To connect with the earth is to connect with people. At least that's the case for Ariana de Leña, owner of Kamayan Farm just outside of Seattle, Washington. Coming from a background in environmental and social justice nonprofit work, Ariana found a way to connect her love for growing with her previous work by exploring the connection between food and culture.
The name behind the farm pays homage to Ariana's heritage. Kamayan, a Tagalog word that means "with hands," is a Filipino communal-style way of eating a meal, consisting of vibrant food without utensils. The meaning is personal to her as her grandfather, a rice farmer by trade, came to the United States from the Philippines as a migrant worker in California in the 30s and 40s. While farming skipped a generation in her family, it is in her DNA.
In addition to Kamayan Farm, Ariana continues to honor her Asian heritage through her work with Second Generation Seed, which she describes as "a small collective of Asian growers that are working together to support our communities in sharing stories and culture through food and seeds." It's a program that is near to heart with a mission to offer seeds that are typically not grown stateside, creating economic opportunities for Asian-American farmers. Keeping traditions alive by providing farmers and direct consumers with deeply personal produce varieties—from Black Chestnut soybeans to Joseon Shorty, an heirloom Korean cucumber—Second Generation Seed carries on the traditions and stories behind the ingredients.
Many farmers of color are currently seeking to build more resilience into our food system, but lack access to resources, land, and institutional power to pursue their visions...[Supporting BIPOC farmers] will ultimately facilitate a food system that is more just, dignified, diverse, and resilient to threats like climate change, pandemics, and global supply chain breakdowns.
Yet the most significant challenge behind small-crop farming is finding viable land at a price point that allows farms to thrive, and of course, the physical toll farming takes on the body. "Agriculture is one of the hardest fields to be successful in, in every way you measure success," said Ariana. Kamayan Farm, now in its fifth growing season, is a true labor of love.
We chatted with Ariana de Leña to learn more about Kamayan Farm—how it started and what the future holds.
What inspired you to start Kamayan Farm?
The inspiration behind Kamayan Farm starts with an actual seed. I was a college freshman when a professor took our class to the South Central Farm in Los Angeles. The property was given to South Central L.A. community members after the 1992 uprisings, and residents turned it into an incredible, lush, 14-acre farm in the middle of industrial L.A.
I met an elder there who told me about these corn seeds he brought over the border from Mexico and was now teaching his grandson how to tend. The story tapped into a deeper longing to know more about my culture as a mixed person with Filipino and Norwegian/English heritage. Though it would take me another 10 years to start, Kamayan Farm has become a home for me to do that cultural exploration, and it exists as an invitation for others to do the same.
What are some of the challenges you faced during the pandemic as an agricultural business?
Since most of our business model is geared towards delivering food directly to community members, we were super fortunate to keep the farm running about the same as usual. We definitely had to shift how we did things on a day-to-day basis, including spending long days, fully masked, and making sure our crew was able to stay consistently safe. Most of our restaurant customers pivoted dramatically and reinvented their models many times—we're grateful that we could stick with them through the many transitions.
On a more personal note, farming can be a very isolating profession, and the pandemic amplified that sense of isolation. While we normally hold lots of community events and workshops on the farm, 2020 was a much quieter, introspective year. It gave me a lot of time to think about the farm's values and focused on my relationship to the land.
Who are your primary consumers?
My primary consumers are my Veggie Box members, which is what we call our community-supported agriculture (CSA) program—offering vegetables, herbs, and flowers. In 2021, we'll have 60 member families participating with us, including 30 people signed up for our weekly flower shares.
Besides the Veggie Boxes, the bulk of our produce goes to local community-based organizations that directly distribute food to their community members, non-profits, and mutual aid projects, all working to get produce into childcare centers, shelters for houseless folks, and low-income community members. We also have some beloved restaurants we work with, like Archipelago and Musang, that share the farm's vision for lifting up Filipino food and culture. And, we host educational workshops both on and off the farm.
Has the pandemic changed your view of food stability and security?
The pandemic has only intensified my drive to make sure the most vulnerable people have access to the food and resources they need. I think 2020 illuminated how fragile a food system that relies on importing food from far away can be. I saw many people turning towards local farms as a source for their whole diet this year, making treks out to neighboring farms to buy meat, eggs, and vegetables. I think a huge part of what facilitated that was scarcity at the grocery stores and people's increase in time to invest in local food systems.
For many, having the extra time and money to get out to farms or even farmers' markets is a huge barrier. That's why I feel it's important to make sure we have systems to get food to people in the places where they live, make sure it's affordable, and that it's culturally relevant.
What is one change we can all make to better our food system?
We can invest in the livelihoods of Black, Indigenous, and farmers of color. Many farmers of color are currently seeking to build more resilience into our food system, but lack access to resources, land, and institutional power to pursue their visions. The U.S. agricultural system was unfortunately built upon the genocide of Native Americans and the forced labor of enslaved Africans. That legacy is still encoded in many of our laws, policies, and land rights. We need to support Black, Indigenous, and farmers of color, whether by buying their produce, donating to their farms, learning about the rich history of diverse farmers in the U.S., or by helping to create more equitable policy. It will ultimately facilitate a food system that is more just, dignified, diverse, and resilient to threats like climate change, pandemics, and global supply chain breakdowns.
What's your vision for Kamayan Farm? How do you see the farm evolving and growing over the next few years?
I've been organizing with other farmers in my region for many years with the intention of one day joining our businesses to become a cooperative project. Many of us dream about having shared land where we can continue to grow our businesses, learn together, and create more sustainable livelihoods. A place where artists, organizers, and community members could gather and deepen their relationship to land and food. In our area, purchasing land or even obtaining a long-term lease can be tricky, especially for folks who don't have access to generational land or wealth, so we see working collectively as one way to make that vision more feasible.