Tiny beige flecks showered down from the desiccated stalk of celtuce in Kellee Matsushita-Tseng’s gloved hands. As the determined farmer tapped it rhythmically against the edge of a black plastic tub, the stalk’s withered sprigs rustled softly, making a sound like the fluttering paper streamers on a Shinto priest’s purification wand. The bottom of the tub began to disappear under a small pile of debris — mainly chaff, but also a scattering of precious seeds.
“I’ve already harvested one round of seed,” Matsushita-Tseng said, referring to a nearby pile of previously threshed stalks. “Is there one last round of seed that I can glean?” the farmer wondered aloud, and then answered hopefully, “I think there is, before I say goodbye to this stuff.”
Seed caretaker represents just one of many roles inhabited by Matsushita-Tseng (they/them), a multiethnic, queer Yonsei. Employed at UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology as an assistant manager, they help tend 30 acres of agricultural land while overseeing greenhouses and supporting a range of university programs related to environmental research and basic food production. Out of all this activity, though, they seem most animated by working with seeds, especially those of Asian origins, such as celtuce.
Known as wosun in China, celtuce boasts a crisp, juicy stem that chefs favor over its long, pointy leaves. The eye-catching green vegetable has captivated Matsushita-Tseng, who this year sowed several celtuce varieties at the Center in conjunction with group trials conducted by growers across the country. Observations from participating farmers and gardeners should expand available information about the plant, and allow for greater understanding of which varieties thrive where. In Santa Cruz, the celtuce variety that performed best was Yuan Ye, supplied by Seed Savers Exchange, an Iowa nonprofit that maintains a massive seed bank and is dedicated to the preservation of heirloom varieties.
“Seed work is interesting because it’s this weird mix of continuing evolution and adaptation, but also this preservation piece,” Matsushita-Tseng said as they kneeled in front of the black plastic tub, preparing to sift through the debris in search of Yuan Ye seeds.
The farmer was highlighting a tension in their efforts, pointing out that when seed workers prioritize certain useful traits while propagating a plant, other pieces of that plant’s historical genetic makeup can vanish. Any choice to save seed off one stalk of Yuan Ye and not another nudges the variety’s entire lineage in an intentional direction, and investing energy in saving seed from Yuan Ye instead of a different variety of celtuce entails an even bigger nudge. Over time, the cumulative effect of all this nudging could produce a vegetable that might not be completely familiar to people who ate it in China centuries ago.
And yet, celtuce and other plants might need this nudging in order to survive on into the future.
“When is adaptation actually the way to preserve things? If something can be preserved but slightly adapted, is that worth it?” Matsushita-Tseng mused, elaborating that a plant “might be lost if it doesn’t evolve, either because it’s not matching people’s cultural experience or lived experience, or just isn’t relevant because it hasn’t evolved a little bit.”
Continuing to reflect on these issues, they brought up a specific bean variety that had made its way to the Center from the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. They said this bean required minimal water and so could be cross-bred with other bean varieties to generate novel descendants that would tolerate drought — a welcome attribute in the face of climate change. And yet, they worried that such endeavors might eventually result in exploitation — a recurrent threat to Native American communities. “Will somebody take this thing and then commercialize it and take it out of context? I think that’s the concern,” declared Matsushita-Tseng.
To confront these thorny issues, they have helped build a support network that both maintains vigilance against seed appropriation and strives for balance in preserving and adapting plant lineages. Through a small collective of Asian American growers called Second Generation Seeds, Matsushita-Tseng coordinates broader dialogue and data-sharing within communities of the Asian diaspora in order to bolster vegetable populations. This summer, for instance, they hosted an online video forum — a virtual potluck — where participants had a chance to hear agricultural and culinary experts talk about celtuce and chrysanthemums (which are featured in many types of Asian cuisine).
Second Generation Seeds also distributes actual seeds, selling an expanding line of Korean heirlooms cultivated in California’s Central Valley by Matsushita-Tseng’s collaborator Kristyn Leach.
