Meet Sonoma County Farmer, Leslie Wiser, Owner and Operator of Radical Family Farms
Leslie Wiser thinks of her Sebastopol business, Radical Family Farms, as as a celebration of her family’s mixed heritage. She grows many of the crops of her mixed Asian-American heritage, and loves coming out to her rows to see greens like xiao bai cai, a Taiwanese bok choy, and wirsing, a German savoy cabbage, growing together.
Some of the roughly 50 crop varieties she's planted on her three-acre farm honor her Chinese side, such as Goji berries and Sichuan peppercorns. European perennials like gooseberries, currants, and prune plums pay homage to her now-deceased German-Polish-Jewish grandmother, who longed for such fruits since emigrating to the U.S.
Wiser's parents married shortly after the Loving Act of 1967 legalized interracial unions, but this remained a radical notion in the Midwest, where Wiser grew up. Wiser was conflicted about starting her own farm and family in the Midwest, where she never really felt safe being queer and mixed-race. Settling in LGBTQIA-welcoming, agriculture-focused Sebastopol has ultimately been a great decision for her relationship, her children, and her farm.
"Sonoma County has different microclimates, but here in Sebastopol, extreme heat during the days and then the cool mornings and evenings allows us to grow some very subtropical, hothouse crops—which are many of the kinds of vegetables I'm interested in growing right now."
A graduate of the Master Gardener program in Sonoma, Leslie values farming as regeneratively as she can. "In 2019 and 2020, we did a lot of mulching with the goal of water retention," she says with pride. "We continue to do a lot of composting, low tillage to no tillage, to keep the soil structure intact, and again, encourage more water retention."
The farm's healthy soil is a happy place for flowers as well as produce, including zinnias, cosmos, dahlias, and celosia. They're cared for by Leslie's partner, Sarah Deragon, who serves as Radical Family Farms' resident flower farmer—a role that wasn't always her plan.
Deragon says with a wry chuckle, "Before starting this adventure, I was a professional photographer with one houseplant." When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Deragon’s iconic professional photography business, Portraits to the People, slowed down. She quickly pivoted to, as she says "going full-tilt on flowers.” Ever since, her excitement for flower farming has only, well, grown, and she now balances farming with her photo business. "Every time I get to grow a flower, harvest it, and make a bouquet, it's an awesome day."
Sundays, though, are especially meaningful for the family. "Preparing Sunday meals are mainly a remembering of my grandparents and our family history," Wiser says. "I use the produce that we're growing to cook either Taiwanese, Hungarian, or German dishes, and use the food I’m cooking to talk with my children about our family history, especially the events from World War II that displaced my family on both sides and brought us to this country.
"Just in one generation so much language and culture has been lost in the process of immigration to the United States, mainly out of self-preservation—both by my grandparents and my parents. I want bring this back full circle for my children and for myself. I feel like the farm is allowing my kids to explore their heritage, especially their Chinese side."
This concept extends to Wiser's community, as well. While she acknowledges that the main focus of Radical Family Farms is on feeding families with their May-through-November CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription, she says she also greatly enjoys, "working with chefs who are on a similar path to ours, exploring and cooking the foods of their heritage."