated to try to parse out, but food costs are going to go up just because of the cost of fuel and the insecurity around peak oil and if industrial agriculture keeps consolidating the way it is, even if food prices go up, it doesn’t mean that that price ends up going to better wages for workers. It might just mean it’s creating a further wealth divide in terms of who owns those corporations.
Eugene: Before you set out to be a farmer. What did you think you’d be like and what has been the reality?
Kristyn: My parents joke around that even when I was growing up in New York when I was a kid, I told them I wanted to be a farmer and they thought it was very weird. When I was younger, I think when I thought about it, I probably just had a very All-American sort of version in my mind. I was like, “I’m going to have pigs and I’m going to have a grain silo. And yeah, and so I guess that’s that sort of evolved. I didn’t realize how much it would be personally transformative.
Like I just thought like “oh, I like to do this. This is what I have done. This is what I’m capable of doing for work,” but I don’t think I realized how much it would change all parts of my belief system and relationship to processing my personal life and connect with other people. So yeah, I think probably everything is much more affected than I thought.
Eugene: After it was all said and done, I picked up a bucket of fresh herbs destined as gifts for that evening’s Unexpected Connections dinner and made the commute back into the city. What became clear was that in the face of a scale-focused world, there is room for small intimate purveyors such as Kristyn and Namu Farm who provide their take on farming. It goes beyond just putting out the cheapest food possible while being aware of the broader issues at hand.
Namu Farm and Kristyn are steeped heavily in the idea that putting food on the table can be just as much about the story as it is sustenance
if you’ve made it this far, here’s a part of the interview where Kristyn describes some of the crops they grow, including my favorite crop to hate, bitter melon.
What are the types of crops you grow here?
Kristyn: Yeah, there’s like Korean perilla week.
Eugene: That’s shiso, right?
Kristyn: Yeah, exactly. We have a couple of different kinds of perilla like a Japanese variety, a Korean red leaf variety, the kind of classic Korean one, bitter melons, yard-long beans —
Eugene: Who eats bitter melon in the U.S.
Who eats bitter melon
Kristyn: in the US? I would say mostly Asian people (Eugene: Over the age of 60.) over the age of 60, but some people I think if they grew up with it, they really
Eugene: I don’t mind it. I don’t mind bitter. Melon.
Kristyn: Yeah, I didn’t grow up eating it. But I really like it now and honestly because it the quinine in it is related to diabetes prevention and treatment, it has been getting a lot more attention just even dried as like a tea.
Eugene: I heard you aren’t supposed to have medication and bitter melon at the same time because it might be too extreme.
Kristyn: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s quite potent.
Eugene: I think should be when it tastes like that.
Kristyn: Yeah. I mean, it’s not joking around. Yeah, popcorn, there’s all these behind you is just like a quarter acre of just soybeans, cucumbers, melons.
Eugene: What’s the difference between corn and popcorn? Are there different varieties?
Kristyn: Yeah, there’s just different types of enzymes that are present in them. So yeah, popcorn versus something like sweet corn and then mostly different shape different culinary applications.
Eugene: Okay, cool. Well, thanks a lot for your time.
Kristyn: Thank you for coming out.
One of the great gifts is that it feels like this invitation into a really different cosmology. You're just at a different pace, time moves really differently when you're on the farm. You get an invitation to just pay attention and so sometimes, it's like just trying to be as present as possible and quiet my mind to just notice all the lives that are being lived in this space.