Although Second Generation Seeds serves as a dependable, instructive resource for any newcomer who aspires to grow Asian vegetables, even its organizers still have a lot to learn themselves, Matsushita-Tseng included. A single variety of celtuce can carry more than a millennium of horticultural history, a sliver of which might reveal itself to those perseverant enough to dig around, both figuratively and literally.
Walking across the Santa Cruz fields where they have spent close to a decade absorbing lessons from the local ecosystem, Matsushita-Tseng described their accrual of plant wisdom as constant but incremental. They said they had honed their sense of how to raise different crops through a basic pattern of “trying it and messing it up, trying it and messing it up again” while “talking to anyone I can” to gather tips and techniques. Lamentably, information on raising Asian vegetables is in short supply; Matsushita-Tseng has occasionally been “lucky enough to find some kind of written document, but there’s never anything comprehensive, and there’s never anything super easy.”
They remarked that this education had progressed in a manner “similar to learning about my own family history — little bits here and there.”
They had a great-grandfather and grandfather who worked in the California lettuce industry before World War II, but Matsushita-Tseng didn’t discover key details about that until “after I had been farming for five or six years.” One day their Sansei mother casually mentioned the men had once operated a farm, and “I’m like, ‘What? This is kind of important!’” they recalled, adding, “There’s such a rich farming legacy and history of the Japanese community in California — that’s a lot of what I think about and talk about, so I was like, ‘How did I not know?’”
During their childhood in the Los Angeles area, they didn’t take advantage of opportunities to ask about family lore, and none of their relatives had the inclination to “sit you down and say, ‘Here’s your history, here’s your genealogy.’” Nonetheless, they do know that their mother’s side traces back to Hokkaido and Toyama prefectures, and that their father’s side has origins in southern China.
They admitted that “I feel much more distanced from my Chinese side in a lot of ways,” despite having a larger proportion of Chinese American friends in both their farming circles and overall. As a Japanese American, “there’s a very particular experience of generations that feels very easy and identifiable, and there’s specific markers” with a “cultural language that I can hook onto.”
Although their grandparents escaped the wartime incarceration by fleeing California, ongoing activist response to that episode has welcomed participation from all Nikkei, not just those whose families suffered directly. For example, Matsushita-Tseng recently traveled to Fresno for a convening of the Yonsei Memory Project, a set of programs led in part by farmer Nikiko Masumoto that focuses on the incarceration as a means to encourage dialogue about civil liberties. They recounted that “a lot of the conversation throughout the weekend was unpacking our own experiences as Yonsei — how they’re similar, how they’re different, what we’re thinking about.”
Around Santa Cruz, Matsushita-Tseng has been extremely frustrated at the lack of spaces where they can express and explore their ethnicity. As a corrective, they organized the city’s first Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Festival earlier this year, and also founded Bitter Cotyledons, a local group of queer AAPI vegetable growers.
As intently as they have navigated the landscapes of their identity, though, they haven’t yet arrived at a final destination. Given their prominent role in guiding others on similar journeys, they have grappled with a nagging burden of self-expectation.
“Doing seed work and doing farming work that drives to connect people to lineage and ancestry, I myself have felt torn,” they confessed, acknowledging that their own ancestral connections aren’t quite fully realized. “Sometimes I feel like I have to have it all figured out — this neat, tidy story,” Matsushita-Tseng said. However, they have begun to accept that reckoning with cultural legacy is instead a “fragmented, unfinished process of continual learning.” Having witnessed this process unfold in their own life and other people’s as well, they testified that “sometimes it’s beautiful and sometimes it’s really hard.”
Matsushita-Tseng anticipates more ups and downs ahead, and recognizes that their path will likely meander in untold directions. Ambiguity is unavoidable, whether delving into heritage, horticulture, or both at the same time. At least there will be plenty of delicious vegetables along the way.