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Li Schmidt and Zee Husain opened Cultural Roots Nursery only a year and four months prior to our conversation with them in September 2021. Not a lot of jobs were available when this entrepreneurial duo graduated from University of California (UC) Davis, which made them jump on the opportunity to start a business together. Li was in a Community Development master’s program, and Zee studied International Agriculture Development. They were former roommates who met at a UC Davis conference. Their passion for agriculture and desire to connect with their ancestry led them to create a backyard garden that consisted of South Asian edible plants from Zee’s upbringing and East Asian ones from Li’s. To build up their new business, the duo eventually leased a greenhouse in Winters, Calif. that was quickly replaced with a larger one within a year. With a grant under their belt, the partners are already speaking to potential investors.
In starting a new agricultural business together, we asked what the division of labor is between the two partners. Zee replied, “We both do the same things, but I grow the South Asian plants, and Li grows the East Asian plants. We divide it so there are certain plants that we will continue to grow separately. Those are the plants that are important to our respective cultures. I’m in charge of growing the curry leaf tree, something predominantly consumed in South Asia, which means I can become the expert on that plant. For a lot of these Asian varieties, there isn’t much information online for how to grow them, and how to properly care for them. That’s the expertise I’m hoping to offer with the plants that I’m growing.”
Zee recently started working full time as a farm manager at the Culinary Institute of America. She currently lives in Oakland and has a second greenhouse set up in her parent’s backyard. Oakland is also where the nursery’s target demographic is, so Zee makes it a point to keep her finger on the pulse of nearby farmers markets where they participate as vendors. These markets include the Old Oakland Farmers Market and Irvington Farmers Market in Fremont. Meanwhile, Li resides in Davis, close to where the business’ leased greenhouse is located. In relation to division of duties and scheduling, “It’s the offseason. Next spring, we’re hiring someone to help do the bulk of transplanting, but it will still be very busy. I’ll be working seven days a week because the farmers markets are on the weekends but hopefully, we can streamline that. Li has a part-time job, so she has more time than I do right now. We kind of switch off. If one of us has something personal or unexpected, then the other person kind of takes over.”
The pandemic gave the partners the impetus needed to start their own nursery, described Li. “The moment just seemed like a good time to act, especially because we heard that the local nurseries all around were running out of plant starts. We thought about our communities and how people are becoming more aware of where their food comes from, the food system, having an interest in gardening but then not having any plants that might resonate with their cuisines or culture.” The duo took this opportunity to sprout heritage vegetables and resell them to stores that were struggling to keep up with demand during lockdown. Li shared another challenge they encountered. “There are some risks that are related to the climate. In California, there are fires. Once, the smoke was so bad that all of our pop-up events got cancelled. We actually ended up losing one type of crop because the timing was so delayed.” Her personal motivation to keep going despite these challenges: “For me, it’s about health, feeding people, and helping to make the connection between land and people. I think that there’s a lot of health problems that communities have due to a disconnection with the food system.”
Li explained the mission at Cultural Roots Nursery: “We’re trying to help people produce [food] at a smaller scale. Get people to obtain food from sources beyond just industrial ones. Empower them to learn it’s possible to grow food for yourself too, even if it is just a container pot on your porch. Having that little bit of autonomy and just knowing that it’s possible is a big reason why I do what I do.” Zee reflected on how their mission also plays out on a personal level for her. “I had grown amaranth and showed it to my mom. She said she had never seen that in the 30 years she’s been in this country. Moments where I connect what I’m doing with my family and see how much they appreciate it — those are the building blocks of this business for me.” Zee discussed the demographics they serve, “It’s an emotional experience for them. They connect on an emotional level with [a certain] plant because of their memories of that food. Even though they’re growing, they’re not going to get enough to feed their family off of that one plant. They still want to do it because it’s a special experience to care for that plant and watch it grow.” Li added, “At the farmers market, we would try to put the English name, and then the Chinese name, or Zee would put Urdu, and then the photo. We’re trying to close the gap so that people can recognize the seedlings from our placards.” Besides selling at farmers markets, the Cultural Roots Nursery sells online and at Asian grocery stores where, as Li remarked, “people already go to get their food.” Despite their advanced studies, the vast number of ethnic agricultural varieties means the partners sometimes learn about new strains of seed directly from the community. Zee described interacting with customers, “We were surprised because there were quite a few people who brought us seeds at the market. We got a very special South Asian pepper variety that way. Someone brought me a huge bag of dried peppers that they had saved so I grew them on a farm and I’m going to grow them for seed this year and again for market next year. That was a fun way to obtain seeds, but for the most part it’s through informal seed sharing, online with home gardeners or online through smaller seed companies.”
In seeking out greenhouse space, Li explained that there were not a lot of long-term rentals on the market. After committing to a couple of one-year leases, which meant moving greenhouse locations twice, she felt that eventually purchasing land might offer more security. “I think the only real solution for us would be if somehow we could buy land and put up a greenhouse on it.” Li talked about her frustration with multiple moves. “We keep looking for a bigger space. That’s definitely a limiting factor for us because we can’t produce enough to meet the demand right now.” It seems that short-term rentals will serve their purpose until the duo figures out what is the right amount of capacity they need for the demand they are expanding to meet. By then, they will hopefully be ready to buy land. Cultural Roots Nursery is primarily a greenhouse space for production that isn’t yet open to the public for visitation, although the partners have discussed this possibility in the near future. An example of how their leased space is utilized includes reserving an eighth of an acre for seed saving.
Looking back on their journey to becoming nursery owners, Li recounted, “It was literally just in our backyard. Whatever space we had, we turned it into a plant nursery. We made a small plastic covering over the table and that’s how it started. Later, we were connected with an urban farmer who encouraged us to put up a greenhouse on their unused driveway space. We actually just made it out of PVC and wood. It was the cheapest thing we could build.” When asked about the risks of their business, Li said, “The risk wasn’t so great in a sense because we started so small. Zee and I put in our own money to fund it. Whatever we could put in, we did, and eventually, made it all back. I think that showed us we could continue.” Regarding the pandemic as a factor that led to the public’s sudden interest in home gardening, Li shared her insight: “I would say that it is connected. I think there’s always been a demand for these plants from [ethnic] communities, but if you go to any mainstream nursery, you won’t find the things that we’re growing at all. The demand has always been there, but the pandemic may have gotten people interested in gardening for the first time. A lot of our customers this year have never gardened before. They asked a lot of questions about home gardening. So yes, I think the pandemic played a very big role in generating interest.” The niche market in heritage seeds was an unforeseen opportunity that Cultural Roots Nursery partners, Li and Zee, recognized and immediately seized after completing graduate school and entering into a pandemic. Said Zee of pursuing their business, “I feel very fulfilled with how things have been going and now that I’m doing it, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I am very happy.”
Conversations with Diara Fowler & Jess Lo. Written by Diara Fowler. Edited by Eugenia Macias & Jess Lo.