Allison Park, NBC News, October 28, 2109
The United States Census of Agriculture shows that Asian Americans made up less than 1 percent of the farming population in the United States in 2017. More than 95 percent of the full-time operators in the U.S. are white. These numbers stand in contrast to the 19th and early 20th century, when Asian American farmers were ubiquitous. The drastic demographic shift started with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and later grew in 1913, when the California Alien Land Law prohibited Asian Americans from owning land. Between 1920 and 1930 alone, Japanese-owned farmland dropped by more than 40 percent.
Mai Nguyen, a first-generation Vietnamese American farmer with the National Young Farmers Coalition, said structural racism and discrimination against Asian American farmers and other farmers of color persist today.
Mai Nguyen is a first-generation Vietnamese American farmer.Courtesy of Mai Nguyen
“There’s high segregation based on race and ethnicity in our rural spaces,” Nguyen said. “While there are large populations of Asian American farmers, they’re segregated in a way that they’re not as visible as our white counterparts.” Nguyen said this lack of visibility harms older Asian American farmers who are denied access to markets, land and resources as a result.
Scott Chang-Fleeman, owner of Shao Shan Farm in the Bay Area, agreed that there’s a lack of Asian American representation in agriculture. Chang-Fleeman’s academic mentor at the University of California Santa Cruz was a biracial Chinese American farmer and inspired him to switch his major from history to environmental studies. Afterward, Chang-Fleeman took his first job as a farm manager at Pomona College.
“Having representation in any industry is going to increase diversity within that industry,” he said.
Part of that visibility and representation comes through Asian American farmer Instagram accounts, which Chang-Fleeman dubs modern-day business cards.
Beyond the social network of Asian American farmers, the online platform serves as a venue for first-generation farmers, who typically lack intergenerational resources and an established customer base, to launch their businesses and gain exposure to future customers.
The partnerships between Asian American chefs and farmers could present a sustainable way forward for first-generation producers.
The same Instagram community that facilitates business for first-generation farmers also offers a network to commiserate over discrimination and barriers of entry young farmers face in the industry.