Growing the Foundations of Land Justice

HEAL Platform For Real Food Toolkit Series – Member Dispatch: Minnow

Plank 9 – Promote Sustainable Farming, Fishing and Ranching

We spoke with Mai Nguyen, a farmer and co-founder of HEAL member Minnow, which works to secure land tenure for farmers of color in California.

Trained as a geographer, Mai began their career studying soil and the atmosphere as a climate scientist. After working in labs and on climate models, they grew tired of documenting how we’re destroying the planet and made a shift to actively working on climate mitigation through farming, advocacy, and organizing California’s first worker cooperative farms. They shared with us their experiences farming with hope amid the climate crisis, and the success they’ve had nourishing their community while building ecological food systems.

Watch a clip of our interview with Mai

Mai Nguyen: As a farmer, I’ve experienced floods as well as successive seasons of wildfires, trying to harvest in thick, toxic smoke, trying to get my grains to the grain cleaner in the smoke, only to have a giant fire start by the grain cleaners and have my crops rot in the warehouse as they deal with closures because of epic, unprecedented fires.

What gives me hope is that I know that it is a long game. I’ve seen how my work has come to fruition on the farm. Over the past 10 years, I’ve been trialing different heirloom varieties of wheat, rye, and barley, these rare seeds that aren’t available through our corporate-dominated and propertied seed system, and adapting them to California’s climate. Rather than pumping from our already depleted water sources, I rely only on rainfall. I build soil nutrients through rotations with sheep for grazing and  intercropping with legumes to build the nutrients on site, rather than importing synthetic fertilizers, or even organic fertilizers that can seep into our waterways and create toxic imbalances for our riparian systems.

These varieties are six feet tall, compared to commodity grain, which is only about a foot tall. That means they capture six times more carbon than commodity grain. That grain stock is all carbon from the atmosphere being captured. Additionally, they send down deeper roots into the soil, such that we can hold more water in the soil, while capturing more carbon and building more soil organic matter.

When we experienced these periods of extreme drought in 2021, I was one of the few grain farmers in the entire western United States who had a crop. I had the same yields and the same quality, while other producers who were using conventional systems had to totally cut down their crops.

I am really proud to be able to provide food during our multiple overlapping crises, both of climate change and of the pandemic, when there were shortages and lack of distribution of flour into our grocery stores. I was able to get my flour out to communities via my flour share and the small-scale mills and businesses that I work with. It’s examples like that that help me feel optimistic in this time of climate doom. 

Read more about Mai’s farming work… 

Photo courtesy of Minnow

What are some of the unique challenges in growing and processing these heirloom wheat varieties, while also competing in a cereals market dominated by large commodity corporations?

Mai Nguyen: One challenge of growing grain for our foodshed is the lack of a robust regional supply chain. After I harvest my grain, I need it to be cleaned. When I started farming, there were five seed cleaners in the state that could take grain. In the past 10 years, we’ve been reduced down to just one. That is because of the corporate consolidation of seeds and not allowing farmers to save seed. For the one cleaner, it takes six hours round trip to get there and get the product back. And there are so many people relying on that place, that they have a backlog. Even when I received stuff back, I’ve had to get things cleaned twice, because they’re not built for grain cleaning. 

We have two mills functioning in the state that can service coastal California, and only one of them produces whole grain. And there’s only one mill in the whole state that will produce whole grain flour, and it’s in Los Angeles. 

Even just to get the grain to customers, or to bakeries that might have their own small mill for their own in-house production, it’s so challenging to get a thousand pounds or 5,000 pounds of grain somewhere, because corporate consolidation has destroyed all the smaller-scale distribution mechanisms. If you’re small, just trying to get those volumes somewhere efficiently and economically is really challenging.

At this point, I’m trying to create my own vertically integrated system on the farm. What I really need in order to do that is land. I have been leasing for the entire time that I’ve been farming, but at this stage I need to have secure land tenure that enables me to continue trialing the 70 varieties of seed that I have. I also need the space to have a facility that’s rodent-proof and weatherproof, to clean the grain, store the grain, and mill the grain, and to modify those facilities to be appropriate for those operations.

It’s clear to me what I need, and for me to get there seems like a great gulf that we are trying to address through Minnow, People’s Land Fund, and with our partners. 

You’re a co-founder of Minnow. Can you share how that came about? 

Mai Nguyen: Minnow started as a land justice organization that I co-founded with Neil Thapar. I came from a journey of farming and having my own land insecurity issues, as well as developing immigrant-owned agricultural cooperatives. I found that the successful farms in those cooperatives were ones that owned land. The ones that faced the greatest business challenges were the ones with land insecurity, though they were greatly helped by being in a cooperative. They had all this experience farming, but without land and land security, it was challenging for them to use their agricultural practices for the benefit of the land or to make long-term decisions. It also affected them and their families and their family planning, because of not knowing if they would be able to stay in that land, or even in that community.

