April 2023 - Sustainability Champion: Darryl Wong

We have the honor of highlighting Darryl Wong, Executive Director at the Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology as our April Sustainability Champion. Darryl has had a lovely life path around food, which brought him to UCSC many years ago. Read on to learn more about him and his wonderful work at our farm, campus and beyond!

April 06, 2023



Tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and how your path led to where you are today.

I grew up around food. My dad was a second generation Chinese immigrant and always cooked for us. My grandma came to the US in the 40s, and had five kids who all grew up in Bakersfield. They did some farming and had a Chinese-American restaurant where they made chop suey and burgers.  But they all got away from farming as soon as they could and moved to San Francisco. Since my dad always cooked at our house, leftovers were breakfast and every night a new dinner was on the table, so I grew up loving food. But, when I started in college on the East coast, I had trouble connecting with the meaning of what I was doing, so I dropped out of college to follow a passion for food. I fell in love with food working in kitchens for about a year in the Berkeley and Oakland area. Interested in seeing where the food came from, I came down to UCSC to do the apprenticeship program  and to learn about farming and gardening. I've been hooked ever since. I ran my own farm in my 20s, Freewheelin Farm, which, I like to say tongue-in-cheek was “ubersustainable.” I worked with Kirstin Yogg who is the Field Site manager at the Center now and we have been farming together for over 15 years.  We delivered the food by bike on a 250 pound trailer for a number of years. But I realized how hard it was to be in sustainable agriculture as a grower, as there are so many political economic forces that impact what a grower can do in this realm of sustainability.  Being fair to the workers and surviving is hard, as the way that the agricultural market is set up it is really stacked against somebody that's trying to do something “different”.

So I got really inspired to come back and try to approach some of those questions, which is how I both landed a staff position at UC Santa Cruz, but also I came back and finished my undergrad in environmental studies. We didn't have an agroecology major at that point, but it was really interdisciplinary in terms of understanding these social issues of agriculture. I later started a graduate program and just completed my PhD in Environmental Studies. 

What does Sustainability mean to you?

Sustainability for me is really…how do we keep going? How do we sustain the relationships that we have with people, with the land, with ourselves? When I look at what sustainable agriculture needs right now I think: growing food is almost the easiest part of this equation. We have lots of information about how to do that. The challenge is how to do this in an economically and socially viable way. Sustainability is thinking about how to rethink the food system structures that will allow us to continue to work with the land moving forward.  We need to think creatively! Sustainability is about broadening. There is so much that is needed to make our food system more sustainable and more equitable. 

Tell us about your work at
Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology. What does your day-to-day look like and what is your favorite part of your job?

My day to day has a lot of meetings and that is ok! What excites me most is to think about what are the possibilities that we have, given the rich resources that we have cultivated at the center. We have the longest running organically managed university farm in the entire country, we have a major within the campus that is focused on this type of work that is very interdisciplinary; we have multiple divisions on campus that are interested in utilizing the farm. So the center is not just for the people that want to do food and ag (“agriculture”) as major but everybody touches food and ag in their lives. You eat every single day, so whether this is your work or not, I would love for as many people to understand more what it takes to grow that food. I want people to be able to see themselves in that food system and see it as a career for themselves.

Being at the Center and now as Executive Director, my hope is that folks won’t need to take the same path I did and drop out of school to find agriculture. Now we have a major in agroecology and we are bringing people in! With some of the pipeline programs that we worked on in the last 10 years, in high school, in community college or in the first year of UCSC, we are starting to prime people on seeing themselves in agriculture and how they are needed indarryl-wong-crate-380.jpgagriculture. We have folks at the Center that do work in basic needs, supplying food for students and building food security programming; we have folks that work in co-curricular events around food and ag; we have folks that work on our academic major; we have programs that are directed for our broader community (short courses, workshops); we do research around sustainable practices, both on farm and off farm. Increasingly what we realized is we are a 55 y old organization that has really built a web of work. A lot of what I try to do at the center, is to try to think about how we synchronize these efforts and hold them together, with all of our talented staff, so that we are both maximizing our impact in the food system, but also creating the best experiences for our students to learn and support their broad interests.  When our graduates come out, I want them to be the ones that are sought after for their interdisciplinary training and their ability to understand that the agricultural problems we face are both social and environmental.  There are so many jobs in the public, private, and nonprofit sector right now that are looking for that type of insight and experience.

Prior to becoming Executive Director, you were the Research Lands manager for many years. How has that role helped shape your vision for the future of the Center?

I've interacted with the center from almost every angle:  I've been both a non-matriculated student in a community based program, an undergraduate, a graduate student, worked with researchers and now I have an admin role. To me, what it speaks to is the potential that we have when we really overlay our programs. We can actually stack our programs and see a real synergy in terms of how students are able to gain insights from folks that are already working in the professional world. When they see an advisor like Joji Muramoto, making sure that there's more organic strawberry production and there's not methyl bromide being sprayed near a community, you have an opportunity for students to see themselves in meaningful research that they may not have seen themselves before.

If you come from an ag community where it's just all about production and making money and it can be really destructive, and all the sudden you see an opportunity to say oh, actually, here's a way where this research has made a real difference in terms of people's lives! Our students support their professional development and support our engagement as a university to actually do meaningful work within the community.

What are the biggest recent accomplishments of the center you are most proud of?

One is the work that we're doing right now on scaling organic research across the UC system. UC Santa Cruz is leading this project for UC Davis, UCBerkeley, and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR). There will  be an opportunity for those students to get internships with research scientists at different campuses, who are out in the community with a specific lens on serving traditionally underrepresented students.

I'm really excited about the launching of a super course that we're going to launch next summer. It is going to be a 7 week course for folks that are at UC Santa Cruz, Davis or Berkeley. They'll spend about a couple of weeks on our campus and then travel around the state looking at sustainable ag and organic ag across the state. It is very similar to a natural history field quarter, but for organic ag. 

We are also really moving quickly on our work on food security. We have a grant from the UCSC Foundation to help build the campus's roadmap to food security, trying to meet the campuses goal of halving food security by 2025.What we're doing at UCSanta Cruz around the basic needs programming is really unique, and it's really integrated in a way that it combines both the wraparound support with academic engagement. The way that we have students engaged at all levels from the food system and basic needs impacts, as well as the actual farm production and the culinary pieces, is really a novel approach and I think we're learning a lot from it. I'm really excited to see what will happen over these next months and years, as we continue to  push the envelope on how we think about food as a basic right, in other words: what does it mean for our students to go to the Cowell Coffee shop, get food for free for 4 years. How do they think differently about food when they leave Santa Cruz having had that experience?

Is there anything else about the work you do that you would like to share?

When I started in my staff position almost 10 years ago, there were not many formal ways for undergraduate students to engage on the farm.  It often happened in some kind of ad hoc internships, but there was not a formal internship program. There was research happening, but it was limited, and I think what's really exciting to me right now. It has been a whole staff effort - the fact that in the fall quarter we had 300 course enrolled students on the farm, with almost 30 to 40 students on the farm or in our cafes every single day of the week, that is just mind blowing in terms of where we were 10 years ago! I think it speaks to a lot of the importance of making sure that the space at the farm, and the inspiration that it provides, is really opening up to as many people as possible.

Lastly, what do you do for fun outside of work?

I have two kids, so they keep me busy and I let them sort of drive my fun. That's a lot of hiking, backpacking, and camping. Those are things that we all come together on.