Specializing in mixed-heritage vegetables
by Aliya Hall
For owner and farmer Leslie Wiser, Radical Family Farms has been a way for her and her children to connect with their cultural heritage. As a first-generation multiracial person of Chinese-Taiwanese, German and Polish Jewish descent, Wiser said that growing up she didn’t learn to speak Mandarin and ate very limited Chinese food.
“The farm really is one step in that self-exploration of my multi-heritage,” she said. “I wanted to use the farm to explore that through the foods and produce of my heritage.”
Located on three acres in Sebastopol, CA, Radical Family Farms started its first season in 2019. The farm specializes in mixed Asian vegetables and offers both produce and flower bouquet CSA programs.
Radical Family Farms grows culturally relevant crops for the Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese and South East Asian diaspora, as well as vegetables that are prevalent in German and Polish recipes. Some of Wiser’s favorite vegetables to grow include kohlrabi, green sorrel, Napa cabbage, celtuce, white Taiwanese bitter melon, standard Chinese green bitter melon, Vietnamese coriander and Chinese suyo long cucumbers as well as Japanese and Korean cucumbers.
One of the challenges that Wiser has been overcoming is trying a variety of ways to recreate the natural habitats that the crops are used to being grown in. Chinese yardlong bean is one vegetable that Wiser has had difficulty producing in a high yield.
“I’m doing something different this year by planting them in landscape fabric to keep the roots warm and trimming the bottom leaves,” she said, adding that she keeps the plants in a hoop house.
Farming practices include using agro-ecological, regenerative, no-spray, chemical-free and low-till methods. Their seeds are non-GMO and certified organic when available, and certain seed varieties are saved each season to allow adaptation to their farming system.
“I’m trying to farm in a way that’s climate friendly,” Wiser said. “My goal is to build up the organic matter in our soil. I want to be a good steward of our land and our earth. With the climate changing so drastically, I don’t want to be a contributor to that in a negative way.” She added that building up the organic matter is also beneficial because their soil is sandy.
For the flower side of the operation, Wiser said that she always wanted to grow flowers and when the farm started they grew mainly cosmos, zinnias and marigolds to attract pollinators and deter pests. “Then we had an abundance of flowers and we needed to move them,” she said.
They sold buckets of flowers in bulk to the restaurants they worked with, but when 2020 hit, their operation had to shift tactics. Sarah Deragon, Wiles’s partner and a photographer, couldn’t meet with clients in person for photography sessions any longer so Wiles suggested she take over the flower program. Deragon took an entire block and grew the farm’s first flower CSA.
“Now Sarah’s growing a variety of flowers and selling them to florists, wholesale and through our CSA and also at our farmers market booth,” Wiles said.
Before founding Radical Family Farms, Wiser said she didn’t have an extensive background in farming.
“Most people start their farms after working on other people’s farms for years and I did it for one season, and that was in Alaska, where the growing season was short,” she said. “I worked really hard to teach myself quite a bit through reading books and videos. It was all self-taught for the most part.”
Wiser added that when they started she didn’t have customers lined up for what she was growing, but she was able to connect with chefs via social media who resonated with her story and allowed her to start a small CSA and build restaurant partnerships.
Although those orders decreased in 2020, Radical Family Farms maintained a relationship with those chefs and held CSA hubs at their restaurants in Oakland, San Francisco, the Northern Peninsula and Berkeley. Even though the CSA shares are now the bulk of their business, Wiser said they’re receiving more orders from chefs too.
Going forward, Radical Family Farms wants to further establish programs that feed seniors in the community. After receiving advice from a CSA member to partner with a fiscal sponsor, Wiser found Possibility Labs in San Francisco, which has made it possible for the farm to build out community initiatives and apply for grants as well as receive private donations.
“People don’t think of food insecurity when they think of the AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] community in this country, but there is quite a bit, especially during the pandemic within the seniors and elders,” she said.
Right now, Radical Family Farms feeds 33 seniors with fully paid CSA subscriptions, but Wiser’s goal is to increase that every year and implement a “last mile” delivery service that would bring the farm box to their doors. “That’s motivating to me to keep farming,” she said.
Although Wiser loves the long-term planning aspects of preparing for the upcoming season, she particularly loves the CSA packing day.
“A lot of farmers grow similar crops to me, but I’m trying to sell them at their most mature, large size,” she said. “I’m not doing microgreens of Asian greens. When I get a giant Korean radish, that’s the goal; that’s what I want. That’s satisfying.”
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