In a different country and different language, Pang Chang’s father told him that if he wanted to survive year-to-year, grow vegetables. But for long-term fortune? Plant trees.
So in the flat, open Central Valley, where the summers burn and the winters can bring freezing snaps, Chang grows mangoes, papayas, 20 varieties of guava -- some never before cultivated in the U.S. -- and jujubes. Not to be confused with the jelly candy sold as movie snacks, jujubes, or Chinese dates, are honey-sweet fruit little known outside Asian communities.
To walk Chang’s orchard is to enter a dense, glossy, green world. There is a thick hush, the air as fruit-scented as a shop selling body lotions. Snaking up and circling the tree trunks are vines, lemon grass and herbs that have no name outside the Hmong language.
But a farmer can’t stick just any nonnative trees into California’s fertile earth and expect them to flourish. The secret to Chang’s incongruous crops is in the friendship between a determined farmer and an agricultural researcher from his homeland, Laos.
Chang and Michael Vang know all about the difficulties of transplanting to a different world. Together, they figured out how to grow exotic fruit where people said it was impossible. Along the way, they accomplished other seeming impossibilities: Chang sent his children to college. Vang escaped the nightmares that often had him waking up screaming.
Almost every Hmong immigrant has a harrowing story. Some speak freely of the past; some never tell. But the broad outlines of their experiences are the same: The CIA recruited the mountain tribe to fight in a secret Laotian front of the Vietnam War. When Saigon fell, the Hmong were hunted and killed. They traveled through the jungle, trying to cross the Mekong River into Thailand.
Vang is one who tells his story -- of a starving 7-year-old, a rifle on one shoulder and a grenade in his pocket. Ahead of him on the jungle trail, someone had chopped a poisonous, 3-foot-long centipede in half to clear the way. But Vang stepped on the head, and the venom went through him.
“I told my mother: ‘I can’t walk. Just go with the other family and leave me.’ But my mother walked a half-mile with my little brother on her back to the next camp, walked back and put me on her back and carried me. For three days she continued like that through rain and soldiers.”
Like many Hmong who made it to the U.S., Vang’s family settled in the Central Valley, where they could continue the only kind of work they’d ever known: farming.
Vang grew up helping his family raise vegetables -- and hated it. But he circled back, studying agriculture and landing a job with the University of California’s Cooperative Extension, a program that aims to use scientific research to solve community needs.
In Fresno, the cooperative educates Hmong farmers about safety, pest control and marketing; it also teaches them how to navigate a complex and unfamiliar government system.
Farm advisors also research plants, taking trips to Laos and Vietnam to bring back the latest varieties to try out in their experimental gardens. They were the ones who figured out that papaya doesn’t ripen in the Central Valley -- but that there’s a need for green papaya: Thai salads. The Fresno County Farm Bureau credits such research with boosting the number of crops grown in the area from 300 to 500 in the last five years.
It was at the cooperative’s workshops that Vang met Chang. The farmer, it was clear, was a tireless worker who constantly experimented, taking every bit of research the co-op advisors could give him and trying it in his fields. He risked investing in expensive trees, gambling on producing guava that sell for $3 a pound.
Relying on Vang to translate technical agricultural research, Chang figured out how low temperatures could drop before his fruit was harmed and how thick the plastic on his temporary hothouses must be.
When Vang was looking for ways to introduce crops traditional to his homeland to a broader market, Chang took his fruit to community events with food booths. They found that guavas sell well to people from Mexico, and that customers whose cultural backgrounds are far removed from Southeast Asia like jujubes.
If a tree did well in the research gardens, Vang would tell Chang, who would plant a row. If that row did well, he’d plant three more. If a tree didn’t do well in the research garden, Chang would plant a single one and start experimenting on how to make it happy.
Chang isn’t one to share stories of his past: “They’re a little bit hard to tell,” he said.
Even his son Larry -- a recent UC Irvine graduate -- doesn’t know the details of his parents’ journey.
When the 23-year-old recently pressed his father, Chang told him two things that happened as his family made its escape: A mother and daughter in their group drowned while crossing the Mekong. They screamed as they struggled to avoid going under, alerting the communist soldiers, who started shooting. There was also a group of refugees traveling ahead of them who stepped on land mines. Chang remembers walking through the body parts.
“If you keep it in your mind, it keeps threatening you. The only way to forget is to work hard every day. Start new life,” Chang told Larry. (Larry got his name because Chang and his wife, May, heard it on TV and liked the way it sounded.)
Every day, Chang and his wife tend their 14 acres. Usually it’s just the two of them. Their house is small, spartan. The couple spend their money only on the orchard and anything their 12 children need for school or work.
That rounds out Chang’s father’s advice: Raise vegetables for year-to-year living, trees for longer-term wealth, and good children to be rich in your old age.
Members of the Hmong community drive to Chang’s southwest Fresno farm to buy his fruit, and a small distributor takes his product to Asian shops in the Bay Area. His biggest-selling, most established crop is the super-sweet jujubes.
Chang, however, has his eye on much bigger markets, on seeing his fruit sold in huge discount grocery chains.
Vang has warned against it. If the unusual papaya varieties or jujubes go mainstream, Vang said, corporate-scale farmers could put Chang out of business in one season. The trick to survival, he said, is niche marketing. Chang argues that it is the grower who matters. His fruit tastes different, and he wants to think big and produce it in quantity.
About five years ago, Vang began holding workshops at Chang’s farm, hoping to inspire other Hmong farmers to invest in longer-term crops and risk higher stakes. Spending time in the fragrant, quiet orchard, Vang recalled a time before the Vietnam War.
“I remember I was 5 or 6 and climbing papaya trees,” he said. “I remembered being happy.”
His nightmares have ceased.
Chang said that fruit can heal.
“You can touch it, you can smell it. It’s your home, it’s your life,” he said. “It brings you health.”