If you were to find yourself parked outside Thao Family Farm in Fresno — on an outlying side road, surrounded by a seemingly endless swath of farmland — you'd likely have no idea you were a few hundred feet from some of the best and most revered produce in California. Odds are, you might not be sure you were outside a farm at all. There is no signage, no public entrance, no stand selling bunches of rainbow chard. There's just a dirt driveway, an electric gate and an address.
It's a relatively small property, as farms go: The 34 acres translates into about 25 of usable farmland, where all the picking, weeding and planting is done by hand. The farm was founded by Vang Thao, 58, and his wife, Khoua Her, 52, in the early 1990s, but they didn't actually purchase and move to their current property until 2010.
Now, acclaimed Los Angeles chefs — among them Walter Manzke of République, Kris Yenbamroong of Night + Market, Jeremy Fox of Rustic Canyon and Josef Centeno, chef and owner of several downtown L.A. restaurants, including Bäco Mercat, PYT and Bar Amá — rave about Thao Family Farm's produce.
"The Thao family has an unrelenting drive for quality," says Centeno. "A big part of my menus come from their vegetables." It's spring now, so the farm is filled with green produce: favas, snap peas, cucumbers, leeks and basil, many of which have made it onto Centeno's menu.
Kong Thao, 31, is the third of 10 children and the public face of the company. His job description is that of a modern farmer, and thus includes regularly texting chefs to let them know what produce he'll be driving down to the farmers markets — Thao Family Farm attends markets in Santa Monica, Hollywood, Palos Verdes and Torrance. Five of the siblings still live on the farm and work actively, while the rest have jobs and careers in different fields.
On a recent afternoon, Kong walked around his family's property, lifting the front flap of one of several hothouses and showing off the beautiful leafy greens that his farm is known for: bok choy, yu choy, amaranth, murungay (a tropical green also known as moringa), bitter melon tendrils, arugula, Malabar spinach and sweet potato leaves.
Over time, arugula, various chards and collard greens have been added, but those ingredients don't make it to the Thao family dinner table. For them, Kong says, a typical farmers breakfast would be "rice, greens and lots of stews." They essentially farm what Vang and Khoua want to eat — and it's mostly the same Southeast Asian vegetables they farmed and ate growing up in Laos.
While the Central Valley has an ideal growing climate for a lot of the produce at Thao Family Farm, such as sprouting broccoli, fava beans, snap peas and English peas, it doesn't exactly mimic the climate of Southeast Asia. So the more tender of the greens, such as bok choy and basil, are grown indoors.
"People ask, 'What's Hmong food?' " Kong said of his family's culture and cuisine: The Hmong are a group of mountain-dwelling people of Southeast Asia, many of whom immigrated to the U.S. after the Vietnam War. Kong talked over boiled bamboo shoots and shots of lao-lao, his mother's fermented rice wine. Later, he and his parents, wife Pang Vang and daughter Hailey would gather for a meal of water buffalo prepared two ways, sticky rice, chilled greens and fish. "Our food is what we could find," Kong said. "My folks, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, we were nomadic people."
"In 1975, I'm still young, maybe about 15 or something," said Kong's father, Vang. "The Communists controlled Laos, so I lived in the jungle for four years." There, while trying to find a way to get to Thailand, he survived mostly on bamboo shoots and mountain yams.
In 1980, the family made it to Thailand and settled in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, where Kong and two of his siblings were born. Then in 1988, thanks to family members willing to take them in, and an interest-free loan from a local church, they moved from Thailand to Fresno.
There, the family began farming as laborers, while also learning where to buy seeds and supplies from their cousins. "Finally, they got to a point where they could get like two acres," said Kong, "grow zucchini and then sell it to a wholesaler."
The growth was incremental. Eventually, they had the space to start farming the food they wanted to eat. Kong's mother knows precisely what she wants, and most important, how it should taste and feel. "Everything we do," said Kong, "honestly, it's all in my mom's head."
They began selling at the Palos Verdes farmers market about 25 years ago. A couple years later, a neighbor at the market recommended they start selling at the Santa Monica market, the largest and oldest farmers market in the Los Angeles area, because products like theirs weren't available. That also drew the Thaos to the Torrance market, where their produce connected with the large Asian population. The business continued to grow.
But the level of obsessiveness and precision the Thao family is known for also makes theirs a difficult business to scale. Currently, the farm grows close to 300 different fruits or vegetables — not only all those greens but also ginger, tomatoes, Fresno chiles, sprouting Napa cabbage, multi-colored cauliflower, daikon, beets and carrots — over the course of a year.
"I want my parents to really back off what they do," said Kong, whose mother and father still work between 100 and 120 hours a week. "Physically, emotionally, they're at the age where they need to retire."
Kong had a lucrative career working on cars while still helping out at the farm on weekends, but he left that job two years ago to work at the farm full-time. He didn't come back because his parents asked him to, he said. "My dad wants us to be doctors, lawyers and engineers," Kong said. "The way I look at it is, I left my job to help them retire. But I'm one of those people where I've got all these freaking ideas now and I'm getting really passionate about it."
Despite their success, larger questions loom: How do you move the business forward? How do you remove the demands on the first generation of family farmers, who already have an unreasonable, irreplaceable job description? To Kong, the simple answer is to limit the quantity of products and sell directly to restaurants and wholesalers.
"My dad is like, 'No.' He wants to have a huge display at the market and let people pick whatever they want." Kong muses on the topic a little longer, walking alongside a waterway and looking out over a small crew of workers manually weeding rows of jicama and peanut plants. "And that's the hardest part about having Asian parents," he says, laughing.
Find Thao Family Farm at local farmers markets, including Saturdays in Santa Monica and Torrance, Sundays in Hollywood and Palos Verdes, and Tuesdays in Torrance. On Instagram at @kongthao03.