This story is published in partnership with KCET/PBS SoCal.
Imagine a farm.
Chances are, your mind conjured visions of vast fields. Depending on where you grew up, maybe you thought of uniform rows of corn or the mirror-like surface of a rice paddy. Whatever the case, whatever your personal connection to agriculture, the farm of your imagination probably looks nothing like Girl & Dug Farm.
The as-far-as-the-eye-can-see kind of farming (formally known as monoculture farming), in which a single crop is cultivated on large swaths of land, has come to define not only the popular image of a farm, but also our rural landscapes and the modern food system. Girl & Dug Farm is the antithesis of this agricultural approach.
When asked how many crops grow at Girl & Dug Farm, owner Aaron Choi responds, “At any given point, we’ll be jumping around between, gosh, about 90 to 110 different things. Depending on the season, almost three-quarters of that will be a combination of greens and herbs.” A variety of vegetables make up the remainder.
It is not only the number of crops grown at Girl & Dug Farm that make this farm exceptional, but also the nature of the individual plants. Although greens, herbs and vegetables may seem like standard fare, it is unlikely you have ever encountered the kinds Choi farms, which include “everything from oca [a Peruvian tuber] to specialty potatoes to weird cucumbers that can be real painful to touch because they’re studded with horns.”
Choi lists a few vegetables with more familiar names and less intimidating descriptions, explaining in an almost comical way that “carrots are one of the last things we got into.” Forget orange though; Choi prefers edible roots with names like Black Nebula (“the only carrot I know of that is actually black or dark purple through and through”), Kyoto Red, Sundrop and Clair de Lune.
And that’s just in San Diego. Girl & Dug Farm (which is named for Choi’s daughter and the family’s beagle) consists of two farms, with one location in Southern California and another in Portland, Oregon. The northern location is more focused on fruits, such as pink blueberries, Chilean guavas, blood limes and yuzu.
Girl & Dug Farm expanded into the Pacific Northwest from its original location in California in 2020, the same year they began shipping their fresh produce to all 50 states. It is an impressive feat, especially considering this occurred in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and that Choi spent the year “remote farming” his land in Portland from hundreds of miles away.
“2005 was when the whole thing got started,” explains Choi. “My sisters and I were trying to get our parents out of our original family business, which was a flower shop.”
Instead of retiring, Choi’s parents decided to buy a plot of land. Although they originally intended to plant their own flowers for sale, they ended up growing Korean cucumbers and greens.
Choi decided to join the new family business in 2009, leaving a graduate degree program in the study of religion. He spent his first few years “learning the ropes” of farming and began to seriously consider the future of the farm around 2015. “I knew that in order to carry this business into decades coming, I didn’t really want to focus solely on bulk Korean vegetables,” says Choi. “So I started to think about specialty produce for high-end restaurants.”
He describes this period as “a combination of soul searching plus research into the market.” He asked himself, “What are the greens and vegetables I’d grown up eating?” and assessed the crops already growing on his family’s farm, which included highly nutritious and flavorful greens traditionally used in Korean cuisine such as perilla, minari and garlic chives.
Although aware of the demand at high-end restaurants for specialty greens like sorrel or mustard, Choi was not interested in growing what he considered “run-of-the-mill” microgreens. He was more inspired by the plants already thriving on his family’s farm, which led him to ask, “What if we started to shrink them down? What’s the flavor profile going to be like then?”
Choi began rigorously tasting and experimenting with various greens and vegetables, starting seeds in trays typically used to grow microgreens, keeping them in greenhouses to carefully control growing conditions.
“There’s always been a part of my being that loves to tinker with things, paired with persistence that could border on obsession,” says Choi. Although studying molecular biology in college provided Choi with a “foundational understanding of the biochemistry of plants,” it is his innate curiosity that drives his process of experimentation.
To “shrink” a plant to a smaller size is not only a matter of harvesting the plant before maturity; there are many factors to consider, ranging from the temperature of the plant’s environment to how much sunlight and water the plant is receiving. All of these factors determine the flavor and texture of the end product.
Girl & Dug Farm is constantly testing new ways of farming each of their crops, uninhibited by conventional agricultural knowledge that often argues against growing certain plants (such as beets and radishes) in greenhouses. “Not having a formal background in agriculture is serving us in a way where sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know and ignorance is bliss,” says Choi. “We don’t know how a thing is supposed to be or how it’s supposed to work, so screw it, man, we’re going to do it anyway.”
There is a sort of intrepid enthusiasm verging on irreverence in the way Choi speaks about farming that challenges not only how we grow food, but also how we eat it.
When Choi first began developing the unique selection of greens that came to be Girl & Dug Farm’s KinderGreens as an alternative to more commonplace microgreens, he wanted to create what he calls a “functional garnish,” which “is not just about looking good. It’s got to have flavor.”
He explains, “When garnish has flavor, it’s really going to challenge a chef’s conception of how they plate something, because now they’ve got to worry about this mustard leaf that I thought I was putting in there to pretty up this plate actually tastes like mustard. Now I’ve got to think about the core ingredients so the mustard doesn’t overpower the entire dish.”
