Leslie Wiser fell in love with farming in her 20s, but as a child of immigrants, felt obligated to follow a more traditional career. It took nearly two decades before she returned to farming — this time, with a new sense of purpose.
“Food, for me, is how I hold on to my personal heritage,” said Wiser, who started the market garden Radical Family Farms in Sebastopol, California. She started farming again, and reconnected with her Chinese and German roots by growing heritage vegetables from those countries — a process she calls identity farming.
Growing up in the Midwest, Wiser had limited access to the foods of her heritage.
“I never had a full understanding or actually felt like I was either Chinese or German,” Wiser said.
At the age of 15, she went to live with her German-Polish grandparents in Indianapolis, Indiana. In spending time with them, Wiser learned about their lives during WWII, and the dangers they faced as a couple. Her grandfather was a German soldier, and her grandmother was Jewish. But Wiser also learned about their longing for authentic German food and vegetables in America.
In college, Wiser visited Taiwan for the first time in a decade. She learned that her grandparents met in Chongqing, China, and fled to Taiwan during the civil war in 1949.
In spending time with each set of grandparents, both on the Chinese side and the German-Polish side, she began to understand her rich heritage — one that she hadn’t even known existed.
“Why did I have to be completely assimilated to this white American culture and leave behind and forget all of my family stories?” Wiser said.
After returning from Taiwan to finish her degree, Wiser settled into life with a stable job and started a family. To ensure that her children would never feel a sense of loss of their identities, Wiser started taking them on annual trips to Taiwan.
On one trip, she worked in the community garden at her children’s language school. Upon returning to California, she asked her Chinese family members which vegetables they missed growing up. Wiser realized that those vegetables were hard to find, even in California. So she took it upon herself to grow them, and founded Radical Family Farms.
The Asian vegetables she grows include pea shoots (豆苗), winter melon (冬瓜), bitter melon (苦瓜), Chinese broccoli (芥蘭), Ping Tung eggplants (屏東茄子) and Chinese spinach (苋菜 ), while the German vegetables include green sorrel, summer savory, salsify and kohlrabi.
Though the farm is relatively young, the accessibility of organic Asian heritage vegetables has brought together members of the Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community, including small business owners, chefs and others. Wiser is cultivating the community she always dreamed of.
“It’s really nice to have the farm, and food, and these vegetables be the catalyst for that,” Wiser said.