The United States’ population is diverse, made up of immigrants from all over the world, but the vegetables and herbs sold in typical American grocery stores are not. Sure, in recent years, it’s become more common to find a limp section of daikon or a dried-up bunch of lemon grass in the produce section of a chain supermarket.
But if you’re looking for the dark-green stalks of gai lan (Chinese broccoli) you ate stir-fried with garlic at your neighborhood Chinese restaurant, or fragrant branches of Thai basil you tore apart to garnish a bowl of pho, you’re probably out of luck at most large chain grocery stores — unless you go to a specialty Asian market.
It’s a similar situation at most farmers markets in Seattle and beyond: The majority of farmers sell European vegetables and even those who have a few heads of napa cabbage or bunches of Japanese hakurei turnips at their booths rarely have more than a couple of varieties. Also, most farmers are usually white — which is part of the reason why you don’t see as much Asian produce around.
Around 95% of “producers” — what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls people who make important decisions on farms, like what crops to grow — nationally are white; about 96% of Washington’s farm producers are white, according to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture.
Though Asians make up almost 10% of Washington’s population, only around 1% of the state’s farm producers are Asian. Out of the 711 farms with any Asian producers, only 82 grow vegetables, and many of those don’t grow Asian crops. So getting fresh, locally grown Asian vegetables and herbs can be difficult depending on where you live. There are Asian groceries in Seattle, like Uwajimaya, H Mart and Fou Lee market, among others, that have good selections of Asian produce. But Asian American farmers in Washington state tout the hyperlocal — and therefore hyperfresh — quality of their produce as a distinguishing factor.
In recent years, the Greater Seattle area has seen the birth of a few farms now growing a diverse array of Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Filipino and other Asian vegetables. Some farmers, like Katsumi Taki of Mair-Farm Taki, have been growing Asian crops for decades. But many of the other farmers growing Asian vegetables for Seattleites are new to farming and started their farms in the last several years to connect with their Asian identities — through vegetables.
These new farmers are part of a national trend of Asian Americans starting farms commercially growing Asian vegetables in the last few years, says Kristyn Leach, a farmer in California who started Second Generation Seeds, a national seed collective focused on Asian heirloom seeds. Leach says these farmers are successful now, when they might not have been before, because American food culture is changing to value Asian food, and high-end restaurants that can afford locally grown produce are now buying Asian crops. She says these new Asian American farmers, many of whom are second-generation Americans who have better economic opportunities than their parents did, have less pressure to make money and more freedom to explore their identities through their careers.
Here’s a look at some of the local farms growing Asian produce whose wares you might see at your neighborhood farmers market.
Tian Tian Farm
Find Tian Tian Farm’s booth at the Ballard Farmers Market 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays, at the Columbia City Farmers Market 3-7 p.m. Wednesdays, or visit the farm stand 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday at 24026 Wax Orchard Road, Vashon; tiantian.farm
Before the pandemic, Steven Hsieh and Elizabeth Whitman were journalists. Now, they grow gai lan, chrysanthemum greens, Thai basil and at least a dozen other Asian crops on a half-acre farm on Vashon Island.
Whitman and Hsieh say they’d been interested in farming for years, but when the pandemic started, they decided to give it a shot and got a farm apprenticeship in Roseburg, Oregon. Soon, they realized that thinning apples and digging in the dirt outside made them happier than sitting in front of a computer screen.
While working long hours at the apprenticeship, Whitman, whose mother is Chinese, says she daydreamed about a farm that grew only Asian vegetables. And Hsieh says though he felt embarrassed eating his family’s Taiwanese dishes, with ingredients like gai lan, around his white friends while growing up in St. Louis, he wanted to reconnect with the foods of his culture.
So though most small-scale farmers in the U.S. grow European crops they know will sell in farmers markets that usually cater to white customers, and Whitman says that “there isn’t a blueprint for how to start an Asian vegetable farm,” when they decided to start their farm in the fall of 2020, they knew they’d grow Asian vegetables.
They secured a lease shortly after, started setting up the farm in January, and broke ground in March. Tian Tian Farm isn’t certified organic, but Hsieh and Whitman say they use organic practices.
