On a cold December morning in 2020, I sat in my childhood bedroom talking with New York farmer Christina Chan. Clad in a black knit hat and tan Carhartt jacket, her youthful face filled my computer screen as she told me her story.
“I spent a lot of time pushing away being Chinese, and farming is kind of my way of reconciling that. As I grew older, I realized, I don’t have to choose one over the other. I can be both Chinese and American.”
Chan, the owner and farmer at Choy Division in Orange County, New York, is one of twenty-one Asian American farmers who agreed to speak with me about their journeys into agriculture and how their ethnicity impacts their work.
Earlier that year, I found myself scrambling to leave China after the coronavirus-induced lockdown in Wuhan sent the country into a panic. I had planned to spend a year there interviewing Chinese farmers about organic agriculture while deepening my relationship with the place I was born. Adopted by white parents and raised on a homestead farm in Vermont, I felt, at best, a tenuous connection to China. I saw myself as American, first and foremost. Being Chinese only isolated and othered me in the predominantly white, rural spaces I inhabited into adulthood.
I flew home to the United States heartbroken. I longed to be surrounded by people who look like me, to learn more about the culture of my birth, to feel secure in who I am as a Chinese American.
Months later, I stumbled across an article written about Asian Americans like Chan who are using farming to explore their nuanced identities. In particular, growing culturally meaningful crops for Asian community members connects them to culture, people, and place. For the first time, I saw my love for food and my desire to find community as an Asian American collide. I sought out Chan and other farmers to learn about their experiences.
The daughter of Hong Kong immigrants, Chan tells me she often felt “too Chinese to be seen as American” and “too American to be fully Chinese.” Caught between two worlds, she struggled to unify these seemingly opposing parts of herself.
Japanese American farmer Jade Sato expressed a similar sentiment. Sato describes growing up among a white Midwestern family on her mom’s side and generations of Japanese family on her dad’s side as being the black sheep in both family photos. “You stand out in one family because you’re not white enough, and you stand out in the other family because you’re not Asian enough.”
“I think because I farm, my identity in the Asian American community has gotten stronger,” Sato reflects. “I’m building my confidence to claim and hold space for my identity to grow and shift within the phrase ‘person of color’ or ‘woman of color.’”
Chan and Sato are part of a growing number of young Asian Americans getting into farming. In 2017, less than one percent of U.S. farmers identified as Asian (just over 22,000). The number of women farmers (of all races) increased to 36 percent of all producers in 2017 (over 1.2 million). Almost half a million women across the country identified as the primary decision makers on their farms that year. Although Asian women farmers make up a fraction of all U.S. farmers, this population is gaining visibility. Anecdotally, there has been a proliferation of farms started by young Asian American women or female-bodied farmers in the last several years.
Early in her career, Megan Brakeley, the farm and garden educator at Middlebury College’s garden “the Knoll” took pride in being a woman who farms. Out of college, she found herself at an independent school teaching students how to raise and slaughter farm animals and grow produce. She learned to split wood, drive a bulldozer, back up trailers, and much more. This type of physical work felt empowering and kept her present and grounded after an intense academic career.
Only well into her thirties did she begin to embrace and explore the Korean part of herself. Raised by white parents in majority white areas, Brakeley knows how it feels to exist in places that are not made for you. These experiences inform her approach at the college’s garden.
“From the outset, I never saw being in that role as my space,” she said, “but rather as a space that I had the privilege of helping to guide so that it could best respond to student needs and input.” Brakeley admitted that as a student at Middlebury College in the early 2000s, she never visited the garden because she felt intimidated by the space.
When she started the position in 2018, she noted that the predominantly white and female/femme volunteers were not representative of the college’s diverse student body. “I wanted more folks who [historically] didn’t have choices about how they could participate in agriculture, or folks who were actively excluded from that space, to feel welcome.” To do this, she and her student interns defined and publicized information for accessing and using the garden space. She also looked critically at the student position descriptions and rethought how they named experiences and credentials.
“To me, that’s anti-racist, because we’re looking at the ways systems are set up and making them equally available to everyone, no matter what experiences they’re bringing.”
Over the past few years, they’ve continued to shift the skill set for Knoll interns from focusing on technical skills and expertise in gardening to prioritizing “folks’ abilities to facilitate nuanced conversation around food, its complexity, and all of the really personal and tricky aspects that come along.” Brakeley hopes that these conversations will provide entry points for visitors of all backgrounds to feel welcome.
Creating opportunity for her students to engage with questions around who they are, where they come from, and how they exist in the world has offered her a chance do the same. Last summer, three of the four Knoll interns were of Chinese or Filipino descent. Brakeley says being surrounded by those who are connected to their ancestral cultures in different ways reminds her of the diversity and richness of the Asian community worldwide. Together, they grew, cooked with, and ate a selection of heritage crops such as daikon radish, perilla, napa cabbage, and chili peppers. Understanding that there is no single way of being “Asian” or “Korean” helps Brakeley validate her own experiences as such.
The community-oriented space Brakeley is shepherding at Middlebury mirrors those being created on Chan and Sato’s farms. After several years of farm apprenticeships, Chan started her own farm out of the Chester Agricultural Center with the support of two incubator programs. On a few acres of land in the fertile black dirt of Orange County, she grows a wide variety of produce, from vibrant green bitter melon to deep purple long beans and hearty bunches of thick-stemmed gai lan (Chinese broccoli). These crops connect Chan to her cultural heritage and to her family. She grew up eating blanched gai lan with oyster sauce, a classic Cantonese preparation.
