How does the punk kid who wandered New York City become a farmer rooted in California? Talk to Korean-American farmer Kristyn Leach and you’ll find that seeds—most notably, culturally important heirlooms—will do it.
Out in Winters, California, Leach works her Namu Farm by hand while accompanied by her toddler and dog. When she shares seed-saving wisdom, which she does frequently with adults and children, she combines the deep technical know-how of a plant breeder with the political philosophy of a punk kid to striking effect.
What’s noticeable about her American farm is what’s absent: genetically engineered seeds, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and tilling. Instead, she employs Korean Natural Farming methods, an environmentally regenerative way of growing food, founded not in a technique but in an equitable relationship between farmer and nature. The sustainable practice uses indigenous microorganisms to enrich soil, which is topped with straw.
For 10 years, Leach has grown mostly Korean and East Asian herbs and vegetables, such as “38N kkaennip” perilla leaves, “Gyopo Gochu” chili peppers and bam kong black chestnut soybeans, which she supplies to local San Francisco restaurants. But at the heart of Leach’s farming practice is a dedication to saving seeds.
Central Valley’s arid heat makes for an excellent seed-saving climate. Agrochemical giants Syngenta and Monsanto have seed campuses nearby. “Sixty percent of the world’s seeds are controlled by corporations,” Leach told public television KCET. “If you control seeds, you control food,” she said. And as political wisdom goes, if you control food, you control people.
Years ago, she co-founded Second Generation, a California farmer collective and seed company, in an effort to connect Asian diasporic communities to their beloved crops. Second Generation also runs a community seed stewardship program to “foster biodiversity, healthier ecosystems, and a more equitable food system.” Korean plants helped Leach reconnect with and reclaim her roots, too. The work is especially personal and important to Leach, who herself was unconnected from the crops of her homeland for a number of years.
Born in South Korea, Leach was adopted by a white Irish Catholic family in suburban Long Island, New York. About 200,000 South Korean children have been adopted since the Korean War. In a video for Great Big Story, she said, “The experience of adoption is so complicated. I feel really grateful to have farming be the way I interact with my culture.”
She spent her adolescence making trips to New York City’s Lower East Side, where the local ’90s punk scene and community gardens would go on to shape the way she farms today. “I’ve just always loved food and organized my life around food,” Leach says. As a teenager during Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s reign, she and her friends gravitated to radical art spaces such as ABC No Rio.
Around Tompkins Square Park, Leach listened to Chiapas from Mexico as they spoke of the Zapatista peasant revolution in their country, informing the area’s artists, punk rockers and squatters who clashed with the NYPD. “[I was a] very impressionable adolescent at a major flashpoint for conversations around globalization. There were monumental outcries against NAFTA and the WTO. I was fortunate enough to be young, curious and dissatisfied [and to have] generous, smart and incisive adults around.”
In 2002, Leach moved to Washington State for Olympia’s iconic punk rock and DIY scene. Small organic farms surround the city, where she found work as a farmhand. There, she tasted Korean dishes, the food of her birth heritage, for the first time. Despite growing up eating meatloaf and macaroni and cheese, perilla leaf (kkaennip) became a household and farm favorite. Not to be confused with Japanese shiso, the licoricey Korean herb is shaped like a heart and used like a lettuce wrap or kimchified.
Leach moved south to San Francisco’s Bay area in 2009. A few years later, she subleased the land where she now farms from an olive farmer, partnering with chef Dennis Lee and his two brothers of San Francisco’s Namu Restaurant Group. During a three-week, whistle-stop tour of South Korea’s farms and an organic seed preservation institute, she inherited heirloom bean, cucumber and pepper varieties. Today, she sells the fruits of those seeds exclusively to the restaurant group. “The rest of the land is for experiments,” she explains.
“My work is seed-breeding where I aim to fail,” says Leach, clarifying that she means to fail early in service of the future. She risks crop loss in the short term to cultivate resilient varieties that use less water and need no supplemental fertility in the long term. Drought-stricken California plans to launch a cap-and-trade model for water. She breeds heirloom crops to tolerate drought. Leach feels lucky as a tenant farmer that her 10-year lease gives her the long-term land security to tackle plant breeding, soil remediation and groundwater quality. Others aren’t so fortunate.
Before she launched Second Generation’s direct-to-consumer website, she sold seeds within Kitazawa Seed Company, a leading source for Asian seeds. (The famed 105-year-old company was sold to True Leaf Market in January.) Leach’s seeds—organically grown, open-pollinated—sold out through word-of-mouth. “I’m not a very savvy entrepreneur,” she says. “When we made the decision to start our independent company, people were excited because the commercial seed industry doesn’t reflect farmers of the global majority. People were glad to access these seeds from a perspective within cultures that steward these seeds.” (Truelove Seeds and Diaspora Co also sell her heirloom seeds.)
Knowledge needs to accompany the seeds. Leach co-runs Seed Stewards, an educational program exploring Asian and Palestinian heritage crops. It’s become a place for Korean, Filipino and Vietnamese families to gather around crops. Originally piloted as a CSA, Seed Stewards changed to include educational farming activities for children and virtual potlucks to share food stories across generations. “Whether you garden, farm or kill every plant you touch, you still play a role in the preservation of culture as it exists in food,” says Leach. “It’s not about you needing to grow it. You telling us what’s delicious or feels nostalgic or the through-line from what our ancestors saw and valued to what you want your descendants to think about—that’s what culture is.”
What next for Namu? “I just hope to keep farming,” says Leach. A bigger seed campus, perhaps a research farm at a permanent location with a perilla nursery, could enable others who want to do similar seed work to get involved with honoring their cultural backgrounds and feeding their communities long-term.
For now, Leach enjoys stories sown by Seed Stewards. “We’ve built up a lot of goodwill in our community,” she says. “One family texted me, ‘We’re at the Korean market now. Our seven-year-old daughter heard someone call Korean perilla ‘shiso,’ and she went on this whole tirade about how it’s not shiso…If I have more children out there shaming adults for their lack of botanical nuance, that’s a good accomplishment for my life.”