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Cambodian Farmers in Fresno Find Success

During the early 1980s, Cambodian refugees that arrived in America settled down in many major cities in the United States: Long Beach, San Jose and San Francisco, Calif., Lowell, Mass., Chicago, Ill., St. Paul, Min., and other metropolitan areas. Their professions were in various positions in government organizations, hospitals, schools and businesses. However, some Cambodians in Fresno County relocated in the middle of the California state-owned farms.

For the past 20 years, refugees from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Burma have farmed on American soil, growing foods from their homelands to feed their families and their ethnic communities. Takeo province natives Kao Soeun, in his 60s, and his wife, Heng Meng, in her 50s, pay $350 a year for two acres of land in Fresno, on which they cultivate Asian vegetables. Prior to farming, Kao Soeun was a doughnut baker and a boat builder.

"As more Asians settle in the area of Fresno, I tend to grow vegetables that I remember from my homeland," Kao Soeun said in an interview. "I try a little bit here and there. I grow a couple of rows and if it goes well, I end up saving the seeds and eventually plant a couple of acres."

Some of the produce that Kao Soeun and Heng Meng grew included eggplants, Chinese long beans, taro, herbs, bitter melons, snake gourd, fuzzy gourd, lemongrass, hot pepper, and Chinese broccoli. They also have a green house for medicinal herbs, mixes of mints and basils, water spinach and water cress.

Though Asian families have grown vegetables for generations in their country, they still need to learn the fundamentals of farming in America, such as the process of using safe chemicals and fertilizer and how to drive a tractor straight.

"I have finally stopped having nightmares about the Khmer Rouge genocide," Kao Soeun said. "I am working now on being happy with the things I have, for my family, my community and my job."

The produce of Kao Soeun and Heng Meng will be distributed at Asian stores, and much of it will be sold at farmers markets up and down the state. Fresno farmers will travel as far as San Diego and San Francisco, driving as much as six hours each day to sell their crops.