“Food is that love language, right? If I can grow that food for them, I show them I care.”
Many of Chan’s customers are young people like her who are looking to find themselves reflected in the local food scene. Much to their delight, each week’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) share contains any number of foods they grew up eating. Last summer, a volunteer group spent the day at Chan’s farm harvesting bitter melon and its leaves. The gourd, which is valued in Traditional Chinese Medicine for its health benefits, is often cooked with rich ingredients like eggs and pork to balance the bitterness. This defining trait separates eaters into those who love bitter melon and those who can’t stomach it. “Polarizing conversation” ensued that day, but ultimately, it became an opportunity for people to share memories and reflect on their relationship to this divisive crop.
Though Chan’s locally produced, organically grown vegetables draw customers in, so too does the messaging. “They feel seen, and they feel heard. I think it’s one of the first times they’ve really felt it.”
This resonates with Sato, who grows for “everyone who doesn’t feel like they have their farmer yet.” Sato welcomes requests from customers to grow specific crops that are meaningful to them. She treasures the moments when customers share their family connection to the plants she grows, such as when an older Japanese American family came to volunteer on her farm. Their father would harvest gobo (burdock root) in a wheelbarrow and, despite their mother’s wishes, bring the wheelbarrow into the house to clean and prepare it together as a family.
“They got so happy when they saw gobo root in my field, and they were so excited to tell me all the different sizes it could be and the different recipes you can include with it,” Sato recalls. It evokes her own family connection to eggplant, which her beloved grandfather taught her to harvest.
Sato fondly describes interactions with Asian community members at her farmers market stand as “tender moments of seeing one another.” Depending on the time of year, her stand is filled with a motley mix of produce, including shiso, gai lan, collards, bok choy, kale, mustards, carrots, pink celery, and more.
In 2020, Sato used a mix of savings and crowdsourced funding to start Minoru Farm (named for her grandfather, George Minoru Sato), a small-scale multicultural Asian vegetable farm in Brighton, Colorado. The rapid influx of donations from friends, family, and community members on Kickstarter symbolized the collective enthusiasm for her vision.
Years of working on other farms left Sato with a long list of things she loved and hated, and she struck out to create a communal space that would support both her mental and physical health. The experiences she has had navigating the farming landscape left her with a deep desire for her farm to be a safe space for others. Sato recognizes that she “could have all the intention in the world” regarding how she wants things to be, but it is up to her to let “people who are part of my community inform those choices and the structure of what makes a safe space.”
“We’re not creating them alone,” she says. “It takes many other people, and then it just exists and runs off like a little kid into the world… It’s its own thing, and it’s just something you participate in instead of holding in your mind what it should be.”
This idea of challenging what something or someone should be is threaded throughout the work of young Asian American farmers like Chan, Sato, and Brakeley. As Asian American women working in agriculture, their very existence defies convention.
“When people look at me, they don’t think I could possibly be a farmer,” Sato tells me. As a small female-bodied ethnically ambiguous person, she likes being a question mark to others. “I enjoy the challenge of surprising people and representing something that is unconventional, because it’s been my whole life already, so why stop now?”
When I asked Chan about the seeming rise of young Asian American farmers in the last several years, she cited increasing dissatisfaction with the status quo.
“For Asian people, it’s always been like, sometimes you’re white, sometimes you’re not white, sometimes you’re white adjacent. And I think people are like, Oh, actually, I no longer want this white adjacency. I no longer am striving to be the model minority or to be white or to achieve those things. I am willing to embrace my Asianness.”
Farming offers a radical alternative to conventional norms, allowing young Asian Americans to break free of parental and societal expectations and challenge beliefs about who farmers are and what roles they can play in a predominantly white, male industry that often strives to maximize productivity. Instead, these new farmers are seeking to produce food in a highly conscious manner that centers community, culture, and environmental stewardship.
“There’s a lot of nurturing and care that goes into farming, especially when you’re farming with so much intention,” Chan says. “I think sometimes when men farm, it’s very much efficiency and outputs and yield. And then when women farm, it’s also more focused on strengthening community, bringing food to the right place. It’s not that men aren’t doing that too. But I think sometimes women farmers are a little bit more focused on that aspect.” She added that farming may also offer an opportunity for women to assert their independence in a male-dominated society.
Visiting Middlebury College last summer gave me a taste of what these Asian American female-driven agricultural spaces can offer. On an unseasonably cool August day in Vermont, I sat with Brakeley and three interns (two of whom were Asian American) in the garden’s pavilion. As we cleaned onions and traded stories, conversation drifted from personal and academic interests to nostalgic foods to changes at the college over the past two decades. Brakeley gently interjected at times to share guidance about the task at hand or ask a thoughtful question.
A feeling of deep care and reverence washed over me as I gazed out over the garden, recalling my time as a Middlebury student almost a decade before. I wondered how my experience at a predominantly white institution in a majority white, rural area would have been different if I had access to a space like this one. I felt relieved knowing that Brakeley’s interns would never have to wonder.
Katie Reuther is a graduate student in food studies and former Folklife Festival foodways intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
The interviews the author conducted with Christina Chan, Jade Sato, Megan Brakeley, and others are part of an Occupational Folklife Project at the Library of Congress, Finding Roots: Asian American Farmers in Contemporary America. Hear the recordings online.