Farmer Kristyn Leach Wants to Preserve Heirloom Asian Vegetables

You’ve probably never heard of black chestnut soybeans. Second Generation Seeds wants to change that.

Farmer Kristyn Leach. Photo by Alec MacDonald

Picture yourself as a wealthy investor who bankrolls sophisticated restaurants. An acclaimed chef at one of your popular San Francisco ventures has invited you to a private menu tasting. You stride through the door with a hearty appetite and high expectations, but what the chef places in front of you is … a small plate of beans.

The perfect occasion for a rich-person hissyfit, right? Time for you to dish out a threat of revoked funding, served hot with a side of righteous indignation, yes?

No. Because you, my moneyed friend, are in for a treat.

Sure, the beans lack razzle-dazzle. They’ve been cooked quite plainly, just steamed and adorned with cultured butter. They’re so humble, in fact, that across the Pacific Ocean they figure prominently in the diet of peasants. But they also happen to be the best beans your chef has ever tasted. He wants to show you how precious they are. He will succeed, too — out of all the other delicacies at this tasting event, these beans are what you will remember.

Unfortunately, back here in the real world, you will not be sampling any of these marvels known as black chestnut soybeans. Chef Dennis Lee will not personally introduce you to these wondrous Korean legumes, and this disappointing fact has little to do with your lack of a financial stake in his local eateries Namu Gaji, Namu Stonepot, and Namu Street Food. The reason you won’t be experiencing any black chestnut soybeans the way his actual investors did is because they’re all gone.

For now, the closest you’ll get is hearing about them from one of Lee’s collaborators, farmer Kristyn Leach. She’s the one who grew these rare treasures, along with a cornucopia of other produce, all by herself on a two-acre plot in Yolo County. During this season she typically spends some 70 hours a week toiling away up there, but at the current moment she’s down in Oakland, kicking back with a bottle of beer at the headquarters of the Kitazawa Seed Company.

The 102-year-old company has partnered with Leach to cultivate black chestnut soybeans as part of a unique effort to preserve heirloom Asian herbs and vegetables. Having sown a wide variety of seeds from the standard Kitazawa catalog as a longstanding customer, Leach wanted to help launch a new seed line that would contribute to the independent business’ century-old legacy.

“It was the thing I felt I could offer, to be like, okay, what’s next, what is the future that would honor the 102 years that have happened,” she says, envisioning the seed line as “moving that forward and keeping it dynamic, and not just creating something that only wants to enshrine history and tradition, but keep it alive.”

Having debuted in the 2019 Kitazawa catalog released earlier this year, the seed line drew intense buyer interest, leaving its five selections in short supply. Beyond missing out on black chestnut soybeans, you’ll also be hard-pressed to get your hands on seeds for the other varietals: two kinds of chili pepper, a hardy mustard, and a distinctive herb called perilla. All come by way of Korea, and as a line are packaged under the brand label Second Generation Seeds, a name that Leach points out “immediately denotes the idea of heritage in a way that’s really specific to migration.”

The name pulls double-duty as a subversive reference to plant breeding, but it’s primarily meant to evoke how immigrant communities experience “the uniqueness of being of a diaspora, the journey you’re on of figuring out being sort of both and sort of neither,” according to Leach.

She’s been navigating this journey herself, albeit from a first-generation perspective. Born in the South Korean city of Daegu in 1982, she was adopted as an infant and grew up in an Irish-Catholic family on Long Island. In the face of this geographic divide, she has depended on farming to assert her ethnic identity. Her ancestral land may lie thousands of miles away, but she can sustain its culture on her own plot of American soil.

“When you don’t live in Korea,” she says, “it becomes more important to feel like you’re protecting tradition, or have something rooted.”

She’s gone to great lengths in support of that goal, perhaps most notably by returning to Korea in 2014 for a three-week tour to connect with agricultural advocates, hone specific farming techniques, and gather inspiration. During her visit, people she met bestowed her with heirloom seeds that would later become the Second Generation Seeds line — not that this was her original intent.

“I went there with probably a mildly arrogant point of view of, ‘This will be how I serve my homeland — I can grow these seeds, and send them back, and help preserve them,’ ” she says. “But pretty much no one wanted that. They were like, ‘You just keep them safe, and share them with people in the U.S. Just make sure that other people will continue to have access to them.’ ”

Among the trove they entrusted to Leach, she received only 10 black chestnut soybeans. Multiplying those into a significant harvest took many cycles of plant propagation — and since the varietal requires 130 days to reach maturity, that meant years of work. The whole time, Leach couldn’t bring herself to sacrifice any beans for eating, meaning that she dedicated a massive amount of labor and mental anguish to growing a food whose flavor remained a mystery to her.

Luckily, her gamble paid off — the black chestnut soybean is clearly a winner. As she exclaims with palpable enthusiasm: “It’s delicious!”

Still, the 2020 Kitazawa catalog doesn’t publish until this winter, and even if you place an order as soon as it comes out, you’re still facing a lengthy growing season after your own 10 black chestnut soybeans arrive in the mail. So you’re going to need to summon some patience. That’s actually a big piece of this whole experience. Because you are an investor, just not a wealthy one who bankrolls restaurants. You are investing in history and tradition; you are helping keep them alive.

Imagine yourself the way Leach imagines you. “I just want to picture someone who is potentially as isolated as I was growing up on Long Island,” she says. You feel out of place, disconnected, but then she sends you a small manila envelope. Inside, you find a link to your heritage. And then, she says, you think to yourself: “I can grow these things, and there’s a little chapter of a story. And then I can feel like a part of that story again.”

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