Meet Leslie Wiser of Radical Family Farms
A small-scale farm in the scenic northern California town of Sebastopol is paying homage to its family roots, while keeping alive heritage crops for the community. Now in its second year, Radical Family Farms grows primarily Asian heritage crops, along with select European market foods, on its one-and-a-half acres.
Many crops grown at Radical Family Farms were inspired by farmer Leslie Wiser’s own family. Her mother is first-generation Chinese and Taiwanese, and her father is first-generation German. Her farm became a way to reconnect with this forgotten family history, she explains.
“Since I’ve had my own children, I wanted to learn more about my heritage,” says Leslie. “My parents were immigrants. But we grew up in the Midwest and were completely assimilated into American society. As a result, we lost much of our family culture, identity, and language. When I started this farm, I asked both sides of my family which vegetables and ingredients do you miss the most? That became my farm’s crop list.”
These days, she and her partner Sarah Deragon grow about 50 different varieties on their family farm, including different cabbages, long Asian cucumbers, Taiwanese eggplants, Thai long beans, and Chinese lettuce. From the beginning, Radical Family Farms was very intentional about selling directly to consumers via a CSA or to restaurants. After the coronavirus pandemic hit last spring, however, they shifted less business from restaurants and now sell 95% of their produce at their CSA, which has tripled in size over the last year.
“We continued to grow this second season,” recalls Leslie. “The pandemic led many people to see problems with our food chain and they felt it was safer to buy direct from a farmer, especially ones transparent about their farming practices. We are grateful about that.”
But it hasn’t been an easy time. Their CSA may have grown but the farm crew was cut drastically so they could limit the people on the farm.
“I’d love to see more representation of BIPOC farmers, particularly Asian-Americans, growing crops that are historically and culturally significant to them. That would be an excellent development.”
“We were basically operating on a skeleton crew,” she remembers. “Just me, my partner, and a friend. With the increase in membership, and the decrease in farm labor, everything took much longer. There were many long days last spring. And it will not be easy this fall with online learning for our two children Markus and Eleonora, because we must ensure they receive a proper education, too.”
As a recipient of AFT’s Farmer Relief Fund, Radical Family Farms received a $1,000 grant to support the farm’s transition during the pandemic.
“The grant from American Farmland Trust was so integral to us last spring,” Leslie says. “We used these funds for materials to build a walk-in cooler, which allowed us to extend our harvest one to two days. That extra time was extremely helpful with less crew, and it was a good investment for our farm.”
In June, Radical Family Farms hired back part-time farm labor. “Our crew is great, providing a reprieve, and a nice community that has grown around the farm,” she adds. “But everyone is only working four hours a day.”
When asked how others can help small-scale farmers during this time, she encourages people to visit their website.
“As a small farm, we welcome the support,” Leslie says. “We offer online medicinal herbs, which we ship around the country. We also have a vintage Chinese Pei Mei cookbook that is a rarity hard to find anywhere. We invite people to visit our website to order.”
Although this enthusiastic farmer is committed to Radical Family Farms, she would like to see more racial equity in the farming sector.
“The majority of California farmers are white men,” adds Leslie. “I’d love to see more representation of BIPOC farmers, particularly Asian-Americans, growing crops that are historically and culturally significant to them. That would be an excellent development.”
In the meantime, Radical Family Farms continues to be “beyond organic” and uses climate-smart regenerative farming practices on the farm.
“We use regenerative, no-till, no-spray methods with the long-term goal of soil building,” explains Leslie. “We cover crop in the winter and add compost to our permanent raised beds many times throughout the season. We strive to create a biodiverse environment on our farm to balance the pests with the predatory and pollinating beneficial insects. This is the main reason why we grow so many flowers along with our produce and why we offer farm flower bouquets.”
Photos by Sarah Deragon, unless noted.