Choi advocates not only for a renewed perspective on how ingredients are used in a dish, but also on which ingredients should make it onto the plate at all. He points out that when it comes to greens and vegetables, what “one culture might call weeds, some other culture in the world might call a staple” — as is the case with lambsquarters, which is considered a weed in the U.S., but is a nutrient-dense ingredient put to good use in a number of Korean dishes.
This expansive view of food has contributed to the dazzling array of products that Girl & Dug Farm offers today, while also inspiring partnerships with some of the most well-known chefs in the country (including Chef Corey Lee of Benu in San Francisco and Chef Jordan Kahn of Vespertine in Los Angeles) who are constantly asking Choi what he is growing that is “new and exciting” — so much so that Choi actively avoids using these words in conversation. (When discussing food, “new and exciting” is best used only within the context of a single farm or restaurant so as not to risk dismissing the culture of origin for any given ingredient, which may be associated with thousands of years of culinary traditions.)
It is no wonder Choi’s natural charisma and samples of fresh produce have charmed many chefs who are eager to taste and experiment with unfamiliar ingredients. This adventurous, open mentality has proven to be mutually beneficial in Choi’s relationships with chefs. Occasionally, chefs will introduce Choi to foods that were previously unknown to him, as was the case with Chef Jeremy Fox of Los Angeles’ Michelin-starred Rustic Canyon, who came to Choi in early 2018 requesting he grow oca.
With much difficulty, Choi was able to source 17 of the roughly 50 varieties of oca that are native to Peru, and with much more difficulty managed to grow some of them at Girl & Dug Farm. He describes this pursuit as “nonsensical.” “We weren’t even sure if this would work out or if there was a market,” says Choi. However, this kind of experimentation is built into the farm’s business model. “All told, we generally dedicate between 8% to 13% of total revenue to [research and development].”
Choi describes oca as tasting “like a baked potato with sour cream and a little bit of MSG added into it,” noting each variety has a slightly different color and flavor. “Some of the darker colors have a subtle sweet potato character. Some of the lighter colors have a more apple peel acidic quality,” he explains.
After all of the challenges of procuring and farming oca, Choi’s current challenge — and the challenge for all farmers — lies in selling what he has grown. Unlike other farmers, however, Choi points out that “even with our chefs included, less than 1% of our consumer base know what oca is.”
In past years, Choi leveraged the relative obscurity of most of Girl & Dug Farm’s produce as an advantage in marketing to chefs; however, as restaurants began to close in March of 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he realized his farm could no longer be fully financially dependent on restaurant relationships. This meant not only developing a direct-to-consumer model, but also figuring out how to convince homecooks to try unusual ingredients.
In April of 2020, Girl & Dug Farm began offering Dug’s Foodie Box and Lucky Ssam Box, containers of the farm’s fresh produce filled with ingredients like oca, Pichuberries, ice plant and KinderMix greens available for online ordering and home delivery.
Girl & Dug Farm had already started exploring the idea of selling their products directly to consumers in 2019, but they did not plan to begin doing so until the summer of 2021. “That project essentially became something we pulled up ahead by about a year and a half, not something purely out of necessity,” Choi explains.
Although the launch of Girl & Dug Farm’s fresh produce boxes did not happen as Choi originally envisioned, he points out this venture has “grown and done really well for us. Not to cover the entire amount, but to offset quite a bit of what we would’ve lost otherwise in revenue from restaurants last year.”
“I can’t go through the list without tearing up a little bit inside because of the number of restaurants that have closed,” Choi says when asked about which restaurants continue to partner with Girl & Dug Farm. “We’re still only looking at about less than 20% of the restaurant side of the operation coming back.”
As Girl & Dug Farm nears the first full year of selling its farm boxes, Choi reflects on the significant additional work the team has put into educating consumers, using their social media channels, website, and numerous other forms of communication to respond to inquiries about what to do with their produce.
“If we were doing that for a set four-item product line? Okay, great. But we’re talking 90 to a 100 products,” says Choi. “That’s simultaneously exciting, yet makes us question at every turn: is this a scalable and sustainable business model?”
In forging a new way forward for farmers, Choi has even strayed from the language commonly used to speak about agricultural enterprises, preferring, for example, not to use the term CSA (community-supported agriculture) when talking about his produce boxes; he strives to build a different kind of relationship between his farm and the people who enjoy the food grown there. Instead, each container of greens, fruits and vegetables is given its own name based on the season (The Spring Box), a holiday (The Christmas Box), or a source of inspiration (The Grain Bowl Box).
“We can build a bigger understanding among the general public that’s far beyond just knowing your food source. That’s a very important thing, but I think stopping there sells all of us short on what a farm can be and do — and that’s food diversity. That’s kind of a buzzword, but let’s dive much deeper into why it is important to explore the different foods that are out there,” says Choi.
“If the broader public were to gain a better understanding of what some of these staple foods are in other parts of the world and how delicious and nutritious they can be,” Choi continues, “it’s a major step in the right direction for promoting different foods, and therefore different cultures.”