We have so many of the answers to our societal issues, climate change, and social inequality, but we, especially farmers of color, need to be a part of our political infrastructure in ways that give us place and power to influence these issues. 

Building that power is really key for us to transform our conditions. Through interacting with farmers and doing co-op development work, what I was hearing again and again is that people needed land.

As the child of refugees, displacement and resettlement and making a home in a new place have been long standing questions for me. In these forums that I was in, representing farmers and democratic communities, I was constantly hearing people say, “Yes, we know that people need land, and it’s so challenging, and I don’t know how we’re going to do racial equity and also address Indigenous sovereignty,” and people would just step away. I was like, “We keep saying that we see the same problem, and we can no longer ignore it.” That’s how Minnow came to be. We wanted to address this challenge head on and no longer be afraid of it, and to try to forge a way forward where we all have place, we all have food, and we all belong.

Photo courtesy of Minnow

What policies have you and your partners and Minnow been working on around land tenure, supporting farmers of color, and promoting regenerative farming?

Mai Nguyen: First and foremost is this recognition that this land has been stolen, and that the original inhabitants are still here. We are working on land rematriation. One of our projects, Kai Poma, was focused on engaging with the state of California, in particular with Caltrans, the transportation authority for California, to return land that they were managing back to Indigenous tribes.

Minnow played a part in that, thanks to the support of First Nations Development Institute and the California Tribal Fund who invited us in to provide legal support to write legislation. That is the first time the state of California is returning land to tribes. That sets a historical precedent for our state to continue this process of land return. 

In terms of work with farmers of color, the California Farmer Justice Collaborative passed the Farmer Equity Act in 2017, which created a state definition for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. This was the first time the state recognized these groups of people as distinct. By creating that policy, it’s now possible for other policies to create set asides and programs for farmers of color. That policy work is a precursor to Minnow, and it has been essential for being able to even have any policies that specifically benefit farmers of color.

The Farmer Equity Act has also been influential in getting other states to try to adopt that language, especially as federal policies that we relied on for those definitions have been politically contentious and threatened. It’s really important for the state level to also have this definition. We use that in trying to advance policies and support different government advising entities that have been formed, such as the Farmer Equity Advisory Committee to the California Department of Food and Agriculture 

You also support farmers directly with land access. Can you tell us about that?

Recognizing that policy comes after grassroots action, our work has been more focused on trying to get people land however we can. With the People’s Land Fund, we   purchased over a hundred acres in Watsonville for a group of farmers. 

The People’s Land Fund is a collaboration of six organizations that proactively fundraises to help farmers purchase land. We initially came together at the beginning of the pandemic to create the California BIPOC Farmer and Land Steward Relief Fund – which redistributed short term, emergency relief funds to farmers of color. 

I had talked to over 130 farmers in that immediate shutdown time. Everyone was freaking out about loss of markets, loss of labor, and loss of money – but we knew that this relief work was temporary and what we really needed to do was to support farmers in their long term stability – and long-term stability requires land. 

We know that farmers are not going to be able to throw down a down payment for a $2 million property the way that a venture capitalist can. How can we leverage our connections and resources to enable farmers to have that competitive advantage? That’s how the Land Fund came about. We had this opportunity in Watsonville, thanks to connections that HEAL Member Kitchen Table Advisors, one of the members of People’s Land Fund had, to purchase land off-market, and for us to then hold the land and connect with the farmers to be on it.

And the transaction itself was made possible through funding from the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Fund, which lowered the purchase price, and using a portfolio of capital from grants and loans allowed a group of farmers, who were previously farm workers, to own that land together.

We’re trying to leverage our collective power and our privilege of being connected to philanthropic and investing organizations to build that financial power for farmers. For racial equity, which means a redistribution and activation of power, there is a financial piece and an ownership piece, and it’s linked to policy and sociopolitical power that we need to build.

For folks who are in California, or are farmers and specifically farmers of colors, what action or collective action can they take in support of your work and land justice?

Mai Nguyen: We talk about the foundations of land justice being about land return. First and foremost, we need to give back land that has been stolen from Indigenous peoples. That is dependent on our government interacting with tribal governments.

In addition to the learning and unlearning process that we need to do to support Indigenous sovereignty, we need to hold our government accountable and vote for the people who will support land back and introduce policies that advance land back and Indigenous sovereignty. 

Find out whose land you’re living on. There are 109 federally-recognized tribes In California, as well as many other tribes that have not been federally recognized or had their federal recognition terminated through the California Rancheria Termination Acts of the 1950s and 1960s. Some Native tribes and nations accept donations or outside support (including land donations and land taxes).

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