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This Asian American Farmer Wants to Create a Home for Rare Heirloom Asian Vegetables

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Farmer Kristyn Leach tends to crops in a tenant field in Winters, CA.
One of California's most prominent farmers, Kristyn Leach hopes to create a permanent home in Sebastopol for her work preserving Asian heirloom vegetables and seeds. (Alec MacDonald)

The Bay Area’s much-vaunted food scene depends mightily on California farmers — mainly for fresh ingredients, but also for inspiration. In fact, one farmer has inspired our local chefs so deeply that they are now rallying to return the favor: They want to give Kristyn Leach a home — and they want your help.

An agricultural nomad for nearly all her adult life, Leach has spent two decades tending land up and down the West Coast, from Olympia, Washington to eastern Alameda County. Eventually, she settled into a pair of primary commitments: supplying a delightful range of chili peppers, perilla, zucchini, roselle and radishes for chef Dennis Lee’s Namu restaurant group, and coordinating Second Generation Seeds, a growers’ collaborative for preserving heirloom crops of the Asian diaspora.

The nonprofit Community Alliance with Family Farmers named Leach 2021’s Ecological Farmer of the Year. People who know her well, however, don’t need awards to affirm Leach’s prominence as a bold visionary and botanical champion — and a foremost voice in the burgeoning movement of Asian American–run farms that are shining a spotlight on previously hard-to-find Asian heritage vegetables.

Packets of Asian vegetable seeds decorated with illustrations of each corresponding vegetable: lady choi, kamo, suyo long, gaeguri chamoe, roselle and cha jogi.
Second Generation Seeds preserves, adapts and breeds heirloom plants of the Asian diaspora, providing seeds for use by farmers and home gardeners. (Alec MacDonald)

Chef Steve Joo of Oakland’s Joodooboo, a long-time friend of Leach, accompanied her on a seed-sourcing trip to South Korea in 2014 and has witnessed her conscientious approach to farming over the years.

“The thoughtfulness and awareness, curiosity and intelligence that she engages with all of her plants, and how that is evident in the produce that she grows, is a constant reminder to me,” says Joo, who credits her with elevating “the level of mindfulness I have when engaging with the cooking process.”

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Leach’s reputation is firmly rooted, but her work is not: She has always labored on temporary tenant plots, perpetually facing uncertainty about which patch of dirt she might find herself on next.

Then last year, a Sonoma farmer turned her on to a more permanent option. In Sebastopol, an eight-acre parcel had become available, and the buyer would have to put the property to agricultural use under the legal mandate of an easement. Leach cobbled together a whopping $1.5 million in integrated capital and, after navigating assorted procedural tangles, prepared for a monumental personal and professional transition.

Unfortunately, that transition has now been put on hold. One of Leach’s funders recently decided to pull out, leaving her with a $200,000 hole to fill.

This snag threatens to derail a set of ambitious and multifaceted plans that build on the cutting-edge work Leach has performed thus far. Second Generation Seeds stands poised for a robust expansion on the new site, where the breeding of scarce or neglected varietals — such as frog melons or native Korean soybeans — could establish a living seed bank while anchoring a nationwide effort to test seed resilience. Leach has hopes of welcoming stewards-in-residence to the property, providing these guests with an intensive year of training in an immersive version of the remote Seed Fellowships she currently holds online for growers across the country. She also aims to ramp up production of herbs and vegetables, relying on a technique called natural farming that surpasses the environmental standards of organic certification. As she has in the past, she intends to regularly donate harvests to places like the Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Abuse.

Leach calls the endeavor the Gohyang Seed Campus.

A line of traditional Korean drummers perform a ceremony in an open field.
Leach (center) regularly welcomes community members onto her farm plots to celebrate Chuseok, a Korean harvest festival. (Dan Lee)

“We called it ‘Gohyang’ because that’s the Korean word for home and hometown,” says Leach, who was born in Daegu, South Korea, before joining an adoptive family on Long Island when she was an infant. She explains that with “an emo subtext,” the name “captures a sense of longing and a sense of return.”

On the tenant plots she’s farmed, Leach has made a habit out of hosting the fall festival of Chuseok, when Koreans come back to their gohyang for family memorials and harvest feasts. Marveling at how community members have so enthusiastically embraced her gatherings as a proxy for ancestral pilgrimage, she says, “That’s probably one of the more meaningful accomplishments of my life: to be able to have provided a space that people feel that connected to.”

If granted the opportunity to launch the Gohyang Seed Campus, Leach wants to continue providing such space for Chuseok and other community events. The welcome mat would always be out at her home — in a literal sense, as the property is where she would reside with her wife and two-year-old daughter.

Farmer Kristyn Leach holds her two-year-old daughter against a tree-lined backdrop.
Leach and her daughter share a tender moment. (Sana Javeri Kadri)

They may get the chance to move in after all, thanks to Leach’s culinary buddies, who have launched an online fundraiser to plug that $200,000 hole. The campaign has until May 12 to reach its target. To incentivize large contributions, a group of distinguished chefs and industry professionals has put forth a sizable list of donor perks, such as an edible garden consultation from Chez Panisse’s Spencer Huey, a cooking class with Henry Hsu of Oakland-based pop-up Oramasama Dumplings and a private dinner prepared by renowned restaurateurs Russell Moore (Camino) and Kelsie Kerr (Standard Fare).

Moore will also whip up appetizers for a fundraising party on Sunday, April 23, at Sister in Oakland. For a $200 donation, anyone can attend, although space is limited.

Joodooboo’s Joo is pitching in both a perk — tofu and banchan subscriptions from his shop — as well as additional appetizers for the party at Sister. Asked why people should join him in backing the cause, he says, “Kristyn Leach is someone who represents the best of who we are, and for someone like that, and a project that she’s dedicating her life to, she deserves some support.”

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The kick-off fundraising party for Kristyn Leach’s Gohyang Seed Campus takes place on Sunday, April 23, from 5–7 p.m. at Sister (3308 Grand Ave.) in Oakland. The deadline for the overall fundraising campaign is May 12.

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