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

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But that was years ago. Today it's 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, the greenhouses have been rebuilt and Johnny Bopho's on his second Miller Lite. His cell rings every few minutes, and Johnny prowls his mobile home, drinking beer, talking. Like most Southeast Asians, when Johnny uses English, words get clipped. "Five" becomes "Fii." "Most" shrivels to "mo." But despite the language, despite the accent, what Johnny speaks is pure hustle.

An Oklahoma customer is on the line, and Johnny, a sharp-jawed Laotian with boyishly tousled raven hair, is blending Vietnamese and English. He sounds frustrated. "Put my guy on. How much you wan'? How much you charge?" Johnny, 45, hangs up the phone and says, "Every week I got mo' customer callin' me." It shows. Johnny moved into this mobile home a few weeks ago — his third house in the area — and the interior offers significant contrast to the Cambodian shacks. In modern American taste, there's a flatscreen television and black leather couch. But for the water spinach and the greenhouses, it could be in any suburb.

This divide in lifestyles is vital to explaining the problems Johnny has had with other villagers. He can't understand them, whether economically or culturally. And though Johnny won't say it outright, he thinks the Cambodians are somewhat backward. You can hear it in his voice as he climbs into his Mitsubishi Fuso delivery truck: contempt. "I'm hated by half the people here," he says, puttering down the dirt road. "Maybe I'm smarter than all o' them. Or maybe they stupider than me. I don' know which. I don' want to say."

Or perhaps it isn't a matter of intelligence or hatred, but distrust. Whispers follow Johnny. Some people don't believe his stories. Johnny says he grew up trolling Chinatowns on both coasts, dealing drugs. Johnny says he used to run a whorehouse in New York for a gang called the Ghost Shadows. Johnny says he's killed people. But like almost everything involving Johnny — where he really comes from, how much money he makes — these claims are impossible to verify. His public record is immaculate, his financial reports insubstantial.

"Mok agrah," villager Sameth Nget calls him — two-faced. Johnny says he first came here in 2006, but even that's disputed. Numerous people, like trucker Dy Pham, said he's been around much longer, maybe even 15 years. Johnny told Nget, who harvests the most water spinach in The Village, that he once spent 10 years in prison — another lie. He's never been incarcerated. Johnny says he generates more than $1 million a year in revenue, but his mobile home — though nice — is still a mobile home.

If there is one thing, however, that everyone does agree on about Johnny, it's that he was the one who called the local authorities three years ago after his bid to take control of The Village failed. Out of spite and frustration, he reported everyone for growing water spinach illegally, bringing in the regulators. "Does that make me a tattle?" Johnny said. "I guess so." He later added: "This isn't my retirement, and I don't take government hel' like them. This is my life, my profession. I got my family to take care of. And they sell withou' permits and mess up the price.

"How is that fair for me?"

Three of Johnny's workers are stooped over water spinach. Butcher knives shimmer in their hands. Boxes and boxes of water spinach are arrayed before them. Neither Johnny nor any of the workers knows how the weed first got to the United States, but Chinese historian Ji Han first mentioned it in A.D. 304 while describing the Guangdong and Guangxi provinces.

A member of the morning glory genus, ipomoea aquatica soon crept into Southeast Asia and India, along the way showing how it's become one of the most prolific invasive species in the world. Capable of incredible growth — four inches per day — ipomoea can blanket waterways in a matter of days with a thick tangle of vegetation. The Philippine government calls water spinach its second most problematic plant. But unlike other invasives, this weed carries powerful medicinal properties.

Ipomoea can treat constipation, ringworm, fever, arsenic or opium poisoning, and high blood pressure, and produces a chemical similar to insulin, environmental research has shown. Even more amazing, the vegetable can purify water, even ponds contaminated with heavy metals, by absorbing pollutants found in farm drainage and construction waste.

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Terrence McCoy
Contact: Terrence McCoy