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Exotic, Redefined

As Laotian immigrants replicate the tastes of home, they're bringing once-unusual Asian produce into the marketplace.

August 25, 2004|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

Fresno — Green beans that grow a yard long and also come in purple; melons that look like spiny cucumbers and when ripe turn bright orange, with huge pomegranate-red seeds; squash that can be eaten like zucchini when it's young or used as a bath sponge later -- can this really be a farm in Fresno?

That is where we are, and yard-long beans, bitter melon and loofah are growing in profusion, along with gai lan, daikon, eggplants of every color and shape, and exotic mints, basils and other herbs. So are tender green shoots of pea plants and ong choy (water spinach).

As America has fallen in love with the flavors of Asian cooking, ingredients that once had to be searched out in the markets and restaurants of ethnic neighborhoods are now showing up in the mainstream -- at farmers markets, supermarkets and even chain restaurants.

Fresno County is the epicenter of this revolution, and immigrant Laotian farmers -- refugees from the CIA's "secret war" against the Communists in the 1970s -- are the ones who started it.

They began by growing a few things that gave them a taste of the homeland they were driven from, and wound up with a booming business supplying our ever-increasing fascination with these new flavors.

The category that the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner's office calls "Oriental vegetables" accounted for $10.3 million in sales in 2003, up from $7.3 million the year before. There are more than 700 Asian-owned family farms in Fresno County and roughly 90% of them are Laotian.

Radio farm reports, that staple of rural life, are now broadcast all over the Central Valley in Hmong and Lao by Michael Yang, a program representative for the University of California's Cooperative Extension Service and a Hmong immigrant.

So far the star of the Laotian farming community is Cherta Farms, owned by the Lee family. Started by two Hmong brothers growing cherry tomatoes, it today supplies more than 150 produce items. The Lees own downtown Fresno's historic wholesale fruit and produce building, a gigantic brick shipping facility that was built in 1903. Huge, refrigerated rooms that once held the county's wealth of grapes and peaches are now stacked with cases of loofah squash and Thai eggplant.

Most Laotian farmers have not been as successful. Poverty is endemic, with many farmers barely scratching out a living, farming tiny plots shoehorned into the gaps between the new housing developments in Fresno's booming suburban fringe. Though these families grew vegetables for generations in Laos, they still need to learn the fundamentals of farming in America -- how to use chemicals safely and how to drive a tractor straight.

"Farming here is very different than in Laos," says UC's Yang. "There, it's basically just slash-and-burn agriculture. You clear a field, plant it and harvest it and then move on to the next one. There's no machinery, there's no pesticides. Anything that needs to be done, you do it by hand. There's no irrigation -- you just wait for the next monsoon."

Helping Laotians adapt

Yang's job is to help Laotians make the transition. A short and slightly stocky man with a quiet, soft-spoken demeanor, he seems much like any other county extension agent except that when he steps into the sun, he pulls on not a baseball cap, with a seed company logo, but a conical straw hat.

Yang's family immigrated in 1980, when he was 8 years old. His father, like many Hmongs, was a farmer who had been recruited by the CIA to help fight the Communists in the mountains of Laos.

When the Americans pulled out, the Communists took over and his father was killed. As the oldest son, it fell to Michael to help guide his mother and brothers and sisters through the jungle, evading the Communist soldiers, to Thailand and safety in the relocation camps.

At one point he was bitten by a 2-foot-long centipede and was certain he was going to die. He asked his mother to leave him behind, but she insisted on carrying him on her back for three days until he could begin to walk again. (His story is typical of other Laotian immigrants. The crowded apartment complex behind Fresno's popular Asian Village shopping mall is colloquially called Ban Vinai after the main Thai relocation camp.)

Much of Yang's work is done at the Hmong American Community educational farm. The 20-acre farm is divided in half, with separate fields for the lowland Lao and mountain Hmong farmers. Operations manager Kevin Lee (a cousin of the Cherta Farms family who is not involved in that business) says this is because the two tribes prefer different vegetables, but there is well-documented friction between the groups as well.

Under a sweltering August sun, the Hmong side looks bare. It has just been planted with cool-weather leafy vegetables and herbs that will grow through the winter: bok choy, gai lan, water spinach and nappa cabbage as well as various kinds of mint and basil.

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