Amy Wu came to Salinas in 2015 as a reporter for the Salinas Californian with a mission to cover local government. She had zero background in the agriculture industry, and describes her experience of driving around the county and seeing the fields in production as a huge awakening. Entranced, she began to wonder who was telling the stories – not only of Salinas and agriculture’s place in it – but also of the people behind the region’s largest industry. She found a void, and decided to fill it.
Wu left the Californian in 2017 to take up a residency at the Western Growers Association’s Center for Innovation & Technology, where she leads a project she founded called “From Farms to Incubators” and combines the storytelling chops she developed as a journalist with her newfound and lasting passion for agriculture and the people who grow our food. “I love telling stories,” she says. Her documentary, also titled From Farms to Incubators: Telling the Stories of Minority Women Entrepreneurs in the Salinas Valley and Beyond screened at the SXSW Conference & Festivals in Austin, Texas in March, and Wu also appeared on a panel discussion at the festival about telling the stories of women in technology, farming and food.
She’s currently working on a book project based on the documentary, and continuing to tell stories of women and minorities in ag from around the nation. She splits her time between upstate New York and Salinas.
Weekly: You describe your introduction to Salinas and the agriculture industry as a “big awakening.” How did that start and how did it related to your work as a journalist?
Wu: When I came to Salinas, everywhere I drove I saw endless fields of lettuce and workers out there, day in and day out, and it is mind-blowing. We have a $9 billion ag industry and we’re the Salad Bowl of the World, and we also have low rates of graduation and a huge gang problem. Salinas seemed lost in time, and it really struck me, the contrast of Salinas feeding the world and having all those problems.
So you discovered this world that was new to you, but how did that start manifesting itself in your work?
As a woman and an Asian-American, in covering government I noticed a while ago there were not a lot of women and even fewer women of color. I started to ask questions about ag-tech companies, and how many are led by or founded by women. At first I would receive a deer in the headlights look and quiet silence. And I kept asking in different ways.
But there were ag-tech conferences going on. I went to one at THRIVE Accelerator, and looked around for women of color and I didn’t see a lot in 2017. A couple of people told me, “You’re looking for a unicorn,” but I believed they were out there.
And you discovered they were out there, but how?
Slowly, through the Western Growers Center and THRIVE, they identified a few women and introduced me to them. I found four or five companies with women leaders or CEOs, and that’s what inspired me to make the film and start screening it. I felt like taking a deeper dive in telling a story that was not underreported, but not reported at all. A lot of these women didn’t come from generational farming, but had backgrounds in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). And they’re educated and their common thread is that they’re gutsy and driven and focused. But they come into a system that can be very generational and it’s hard for them to break in.
Now that the documentary is done and has found an audience, what comes next?
For awhile I decided I couldn’t let go of this story, because I kept thinking about the women having trouble getting funding and getting investors and the struggles they faced in getting VCs to listen to them. So last fall I took a few months and tried to circle back and track where they are now. I’m now working on a book to compile their stories. I traveled and documented and said to myself, “These stories continue to need to be told.”
I’m also subtitling the film into Spanish. I hope to have completed that by June and then it can be shown to Spanish-speaking audiences.
People are interested in food and where their food comes from. I like to send a message that there are a lot of opportunity in ag – it’s not just tractors and overalls. There are other opportunities and in the Salinas Valley, they’re living in a place where the soil is good and stuff grows.