Tilth keynote speaker emphasizes diversity for farming future

SPOKANE — Farmers of different backgrounds must work together to bolster support for future generations, a California grain farmer says.

Mai Nguyen gave the keynote speech, titled “Regenerating Diversity,” during the Tilth Alliance’s conference Nov. 10 in Spokane.

Nguyen, a Sonoma County heirloom and ethnic grain farmer, is the California organizer of the National Young Farmers Coalition and co-owner/operator of the Sonoma Grain Collaborative.

Nguyen said she works to find cooperative ways for growers to increase seed, access markets or obtain financial credit.

“These are important times to remember farmers have been doing a great deal of work and that it’s often been overlooked,” she said.

She’d like to see farmers move from viewing one another as competitors to being colleagues, working to identify common problems and find solutions together.

“We get to see how each other work, we’ve built a lot of trust,” she said, pointing to a friend who is a ”multi-generational Republican” from a completely different background.

Such relationships are important when rural populations are becoming more isolated, and 1 percent of Americans are farmers, Nguyen said. Six percent of that 1 percent are younger than the age of 35.

“We really need to stick together to be America’s farming future,” she said.

Nguyen said the coalition engages politicians to take agriculture more seriously and show that the American food system has been built by a diversity of people across a diversity of landscapes.

Nguyen spoke of her experience working with others to ensure that California farmers have better access to land and resources. The Farmer Equity Act, passed in 2017, is designed to create a state definition for and provide assistance to socially disadvantaged farmers.

Nguyen said President Trump’s budget proposes eliminating federal grants designed to offer such assistance.

Nguyen said the equity act is “the very first California civil rights agricultural bill to ever exist.”

The act creates a new executive position in the California Department of Agriculture to support the effort. Nguyen said she was disappointed when the person selected for the position, slated to represent farmers of color across the state, was a white woman.

“While we are acknowledging that there’s progress we’re making in terms of saving more seed, cultivating more knowledge, creating cooperatives, there will be those moments where we have to question what progress and change over time looks like, and how quickly that will take place,” she said. “Even though there are those moments, it’s also really important to celebrate what we’ve gained.”

During a recent party to celebrate the passage of the act, Nguyen spoke with a young boy, who told her “I was always ashamed of what my parents did, but now I think I want to be a farmer.”

“If we’re going to raise that 6 percent to maybe even 7 percent, we need to do that work of sharing that seed, creating cooperatives, cooperating, localizing and celebrating,” she said. “That’s really how we’re going to be able to generate diversity in our landscapes, as we do this common ground work of sustaining our future.”