Field Research: Three Asian Farmers to Know


Next–generation farmers are digging into their Asian backgrounds and representing their cultures on the plate, with the help of loofah, Wagyu–Angus beef and heritage banh mi flour.

A portrait of farmer Mai Nguyen against an orange background
Photo: Sashwa Burrous

Mai Nguyen

Farmer Mai
Sebastopol, California

For Mai Nguyen, a first taste of the Canadian heritage grain Red Fife was a game changer. While studying geography in Toronto, she immersed herself in every aspect of the food supply chain, from soil to waste management. However, it was discovering this flavourful, lesser–known heritage grain that eventually led to her growing her own in Northern California under the name “Farmer Mai.

“I grew up knowing my roots through stories of loss,” she says. As part of the post–Vietnam War diaspora, taking up farming was a way to connect with relatives and community through their traditional foods. But this wasn’t exactly what Nguyen’s mother had hoped for her daughter’s career. With that in mind, Nguyen had heritage Chiddam Blanc de Mars spring–wheat baguettes for banh mi custom–made for her mother. Developed in England, the grain gained popularity in France and was eventually introduced to Vietnam by the French in the late 19th century. When Nguyen first tasted it, she was floored by its pronounced flavours, a pecan–like nuttiness and notes of honey and tea, more floral than other varieties.

After 10 years of wheat farming, Nguyen says her mum is finally on board. “She really does appreciate the reasons I’m farming, and knows that I love her.”

December 20, 2023
A portrait of Stéphanie Wang against a green background
Photo: Olivier Bourget

Stéphanie Wang

Le Rizen
Frelighsburg, QC

The child of Cantonese parents raised in Madagascar, Stéphanie Wang grew up in Montreal under a colour wheel of international influences, but no connection to agriculture. Her road to farming came via studying sociology and an internship in India with the international farmers organization La Via Campesina. By then, she says, “I was ready to put my hands in the ground and be part of the change.”

Organic vegetables grown in a greenhouse at Le Rizen in Quebec
Organic vegetables are grown in a small area with minimal mechanization at Le Rizen.   Photo: Olivier Bourget

Wang’s one–and–a–half–acre Quebec farm, Le Rizen, specializes in organically grown Asian vegetables like choy sum, celtuce and Thai basil. Her produce shines at the likes of Montreal’s Pichai, where suyo long cucumber freshens up a sautéed pork Pad Taeng Kwa Moo Sap, and at Sauce Prune in nearby Cowansville, where fermented gai lan shows up in chicken dumplings. In early 2023, Wang was named Quebec’s farm producer of the year at Les Lauriers, the province’s annual gastronomy awards. To add to her banner year, the English version of a book she co–wrote with her sisters, Légumes asiatiques (Asian Vegetables), hit bookshelves in October.

Among her crops, Wang is partial to loofah, a member of the gourd family. Most know the matured and dried smooth variety as a skin scrubber, but it can be harvested young and eaten raw or cooked. “It’s so soft, like a cloud,” says Wang.

A portrait of Kimiko Uchikura against a blue background
Photo: courtesy of Merkaba Acres

Kimiko Uchikura

Merkaba Acres
Bobcaygeon, On

After retiring from her career in graphic design, Kimiko Uchikura bought a 167–acre farm in Kawartha Lakes in 2019. “The idea was just to have a piece of land where I could grow food, be self–sufficient, connect with nature and create a community,” she says. To reach her organic ideals, a permaculturist was hired to design her garden and a neighbour’s small cattle herd was brought in to graze, helping to stimulate beneficial micro–organisms in the soil. Uchikura liked the bovine company so much that she eventually bought the herd and created a 40–acre pasture for rotational grazing. A cross between Black Wagyu and Angus cattle, the 31–head herd reflects the farmer’s own Japanese–Canadian roots.

“The idea was just to have a piece of land where I could grow food, be self–sufficient, connect with nature and create a community.”

Among the farm’s meat offerings, Uchikura’s favourites are the versatile ground beef (for superior burgers) and her stewing cuts, ideal for slow–cooked dishes like a cozy and saucy beef bourguignon. “It tastes fantastic and is so nutritious because I insist on it being grass–fed,” Uchikura says.

Where to Taste

An illustration of sourdough bread
Illustration: Arsenova Natalia/Alamy
  • Farmer Mai, Napa, California — Sebastopol field–blend bread loaf @ The Model Bakery.

An illustration of itachi cucumbers
Illustration: Tara/Pixta
  • Le Rizen, Montreal — Stir–fried suyo long and itachi cucumber @ Pichai.

An illustration of beef
Illustration: wedraw/Alamy