“I always feel like the day that the Hmong strawberry stand opens in the spring it feels like a holiday to me. It’s as good as Christmas and the best thing about living in Merced.”
Dawn Trook, producer of the radio play at the center of Podcast #7, told me there’s absolutely nothing sweeter than the strawberries grown by Hmong farmers in her home town, which is about an hour north of Fresno in California’s Central Valley. It turns out those strawberry stands that Dawn loves so much have a very unique place in the history of California’s Central Valley.
For the past 20 or 30 years, Hmong-American farmers have been cultivating scraps of land throughout California’s Central Valley that had previously been considered un-farmable. Like so many waves of immigrants before them, these growers have dotted the Valley’s landscape with surprising patches of green. One family is even rumored to be growing strawberries underneath an overpass in Fresno.
Cal Ag Roots Podcast #7 showcases another performance from our live story-telling event, Borderlands of the San Joaquin Valley. We’re in the middle of a podcast series based on Borderlands (check out Podcast #5, if you haven’t already heard it). You’ll know if you’ve listened to previous episodes that we’re not afraid to feature works of art as a way of exploring farming history. The radio play, Ours to Lose, written by Yia Lee and produced by the Valley Roots Project, is based on an interesting research process. The play was written using a Story Circle process that involved interviews with real farmers from across the Central Valley. The result is a powerful and revealing portrait of Hmong-American farmers that really rings true, as you’ll hear in the audio portrait of Lilian Thaoxaochay, Hmong-American farm-kid-turned-anthropologist, which is the second part of our podcast.
I sat with Lilian in the shade of a mulberry tree on her family’s farm on 106 degree day in July. The heat seemed to have absolutely no effect on her brain activity, because she had incredibly interesting things to say, like,
“Hmong agriculture is not about economy. It’s about survival and sustainability and making yourself.”
Lillian’s comments stitch the fiction of Ours to Lose with the reality of her life. In a way, Lilian and this episode are in direct conversation with Podcast #6, which was an interview I did with farmer Mai Nguyen.
Mai made a powerful comment in that episode, which has really stuck with me. She sometimes frames the urgency of her work in terms of what it takes to combat climate change. She said that she has approximately 40 tries over that many seasons to get things right. And that, she told us, is going to take a polyculture of many minds.
We need borderlands and the people who are really good at navigating them because they are places where there’s a cultural equivalent to the ecological concept of the “edge-effect.” In ecology the richest places are where edges of environments come together, where rivers meet the ocean, where forests meet the meadow, where mountains meet the valleys. And the cultural edges of places like the Central Valley, I think, are exactly where we’ll find the ideas and innovations we need to move us into a farming future that we all want to live in.
It seems like this planet is really ours to lose.
This story was produced by the California Institute for Rural Studies and Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, director of the Cal Ag Roots Project. Cal Ag Roots is unearthing stories about important moments in the history of California farming in order to shed some light on current issues in agriculture.
Special thanks to the voices heard in this episode including Janaki Jagganath, Dawn Trook, the Ours to Lose Actors—Fuchi Thao, Ka Vang and Fong Xiong and Lilian Thaoxaochay. Thanks to Lilian for lending us the use of her beautiful farm photos—featured throughout this article. https://www.facebook.com/gtflorists Music for this episode was by Xylo-Ziko and Komiku and the Cal Ag Roots theme music is by Nangdo.
And a shout out to Cal Ag Roots funders including the Food and Farming Communications Fund and the 11th Hour Project. Thank you!