More than a decade ago, farmer Kristyn Leach found life-changing inspiration in the catalog for the Kitazawa Seed Company. Like countless other Asian American growers who have perused that catalog, she discovered rare seeds that called out to her, offering the promise of cultural connection through botanical stewardship. Unlike anyone else, however, she took that cultural connection and gave it a special home, furnishing a permanent space for the preservation and celebration of Asian heirloom plants.
With a last-minute financing hitch blocking her way, Leach is anxiously awaiting her chance to break ground on a seed campus, a project that would intensify her dedication to the horticultural diversity she discovered through Kitazawa. If she can close a sizable funding gap, she will secure an eight-acre property in Sebastopol and begin preparing the soil to welcome a fascinating collection of heritage seed crops.
Leach has been curating this collection in Northern California for years. She first introduced it to the public with the help of Kitazawa, transitioning from customer to supplier after a meeting with company owners Maya Shiroyama and Jim Ryugo led to a business partnership. In the 2016 Kitazawa catalog, she debuted a pair of Korean chili peppers under the brand label Second Generation Seeds, which has steadily grown since then to now encompass 16 varietals, such as a Japanese eggplant, a Chinese cucumber, and a Burmese okra.
When Shiroyama and Ryugo sold Oakland-based Kitazawa to out-of-state buyers in 2021, Leach retained Second Generation Seeds as her own independent venture. That’s not to say she’s been running things all alone. Her operations are highly collaborative, relying on a wide network of growers who conduct seed trials and share information about crop performance in different ecological systems. However, the substance and the spirit of Second Generation Seeds has always emanated from land tended by Leach herself.
In shouldering this load, she has pined for more stable accommodations. Having spent her entire career as a tenant farmer moving from plot to plot, she would much rather root her labors in a dedicated patch of earth.
“It’s been an idea that’s just been brewing for a long time,” Leach said, declaring, “my hope was always that, whether it was at Kitazawa or somewhere else, there would be a physical base for that seed work.”
She caught a glimpse of what this could look like when visiting a corn-breeding program at the University of Wisconsin, and developed a vision for how she might structure her own version around Asian heirloom plants. “Almost like a museum,” she suggested, describing her imagined seed campus as “essentially a germplasm repository, but something where seed is regenerated year after year.” Keeping seed in active reproduction — as opposed to locking it away in cold storage, as some preservation efforts do — would allow it to adapt to new conditions brought on by climate change.
Leach’s vision includes caring for the seed campus with the practices of natural farming, an agricultural approach which minimizes human intervention and prioritizes ecological harmony. Natural farming is often associated with Masanobu Fukuoka, who wrote about it in his 1975 international best-seller “The One-Straw Revolution,” a book that provided Leach with a valuable philosophical perspective on her profession. Motivated by this conscientious attitude, she has already been aspiring to convince others to grow Second Generation Seeds with natural farming methods, offering a combined “irresistible package for farmers to be able to farm better.”
An active participant in agricultural forums and frequent speaker at conferences, Leach has had many an occasion to talk about these possibilities and share that her “ultimate dream would be this seed campus.” The feedback has been encouraging. According to Leach, “Funders had always softly been like, ‘Oh, this seed campus — it’s an interesting idea. If you make any headway to that, let us know and we’ll support it.’”
She thus held an advantageous position when the Sebastopol property opened up last year. Managing to scrape together enough integrated capital to match the $1.5 million asking price, she stood on the cusp of achieving her dream — until a $200,000 chunk of her backing just recently evaporated.
Prior to this setback, Leach had planned to unveil the launch of the seed campus in a surprise announcement to her comrades and colleagues. Instead, she was forced to ask them for financial help as a means to finalize the land deal. Needing to make this pivot proved immensely stressful, but Leach reflected, “I’ve felt enormously grateful that this is the way it turned out,” given the prospect “to cross the finish line from this real pure grassroots effort.”
On April 12, her close friends Sara Spriggs and Allison Hopelain kicked off an ambitious fundraising campaign, primarily targeting a set of close-knit communities in which Leach has earned great love and respect. In the farming world, she has gained admirers for her championing of environmental protection, which won her recognition from the Community Alliance with Family Farmers as the nonprofit’s 2021 Ecological Farmer of the Year. On the local culinary scene, her knack for growing fresh, flavorful ingredients has sparked excitement from chefs and restaurateurs. And in the Korean diaspora, her origins as an adoptee from Daegu have prompted her to step up for Hanin social and political causes both in California and across the Pacific.
Leach’s affinity for this last group shines through in her choice of name for her unique farming project: The Gohyang Seed Campus. Using the Korean word for hometown, this name serves almost like an invitation.
“My hope is that it does become this place that — generations from now — people who never knew me or anything to do with me still can gather at that site,” Leach said. If her vision holds into that distant future, “it will still be something that’s meaningful for Asian American communities,” she added.
Of course, long before future generations can ever appreciate this project, Leach will need to secure the land for it first. Her fundraising campaign has a May 12 deadline, and she has quite a ways to go before reaching the necessary $200,000 threshold. If she can get there in time, the fields of the Gohyang Seed Campus could soon be sown, holding that promise of cultural connection for growers everywhere.