Mark Bittman visits the Central Valley to learn how Hmong farmers can sustain and expand their businesses in the face of huge cultural changes.
Watch the video and answer the questions below.
1 Where and when can you buy a Japanese eggplant in California?
2 How far from the market do the Hmong families live?
3 When did the Hmongs arrive in US?
4 What are some of the challenges that the Hmong farmers are facing?
5 On how much land does Bentley Vang grow his crops?
6 What is the new project Jennifer is initiating with Hmong farmers?
7 What is the other project that she mentions?
8 What are some of the new measures the Hmong farmers have implemented as a result of the second project?
I'd like pretty much everyone to know that I've never had more fun cooking than I have since moving to California. One recent meal was a simple eggplant sandwich, but it wasn't your normal run-of-the-mill globe eggplant but a Japanese eggplant, which you can pick up at almost any decent market in the Bay Area, or for that matter, the state, most times of the year.
At the downtown Berkeley farmer's market there are several Hmong families selling their produce. They drive more than three hours from Fresno, which is home to the nation's largest Hmong farming community.
On a chilly morning, I was joined to the market by UC Berkeley's Jennifer Sowerwine. She helps small scale Hmong farmers sustain and expand their businesses. I sat down with Jennifer to learn more about what she calls the changing face of California agriculture.
The Hmong farmers, they've been farming since they arrived from Laos, beginning in around the 1980s or so. They were able to access small plots of land and adapt a lot of their cultural practices in farming here in the Central Valley, you know, in this hotbed of corporate agriculture. And so they began slowly cultivating a lot of the crops they were familiar with and then they began looking, seeking out markets.
So I was out there in Fresno a couple of years ago, saw some Hmong farmers. And I thought it was really interesting. They were struggling, needless to say. You have all these small farmers doing real food, mostly for their communities, but when you go to standard supermarkets you might as well be in Boise. What's happening with the food in Fresno that small farmers are growing? Where is it getting to?
You're right. The Hmong farmers, you know, are up against a lot of challenging odds. They've had huge challenges with limited English language and limited ability to access connections. So a lot of them have turned to farmers markets where, you know, it's fairly easy to get in. And they produce a lot of these vegetables for their customers all across the state.
One of those farmers is Bentley Vang, who leases land in Fresno County and is a regular vendor at the Berkeley farmer's market. Like many Hmong farmers he fled Laos and the aftermath of the Vietnam War. But since arriving in the US he's been farming, and he now grows a huge number of crops on around eight acres.
Jennifer travels often to the Central Valley to work with local regulating agencies to provide more culturally accessible training for Hmong farmers.
So what's your current work and what are you hoping to get done?
I'm just initiating a new project to look at the impact of the drought on Hmong farmers. So what we're going to do is interview about 150 farmers just to get a sense of what strategies are they using to cope with the drought and the extent to which they're able to access the government support programs. Another project we're looking at, too, is food safety. There already have been some implications where the buyers are requiring the Hmong to have food safety certification, and that's very costly. So we are already seeing evidence that some of the Hmong farmers are losing market.
Wow. Oh, that's delicious.
So we developed a very straightforward training program for a number of Hmong farmers in the Fresno area and it's a very hands-on applied food safety class. I mean, it's just washing your hands, making sure that you have a hand washing station next to the bathroom and you have paper towels. And one of the farmers, because he went through the food safety training, now he's able to sell to Fresno Unified School
District. And so it was really exciting to see the benefits of those classes on some of the farmers instituting a lot of the practices. And we would like to see more farmers being able to access markets like this.
Meanwhile, the stands at Bay Area farmer's markets do brisk business as new and repeat customers like Jennifer and me pick up tender cooking greens, squashes, and yes, the best eggplant.
I love these little eggplant.
1 at almost every market in the state most times of the year
2 a three-hour drive
3 in the 1980's or so
4 limited English, limited ability to access connexions
5 eight acres
6 the impact of the drought
7 food safety
8 washing their hands, using paper towels