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The Struggles Of Growing Organic-Certified Asian Produce In Greater L.A.

Clarissa Wei Flickr
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Yao Cheng Farms produce | Flickr: Clarissa Wei
Yao Cheng Farms produce | Clarissa Wei

Just an hour away from the heart of Los Angeles, tucked away in the hills of Ventura County, is a 29.4-acre piece of land called Yao Cheng Farms that specializes in USDA organic-certified Asian produce. It’s owned by a family from Taiwan, who immigrated to Southern California in the late 1980s.

“We have over 100 varieties of leafy greens,” Jason Cheng, the son of the founders, says. The abundance of leafy greens, usually for the sake of stir-frying, is usually what sets Asian produce farmers apart from their Western counterparts.

On a mid-summer day at farm, one might find tender chayote shoots, which can be blanched briefly and mixed in with a handful of finely minced garlic. Baby amaranth leaves, which have a bit of a pink edge, are great quickly stir-fried with a running egg on top. Chrysanthemum greens are appropriately herbaceous, and work well in a chicken soup with clear cellophane noodles and enoki mushrooms. Mustard greens, with paper-thin leaves and crunchy bases, are preferably salted and pickled. In a week’s time, they’ll be ready to be ladled on top of pork noodle soup to help cut the fat.

The farm got their organic certification in 2009, and Cheng’s mom makes frequent trips back to Taiwan to keep up to date on the latest seed catalogs and Taiwanese farming techniques.

Jason from Yao Cheng Farms | Clarissa Wei
Jason from Yao Cheng Farms | Clarissa Wei

“It’s hard doing organic leafy greens,” Cheng admits. “They’re more vulnerable to bugs.”

Yet they manage. Weekly, they bring over 3,000 pounds of produce to Los Angeles County and in the summers, up to 6,000 to 7,000 pounds.

Yao Cheng Farms has been a regular fixture of metropolitan Los Angeles since 1989, catering mostly to the Chinese population. They’re regularly posted up at the Sunday farmers’ market in Alhambra — a suburban town just east of downtown Los Angeles with a 52.9 percent Asian population.

Yet in a city stereotyped for its dedication to healthful food, organic Asian produce grown within the greater metropolitan Los Angeles area is actually quite rare.

It wasn't always like that. In the early 19th century, Chinese vegetable growers dominated South Los Angeles. According to reports, 50 out of the 60 registered vegetable peddlers in Los Angeles County identified as Chinese in 1880.  

Of course, that all changed with higher land prices and development. Today, locally produced Asian produce is a very niche market, despite Los Angeles County having highest population of Asians in the United States.

Yao Cheng Farms is one of the few large-scale farms located within an hour’s drive from Los Angeles; most Asian farms are located either in Fresno or down in Riverside.

“The land is cheaper in those places,” Cheng says. 

While Asian leafy greens are available in abundance in Asian supermarkets, most of them only have conventional produce, sometimes sourced as far as Hawaii, China, and Mexico.

In all of these markets, organic-certified produce is still virtually non-existent. In early 2016, LOHAS (short for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability), a high-end boutique Taiwanese grocery store opened up in San Gabriel Valley to fill that gap. Still, most of their produce comes from outside of Southern Californian borders. 

“It’s hard getting people to pay the prices that comes with organic produce grown in Los Angeles,” urban farmer Nancy Chin says. “It’s expensive here.” 

Nancy Chin at her urban farm | Clarissa Wei
Nancy Chin at her urban farm | Clarissa Wei

Chin, who is second generation Chinese-American, operates an intensive mini-farm in her backyard in Hacienda Heights, a suburban neighborhood on the far eastern edge of Los Angeles County.

What started out as a hobby garden five years ago on less than 30,000 square feet is now a fully certified organic operation. Today, she has over 200 chickens, 167 trees, and a rolodex of produce: tatsoi (a spinach mustard from Asia), amaranth, bitter melon, eggplants, and her absolute favorite — rows upon rows of heirloom tomatoes.

The Los Angeles native learned how to grow food from her maternal grandmother, who immigrated to the States from the southern Chinese province of Guangzhou.

“She raised me and to keep me out of trouble, she would plop me on her garden outside,” she says.

She recalls her grandmother imparting simple techniques, like using beer to discourage slugs from eating leafy green, and how to appreciate different varieties of figs. Her father got her into raising chickens and in first grade, Chin accumulated her first chicken incubator, which she still has today.

She was approached to start selling at the Alhambra Farmers’ Market and while there, quickly realized a demand for Asian greens. With that, she started growing the bitter melon and leafy greens, but has found that it’s hard to convince people to pay the higher prices. 

“People don’t realize how much work it is, especially in Los Angeles County, where water and land is more expensive,” Chin says.

Still, she has no intention of stopping. For her, growing food is more than just a job, it’s a passion. Chin is also one of the few people located within the borders of Los Angeles County who grow Asian produce for commercial sale. 

“There’s a real need for sustainably grown and culturally relevant produce in the Asian community in Los Angeles,” says Paul Nguyen, the program coordinator at API Forward Movement, an organization dedicated to bringing sustainably grown Asian produce to Angelenos, especially those located in food deserts.

“Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles is a food desert,” Nguyen points out.  

Lily Ging, Bih Shan Farms | Clarissa Wei
Lily Ging, Bih Shan Farms | Clarissa Wei

Over the years, the CSA has partnered with seven Asian farms in California. The bulk of farmers they’ve worked with are Hmong farmers in Fresno.

According to a 2007 University of California survey, there are roughly 1,500 small farms operated by Southeast Asian farmers in Fresno County; about 900 of those are Hmong.  Marketing, according to Nguyen, is the biggest hurdle for the farmers. A lot of them are first generation immigrants and don’t speak much English, he notes.

“We’re still a minority,” Lily Ying, a farmer who specializes in Asian mushrooms, says in Chinese. “It’s difficult. In terms of purchasing power, Asian don’t have a lot of power compared to other Americans. There’s just not as many of us.”

Ying is behind Bih Shan Farms in Riverside County, a four-acre property in where everything is grown sans chemicals. A Taiwanese immigrant who has been growing mushrooms for over 20 years in Southern California, her mushroom bags are the regularly filled to the brim with floppy wood-ear fungus, which is great as a cold dish dressed with rice vinegar and slices of chili and cucumber. She also has fresh shiitake and oyster mushrooms for sale and on the side, the elusive reishi — an ethereal fungus known for its adaptogenic properties, which help human bodies adapt to stress and help restore normal physiological functions. It is commonly brewed to make a tea.

Shiitake from Lily Bih Shah Farm | Clarissa Wei
Shiitake from Lily Bih Shah Farm | Clarissa Wei

“Things grow slowly when you’re growing things naturally. It’s not a machine, it’s a natural environment,” Ying says. “But for me the most difficult thing is not growing things, it’s the consumer market. I have had to build my customer base slowly.”

The good news for Ying and her counterparts, though, is that there’s a growing demand for organically-grown products within the Asian community. 

“People are increasingly more aware of the benefits of organic produce these days,” Cheng from Yao Cheng Farms admits, noting that he’s seen an increase of demand as time as gone on. 

Nguyen agrees.

“The folks that we’re working with in the Asian community are becoming more attentive of where their produce is coming from and whether or not the food is getting imported,” Nguyen adds. “These days, I know some people who will refuse to buy any produce that comes from China.” 

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