Restaurant Diaries is a weekly series featuring four different people working in the industry. Every week you hear from one of them, from a bartender in Atlanta to a line chef in Denver. This week’s diary writer is Kristyn Leach, a farmer in Winters, California. Here she explains how the last year has been for her, with COVID-19, forest fires, food insecurity and the toll small farmers like them have to pay.
My hair is a lot grayer than ever.
I started my farm 10 years ago in Winters, California and mainly grow Asian herbs and vegetables, mostly Korean crops. Much of the harvest goes exclusively to Namu Restaurant Group in San Francisco, and remarkably that was still the case in 2020. Namu has always used a lot of Korean radish and napa cabbage for different types of kimchi, and we’ve grown more things to preserve and either sell or store. like Korean perilla for banchan or chili peppers for chili crisp. They also provided meals for during the pandemic World central kitchen and SF New Deal, so some of the crops were used for it.
We haven’t lost any crops or money directly to COVID, but we’ve had other issues that were exacerbated by the pandemic. We moved to our new farm property three years ago and have since dealt with some pre-existing soil problems. This has resulted in crop losses throughout the season and the market channels – restaurant wholesale and farmers markets – have shifted rapidly due to the pandemic. In the end, we weren’t able to grow the business in any way we thought possible, like starting a farmers market stall to sell direct to consumers.
My daughter was born in June and in August the LNU Complex Fire came through our town. We are used to fire the season. There are always a few weeks when I wear a mask, deal with smoke and try to keep the working days as short as possible. But I’ve never had such an impact on a physical plane. This was the first year it felt like the mask wasn’t enough. Having a newborn was very stressful – the sleep was insane, of course – and during those weeks of bad smoke it was hard because if I started coughing heavily I would wake everyone up. The first night she slept for eight hours we were so excited and then we said, “Wait, is that smoke inhaling?”
I’ve worked with an organization called Kitchen table advisor, which provides free business advice to smallholders. They helped some of us in their program to write a scholarship so that we could give free groceries to families who are at risk of being unsafe. Some farmers had lost their businesses when the hotel industry collapsed and schools closed, but we still wanted to plant and grow more than ever, despite the uncertainty in the market. Namu Farm launched Seed Stewards CSA last July.