Longform

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

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Despite the puzzlement, the rural Asian farmers from every state have invariably trotted out similar arguments, which went beyond weeds and regulation and touched on the difficulties of assimilation. Water spinach became a metaphor for something greater. The refrain: This is our culture. We can't get employment otherwise. Your wars brought us here. "I know over 100 families in Rosharon that got no skill, no education," one participant, Chelsea Tang, told the Texas agency. "They depend on water spinach."

Eventually, the Florida and Texas agencies buckled and allowed production after they decided that water spinach wasn't an environmental threat after all. The Iowa Department of Agriculture didn't rescind its regulation, a representative said, and the plant is still prohibited. While Texas and Florida permitted farming water spinach, the caveats were fastidious. Farmers needed a permit to grow, sell and transport across state lines, and had to follow specific packaging guidelines. They needed to maintain exacting quarterly documentation. But then something strange happened. The farmers in Texas were pretty much forgotten, economically at least. No one knew how much the plant could be worth.

Texas Parks & Wildlife representative Luci Cook-Hildreth, who issues water spinach permits, had no idea that more than 40,000 pounds of the weed could clear The Village in one week, calling that "wild." "Maybe the farmers can pull a fast one on us," she said. "But (how much they grow) doesn't even fall into the realm of the things we're particularly concerned about."

Al Tasker of the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service said: "It surprises me that there's that much going on. It's an awful lot of product for something that's federally regulated." Seemingly indicative of what's been an utter misunderstanding of the water spinach trade, Texas Game Warden Nick Harmon, who monitors The Village, said, "They grow things that I guess would be considered food items in their culture."

But water spinach is apparently much more than that. There's almost something metaphysical about the crop. It was enough to get Sameth Nget, a portly, garrulous Cambodian stricken with diabetes, to abandon his shop and trucking career near Boston and move his entire family down to Texas. A weed did that.

"Every year, seems like more people come," said Nget, whose journey here carries themes found among most Cambodians who have arrived recently. In 2005, his Boston life was unraveling. Winter was coming, his wife had caught him in an affair with a Wisconsin woman and gas prices had gone up again. One afternoon, he got a call from a friend whom Nget hadn't talked to for a while. Nget explained he wasn't so good and asked how his friend was.

"I'm in Texas!" he said. "I'm growing tra­kuon. The weather's great down here: You need to check it out. Have you ever heard of Rosharon?"

Nget hadn't. But he was looking for a change. So he drove down and started looking at plots of land. That's when he met Johnny. "You can make a lot of money down here," Nget recalls Johnny saying. "This place is hot." Johnny wanted Nget to grow trakuon, then sell it to him so he could take it to the markets and beyond.

Almost immediately, Nget got a loan and bought 30 acres from Johnny's wife for $200,000 and started building greenhouses. Nget pumped all the money he had into the new business and crops. He threw up one greenhouse after another, until his backyard looked like something out of The X-Files and he could harvest nearly 5,000 pounds of water spinach per week — more than anyone else. But Nget hadn't considered something. While his growth in production was logical for him — more water spinach meant more business — the surge deluged the markets, lowering prices for everyone.

Then the problems started. Nget's brother-in-law, Nak Lonn, had moved in with him. Nget had asked him to. But as months passed, things stopped working between the brothers. Murmurs gave way to arguments. Money went missing. There were lies. No one could get the price to hold steady. "Everyone's trying to screw everyone," said Robert Thompson, 28, who dates Nget's niece.

Lonn's family eventually moved down the road into another relative's house. Soon he had his own business, greenhouses and customers. Today Nget swears he'll never trade with family again. "When it comes to business, we just stay clear of each other," Nget's son, Sophan Soum, said. "We tried our hardest. Taking trakuon from people is just too much of a hassle. Everyone's always complaining."

So Lonn started selling his crops to Nget's major competitor, Johnny, who by this time had already begun implementing a plan that would anoint him king of The Village.


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Terrence McCoy
Contact: Terrence McCoy