Now in its 27th year, AAJA Voices is a student program that provides aspiring journalists with career-ready skills to succeed in the continually-evolving media landscape. By nurturing relationships between students and professional volunteers, Voices also gives students the opportunity to tap into mentors’ networks and begin their own while also providing AAJA journalists leadership and management opportunities. 

Rooting Identity in Cultivating Land

By Emily Cardinali, Ash Ngu & Alyssa Ramos

The Audio Team is focusing on a trio of stories about Asian Americans who are growing food that grounds their diasporic communities with a taste of home. Here's what each of us has been up to in the first couple weeks out in the field.

Emily Cardinali

Robert Silva stood knee-deep in a loʻi kalo — a wetland area where taro root grows — in the middle of Honolulu.

We were in a park three blocks off the main freeway on Oahu, nestled into an industrialized neighborhood called Kalihi. A decade ago, the park was overgrown with invasive grasses and a place homeless people frequented. 

Today a small spring bubbles crystal clear water into a pond in the center of the park. Silva and a small community have taken it upon themselves to keep the park manicured, and there’s water flowing from many places. It’s cold and clean, and variegated greens patten the edges of the water.

The stereotypical image of a farmer in the U.S. is probably an older white man wearing Levi’s, leather boots and a wide brimmed hat. Maybe he’s driving a John Deere tractor, and maybe he’s leaning on a bale of hay. 

But the image of a farmer to me is much more like Silva, a tall sun-browned man wearing a hat woven out of palm fronds knee-deep in the mud. 

I grew up visiting my family’s rice paddies in Taiwan nearly every summer. That’s where my mom grew up, and generations of my family grew rice and veggies before her. When you ask me what a farmer looks like, I think of my grandpa bent in the paddy picking out a stray weed, or my aunties picking fresh greens from our garden in the backyard. 

Voices comes to me at a transition in my life: I’m moving from Taipei back to Florida for a few months while I search for jobs and save up some money. In the inbetween, I stopped in Hawaii to visit friends and professors from when I was in graduate school. I wanted to take advantage of that time in the islands to report on our story and take a look at the AAPI farmers and agriculturalists.

Alyssa Ramos

Trips to Orlando always ended up at the Asian grocery store. The smell punches the nose with an amalgamation of fish, spices and a familiar mustiness. We would travel an hour and a half from our small town in north Central Florida to get something as simple but essential as rice. Finding the right ingredients was crucial to making certain Filipino dishes. Pig belly, bok choy or even MamaCita packets used for chicken Adobo. 

Sometimes there's no substitute. 

As part of the audio team, we're exploring what farming means to the Asian American diaspora. For some people, it was a way into creating a life for themselves in America. As part of my reporting, I'm delving into the local farms both those that have succeeded and even those that have failed in cultivating a piece of home here on American soil.

More farms in Florida are catering to Asian American palettes growing produce native to Asia such as longan, star fruit and durian. My research has shown that some Asian American farmers have been going on four generations of farming in South Florida. Just when you think you've had your home sussed out, this project has shown me that there are always narratives to be discovered.

Ash Ngu

I am writing from a farm in downeast Maine, the first of many stops for me this summer that run along the Northeast coast.

Yesterday the proprietor, a spirited young agrarian organizer, remarked that "Farming is good calisthenics for land repair." I have been chewing on this statement. Land repair implies much more than just the dirt, the fields, and the wild vegetation and animals. It comes hand in hand with repair of the community, the economy, and the health of people.

Where does land repair start for immigrants? Where does a stable home and connection to land begin for immigrants? Immigration is a disruption to the knowledge of place, of land, of country, knowledge that is traditionally amassed over generations. How are younger generations of Asian Americans establishing new roots? To answer this, I am seeking stories of Asian Americans who are working intimately with land.

The first step so far has been finding Asian American farmers. In 2017, the USDA census recorded 8,173 farmers in Maine. Seventeen of those farmers identified as Asian. For a state like Maine, where Asian Americans make up 1.4 percent of the population, maybe 0.2 percent of farmers being Asian American is fine. But in New York, a state with 8.2 percent Asian Americans, just 0.3 percent of more than 57,000 farmers are Asian American. 

Despite the numbers odds, I have a few promising leads. All of them, coincidentally, are young Asian American women. Over the coming weeks, I expect to make visits to their garden plots and neighborhoods to learn about what drives these women towards farming, that vital and grounding task of pulling food from the earth.

Emily Cardinali, Ash Ngu & Alyssa Ramos are 2019 AAJA Voices Students. They are edited Emily Cardinali is a producer for Ghost Island Media, a Taipei-based media start-up. Ash Ngu is a journalist, designer, and photographer based in New York City. Alyssa Ramos is a recent graduate of the University of Florida and an associate producer at WCJB.

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