Now, they’re in the middle of their first harvest season. And Hsieh is proudly selling the same vegetables that used to embarrass him at the Ballard and Columbia City farmers markets.
Visit kamayanfarm.com to get on the waiting list for Kamayan Farm’s 2022 veggie boxes or to put in wholesale orders.
Kamayan Farm’s weekly veggie boxes from its community-supported agriculture program often contain vegetables used in Filipino cooking: bitter melon, long beans, ginger and lemon grass, along with some other Asian vegetables like Thai chili and Japanese cucumber, all grown with organic practices.
Ariana de Leña, who’s Filipino American, started the 1-acre farm in Carnation after spending most of her 20s working in environmental activism and federal farm policy in Washington, D.C., because she says she wanted to understand the lives of the farmers she was advocating for.
But de Leña also wanted to learn more about Filipino food and connect with her ancestors through shared experience — her grandfather, who she never met, was a rice farmer in the Philippines who worked on farms in California after immigrating to the U.S.
De Leña says one reason there aren’t more Filipino vegetables grown in Seattle is that the climate here is much colder than in the Philippines. But she’s working with Second Generation Seeds to develop varieties of Filipino and other Asian vegetables that work well in different climates.
Kamayan Farm’s veggie box program is full for the 2021 season. For now, you might find de Leña’s vegetables in dishes at chef Melissa Miranda’s Filipino restaurant Musang on Beacon Hill; Hood Famous, a Filipino cafe in the Chinatown International District; and Archipelago, a PNW Filipino American restaurant in Hillman City. De Leña also sells her produce to Seattle nonprofits such as Rainier Beach Action Coalition and Farms for Life, which distribute her vegetables to low-income Seattleites.
Find Mair Farm-Taki at the University District Farmers Market 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays.
Katsumi Taki has been selling Asian vegetables in Seattle since 1999. His farm, Mair Farm-Taki, is located in Wapato in Yakima County, but he wakes up at 3 a.m. every Saturday to sell Japanese cucumbers, red and green shiso, kabocha squash and other Japanese and Asian vegetables and herbs at the University District Farmers Market. His vegetables aren’t certified organic, but he says they’re grown with organic practices.
This year, Taki says his vegetable varieties are limited because he’s the only one working the farm (he normally gets an intern from Japan every year and didn’t this year due to the pandemic), but he’s still growing an impressive array of Japanese crops, including some things that are extremely hard to come by in the U.S., like the leaves of sansho trees, also known as Korean or Japanese peppers, a close relative to Sichuan peppercorns, which are used as an herb in Korea and Japan.
Taki even grows a small number of ume plums, used to make Japanese plum wine and “umeboshi” salted plums. He says those are snapped up quickly in the spring. But Taki also makes his own umeboshi from apricots and red shiso — which he says have nearly the same flavor as real umeboshi — and sells them at his booth through the summer. Taki also has 20 yuzu trees (he brings them inside every winter to stop them from freezing), and he sells the fragrant citrus every October.
Next year, Taki says he’ll probably have an intern and be able to grow more labor-intensive crops like burdock root again. In the future, he says he hopes to buy a bigger greenhouse to grow more yuzu.
Find Sariwa Farm at the South Delridge Farmers Market 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on Aug. 14, Sept. 11, Oct. 9, or find Sariwa Farm on Instagram to ask about the CSA program.
Lorna Velasco was born in the Philippines and moved to San Francisco at age 11. There, she lived in a historically Filipino neighborhood and grew up immersed in the Filipino culture. She studied anthropology and theater in college and worked producing arts and theater shows afterward.
When Velasco moved to Seattle in 2015, she found the Filipino community here was more spread out, and she needed a way to reconnect with her Filipino heritage and lay down roots. She interned at Viva Farms, a farm incubator program in Woodinville, and in 2017, started Sariwa Farm, specializing in organic vegetables used in Filipino cooking such as sponge gourd, moringa and okra.
Right now, Velasco leases a half-acre through Viva Farms and works part time at the farm while working in the arts, and has a community-supported agriculture farm for around 30 families. She says she dreams of buying property and creating a larger community-owned farm in the future.