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 Leach, Namu Farm
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
— Kristyn Leach, Namu Farm