Land is not a commodity. It is our collective responsibility.

I was born in San Diego and raised by the Vietnamese refugee community here. As displaced peoples making a new home on foreign soil, I was taught to cultivate healthy grounds, grow cultural foods, and share our harvest. Respect for farmers and valuing fresh food are central to our daily rituals. Yet, nutritionists, health experts, and well-intentioned poverty alleviation groups look at aggregated health outcomes data, or simply out of judgement, and tell us we don’t know what’s good for us.

Like many of the immigrant and refugee communities in our diverse border county, we know that the cause of our high rates of diabetes, asthma, and diet-related illnesses aren’t because we lack knowledge. It’s because of what white, dominant society will not share: power and land. With power and land, we can shape infrastructure to provide for our communities instead of relying on a system created by and for only a few, that harms us more than heals us.

Land is fundamental for life, so the forced dispossession of land from Indigenous peoples who are still here and the lack of access and secure land tenure for immigrants, refugees, Black, and people of color means that we’re exposed to premature death. I’m a farmer dedicated to feeding my community, but I had to move to the other side of the state to afford leased land. There are many more people like me, but we are not allowed the space to grow our culturally-relevant food, exercise our respectful and sustainable human-nature world views, and root down our traditions, histories, and intergenerational legacies.

San Diego County uniquely has farmland adjacent to cities. We can get fresh food year-round. Now, imagine if we enabled San Diego’s ethnic and cultural diversity to be reflected in farmland ownership and food production. We have a landscape wherein immigrant, refugee, Black, and farmers of color and Indigenous land stewards could directly channel culturally-appropriate, healthful, fresh, and flavorful food to their urban communities, and everyone else!

First, we must preserve farmland. San Diego is losing precious farmland faster than any other county in the state. We need to protect farmland from development and non-agricultural industries; fertile soil isn’t recoverable once paved. These protections can come in the form of community control and easements. Land is not a commodity and is a collective responsibility.

Mai Nguyen is a first-generation, Vietnamese American heirloom grain and Southeast Asian crop farmer who has long balanced farming and farmer organizing. As Farmer Mai, they specialize in growing heirloom crops using organic, drought-tolerant, and soil-enriching methods. As founder and co-director of Minnow, they focus on securing land tenure for farmers of color.

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