In a Hidden Texas Farming Village, the Making (and Selling) of a Cambodian Bumper Crop

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The grocery stores then sell it to the consumer for anywhere from $2 to $10. This entire process must occur within five days, before the plant spoils. And the higher you get in the hierarchy, or the deeper you move water spinach into cold climates where cultivation's impossible, the richer you get. Johnny Bopho, who says he amassed a business acumen from decades in the drug trade, moves a staggering 10,000 pounds of water spinach every week across Texas and to Oklahoma. He hustles the plant like it's a narcotic, saying if you cut out wholesalers and ship your own, then you're in the real money. Or if you can somehow control the product supply — which is what he tried to do years ago but failed — you can build a fiefdom.

"Ong choy is definitely considered one of the highest-valued vegetables," said Jet Tila, who teaches Southeast Asian cuisine in Southern California. Tila's family was the first to commercialize water spinach in California, he said, during the 1970s — meaning they sold it on a large scale after buying it from local ­farmers.

"It's the way it eats versus other greens. It's sweeter and more delicate, crisp and refreshing. Bak choy (Chinese cabbage) is your Toyota. Ong choy is the Mercedes." And everyone wants to drive a Mercedes. The demand for water spinach exploded in the last decade, riding America's burgeoning Asian population and interest in the region's delicacies. You don't have to drive far to find a Vietnamese restaurant in most American cities — Houston alone has roughly 200. Tila says the crop has gone for $20 per pound in California, supplied by local farmers who guard their businesses like "the mafia."

Texas Parks & Wildlife estimates the local water spinach industry churns out $1 million every year, but farmers say it's worth 10 times that. They're just a little fuzzy on their records and taxes. "All cash," one villager said. "It's all cash. Keeps things under the radar." How an apparently booming industry has gone unnoticed only becomes obvious after spending a lot of time here: No one's watching. Farmers inhabit a separate world in every sense.

Authorities like Texas Parks & Wildlife, openly uninterested in the trade in water spinach, simply do not care how much gets produced. And then, lubricating the trade even more, the USDA stopped investigating the illegal transportation of noxious weeds this year because of budgetary reasons. Like something out of a Joseph Heller novel, USDA spokesman Dave Sacks explained the lapse in oversight: "We're not aware of it."

All this has culminated in an extraordinary business opportunity. Already the Cambodians had a huge advantage in a very specific market. There are only two other large communities pushing water spinach through the United States: one in California, the other in Florida. But like every hot business venture, this village has attracted predators and economic hit men. The early settlers, ravaged by memories of genocide and more intent on peace than wealth, simply didn't grasp the economic possibilities.

But now, the heightened competition, as well as the nascent realization there's money for the getting, has brought out something primal and tragic in the people here. In some ways, water spinach has threaded this community's narrative with suspicion and betrayal. "They're jealous here!" said Saruth Kuy, who moved here in the mid-1980s. When asked how much money she makes, she replied, "Why do you want to know?"

"The people in the village are greedy — 100 percent," explained another resident, who declined to give his name. Families have even divided over water spinach. Saloeurn Yin, who moved here from North Carolina, won't speak with her aunt and uncle anymore. "Some people don't want a permit," she said. "They think they don't need one. But this is America. This isn't Cambodia. You have to follow the rules."

In any isolated rural community, arguments and misunderstandings occur often, but they seem specially pervasive in this community, where your neighbors are also your rivals and the more successful they are, the smaller the scraps that remain.

The Village, as locals call it, doesn't really have a name. It's considered part of Rosharon by officials, but that moniker isn't correct. Rosharon is miles away, an unincorporated splash of Small Town America where drivers may stop, eat at a restaurant, ask for directions. That would never happen in The Village. Only two county roads lead to it, and from their intersection extend rows of mobile homes with crooked mailboxes and peeling paint. Except for a yellow and pink Buddhist temple, it's the sort of place one sees on the Weather Channel, broken, after a bad storm. Which is exactly what happened in 2008, when Hurricane Ike razed most of the greenhouses in The Village. The destruction stirred a sense of benevolence in residents as they took each other in. "We help each other," one farmer told The Facts of Brazoria County.

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Terrence McCoy
Contact: Terrence McCoy