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

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The scheme involved capturing the water spinach supply. All of it. "The Cambodians don't like me," Johnny said he had realized. "But they need me. They need me to sell the trakuon." And, if observed through Johnny's eyes, they did. Water spinach had been harvested for two decades before Johnny arrived, and yet the villagers were still poor. What's more, the poverty had infected their children. Girls as young as 14 were having children. Others eschewed farming responsibilities, splayed out on the couch. Most residents languished on food stamps. Bored punks staged petty ­burglaries.

"You don't understand," Johnny recalls one Cambodian woman telling him when he first arrived and suggested farming improvements. "I've been here for 20 years doing this, and you don't know how to grow and sell trakuon."

"Twenty years?" Johnny asked her. "If I'd been growing trakuon for 20 years, I'd be retired already. I'd be rich. I'm not looking to work the rest of my life." He told her if she wanted to make a lot of money, she should follow him. He had an idea. They'd fix the price of water spinach and establish a monopoly. Applying the business principles of drug trading, Johnny said that if he could control the product supply, he could charge the wholesalers and restaurants substantially more for water spinach, maybe $1.50 per pound, maybe more. Everyone would get more money, he told her. But first Johnny had to control the product.

So he called a meeting at the temple. Everybody went. Listening to Johnny deliver that talk, Nget remembers thinking, "He wants to be a millionaire. He wants to be big guy." Johnny asked the villagers to let him sell their water spinach. At first the farmers agreed, but then, in the weeks that followed, the scheme collapsed. Some farmers didn't trust Johnny — he was a newcomer. He wasn't Cambodian. They said they could make more on their own. So they undersold him, propelling other farmers to do the same.

Johnny says he lost $40,000. It's unclear if that's true. But what is true is that Johnny should never have tried to fix prices. Not because such collusion is illegal — though it is — but because the plan was so obviously a terrible one. It doesn't take long to figure out that residents like The Village the way it is, chaotic and inefficient. They want to get rich, sure, but they want to do it as Cambodians.

"Asian economics," Jet Tila calls that mind-set. In Cambodia, it's common for individual shops, all of which sell exactly the same thing, to amass in a dense cluster and compete. Everyone's in it for themselves, and everyone mimics everyone else. Johnny's scheme necessitated an abandonment of that ethos. At some level, cooperation means sacrificing independence, which, even if it does lend greater prosperity, would be anathema to most villagers.

It's a mistake Johnny hasn't forgotten or forgiven. On a recent Friday morning, Johnny was in a dark mood and didn't want to talk. He had turned his phone off; no one knew where he was. When he finally arrived at his house at 9:30 a.m., drinking Miller Lite, his black tank top was matted with sweat. He'd been in the fields and greenhouses since daybreak, threshing and boxing water spinach. He said he didn't have time for disruptions, especially questions about his relationship with other villagers. He's through with them, he says — they do their thing; he does his. "They can kiss my ass," he said, later adding, "I don' care what they say. I'm not here to make friends. I'm here to get rich."

But watching Johnny rage and perspire, it became clear that he, just like everyone else here, probably never will. There are countless frustrations in selling water spinach. It takes hours to clean, prepare and package. Knuckles bloat and split open under the strain. Then, after all that, a pound of the crop gets barely 70 cents in Texas. The cost of a Coke. It's insulting. Most families make far less than $100 per day, and sometimes they can't even get that. The crop spoils, or the wholesaler, for whatever reason, doesn't want the haul anymore, and hundreds of pounds get burned. Because the crop's not a regulated or publicly traded commodity — like wheat or cotton — there's no insurance or speculation to assuage risk or buffer losses. Every family in every way is on its own.

On days like today, though, it's better not to think like that. Johnny has sunk everything into his water spinach business. So he contemplates possibilities. If he could funnel water spinach up North somehow, or build more greenhouses, or find some way to control the price, then he'd make real money. He could retire before his body fails. On days like today, when Johnny already feels beaten and tired and has a long drive and uncertain prospects ahead, it's better to entertain fantasy. So he loads up his white van, slams the door and creaks down the moonscape dirt road, alone and Dallas-bound.

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Terrence McCoy
Contact: Terrence McCoy