I’ve let pretty much everyone 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 year. At the downtown Berkeley farmers 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 at the market by UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Sowerwine. She helps smallscale 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 around the 1980s or so. They were able to access small plots of land and adapt a lot of their cultural practices in farming in the Central Valley, you know this hotbed of corporate agriculture.
So, they began slowly cultivating a lot of the crops they were familiar with and then they began seeking out markets. So you know I was out there in Fresno a couple 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. So, what’s happening with the food in Fresno that small farmers are growing Where’s it.
The Changing Faces of California Agriculture
Getting to Well, so you’re right. The Hmong farmers 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 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 Farmers Market. Like many Hmong farmers, he fled Laos in the aftermath.
Of the Vietnam War, but since arriving in the U.S., he’s been farming and he now grows a huge number of crops on around 8 acres. I have maybe like 150 almost 200 kind of vegetables. Jennifer travels often to the Central Valley to work with local regulating agencies to provide more culturallyaccessible 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 drought on Hmong farmers. What we’re going to do is interview about 150 farmers just to get a sense of what strategies.
They are using to cope with the drought and the extent to which they’re able to access 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 markets. Wow, 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 handson, 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. Oh, that’s great. And we would like to see more farmers being able to access markets like this. Meanwhile, the stands at Bay Area farmers markets do brisk business as new and repeat.