California's immigrant farmers squeezed by Silicon Valley success
California's Asian community is fed, often quite literally, by Chinese farmers on the fringes of San Francisco. But as Silicon Valley expands, those farmers living and working on small farms near growing cities are being squeezed out by economic growth.
Bob and Judy Kuang’s farm begins where a cul-de-sac ends in the tiny town of San Martin, Calif.
It’s about 30 miles south of San Jose and home to some of the country’s most expensive real estate. At first glance, it might not even be recognizable as a working farm.
The vegetables grown there — Chinese celery (gao choy or chives) gau gei (leaves of Chinese wolfberry) and gai lan, which looks and tastes nothing like Western broccoli despite its common nickname (“Chinese broccoli”) — are hidden from sight in a greenhouse. The only thing that catches the eye is a cottage with corrugated tin panels.
That’s where the field hand lives.
Judy rises before 3:30 a.m. on delivery days, driving a truck loaded with over 300 boxes of vegetables to the Chinatowns of San Francisco and Oakland. While products like ginger, taro root and lychee can come from as far away as Japan and China, the fresh produce from these markets comes from Asian farmers in California.
Farming is in Judy’s blood. Her relatives were farmers in the fertile Pearl River Delta region of China. Almost all the Chinese growers in Silicon Valley’s farming belt can trace their roots to this region near Hong Kong.
Back in San Martin, the Kuangs continue to live the farming life of their ancestors. But this way of life is increasingly under threat — not from the manufacture of watches, toys and clothes as is the case in China, but from Internet company headquarters and the surrounding neighborhoods where its employees live. Since buying 12.9 acres here in 1998, the Kuangs have watched the price tag of surrounding land increase from $30,000 an acre to as much as $70,000 in recent years. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, more than half of the Asian American farmers in Santa Clara County operate on less than 10 acres of land.
Unlike their white and Latino counterparts, the number of Asians operating farms larger than 180 acres can be counted on one hand.
Of the roughly 130 Asian growers documented in the county, the majority are Chinese, and most of the Chinese growers here own land in or on the fringes of urban zones. In areas zoned for agriculture, land can be purchased at $100,000 an acre, according to Aziz Baameur, a University of California farm adviser based in Santa Clara County. However, land in the bedroom communities of Silicon Valley, such as Gilroy and Morgan Hill, could easily fetch between $300,000 and $500,000 per acre. New farmers have few prospects of buying land “unless it’s someone from Silicon Valley who is cottage farming on the weekends,” Baameur says.
Domestic Development vs. International Relations
While the Silicon Valley of Apple and Facebook is no longer a land of blossoms and orchards, Chinese farmers like the Kuangs continue to wage a battle for farmland preservation in Santa Clara County.
Bob was 21 years old when he immigrated to the United States in the mid-1980s from Guangdong, China. In 1989, he leased land with his older brother Peter in Morgan Hill, 15 miles south of San Jose. In those days, the vast majority of Chinese growers in the area grew flowers, particularly chrysanthemums. The brothers farmed 10 acres of the cash crop, earning enough money for Bob to buy his own land in nearby San Martin less than a decade later.
Bob grows 20 varieties of produce for sale. The greenhouse offers the vegetables protection from inclement weather, but that’s not why the Chinese and Japanese farmers in the mid-peninsula south of San Francisco initially built them more than a hundred years ago. In those days, the greenhouses contained flower-growing enterprises, and by the mid-1960s, chrysanthemums were a multimillion-dollar crop.
Wing Mok is a third-generation farmer in the San Francisco Bay Area and one of the last remaining flower growers among the local Chinese. The Mok family’s migration down the peninsula over the course of the last century traces the path of development in what is today’s Silicon Valley. Mok’s grandfather started out in Belmont, relocated to Stanford and then moved further south to Redwood City.
Today, Mok owns 12.5 acres in Morgan Hill. In the wake of the recession, a nice, single-family home in Morgan Hill lists for at least $700,000 upward to $1 million. Urbanites have been lured to these picturesque bedroom communities by the prospect of a short commute to Silicon Valley.
It’s an uneasy coexistence that may lead to farmers being priced off the land, as has happened in other parts of the country.
Land prices aren’t the only threats to small farmers. When Mok took over the family farm in 1980, the chrysanthemum market was still thriving because most people still bought American-grown flowers. That decade, however, marked the beginning of increased competition from South American imports. Baameur says U.S. aid to Colombia has been a significant force in edging domestic growers out of the market for cut flowers.
The US-funded “war on drugs” has shifted agricultural production in Colombia from coca and poppies to legal crops, especially flowers. And the weather is on the side of the South American growers.
“No lights or plastic tarps are needed (there),” Baameur said. “The temperature is perfect.”
The Toronto Star reported that 450 million flowers were imported from Colombia this past Valentine’s Day.
That wasn’t the only challenge for flower growers. Bob Kuang remembers when a serious viral disease called “chrysanthemum white rust” first infected his nursery. Following strict USDA guidelines, all infected plants and others in the vicinity had to be destroyed.
“Our entire year’s salary was gone,” he said.
Between crop diseases and foreign competition, about 90 percent of local Chinese American farmers have converted from flower to vegetable cultivation in the past two decades.
Then in 1995, the North American Free Trade Agreement liberalized trade between Canada, the United States and Mexico in order to stimulate economic growth for all three countries. What it ended up doing was sparking a race to the bottom in agricultural products, sending much of the income of small U.S. farmers into a free fall, according to a report by the nonprofit Public Citizen.
Nearly 33,000 growers who earned less than $100,000 per year went out of business between 1993 and 2000. Imports of agricultural goods including beef, grain, fruits, vegetables and flowers soared — even Chinese vegetables grown in Mexico have begun to flood the US market, Kuang said.
In the face of these challenges, the Kuangs and Moks have exuded a tough spirit.
“Farmers are the most stubborn people that you could work with,” said Baameur, who has worked with Asian growers since 1985 and in Santa Clara County for the past decade. “That’s a compliment.”
But there are plenty of reasons to stay. The majority of Chinese farmers here own their land.
“You can easily put half a million dollars into the ground” as a land-owning farmer, Baameur said, not to mention the sweat put into the land by generations of family members.
The Chinese have been in California for a long time, first immigrating in significant numbers in the 1850s.
“They have more resources. They brought their nephews. It’s a stable community,” Baameur said.
Chinese growers established their roots in the region during a golden era of the 20th century, after laws against Chinese immigration and alien land ownership lapsed. Retired grower Frank Leung bought his farm in 1972.
For $95,000, he obtained 5.5 acres, along with a house and a well. Mok visited Bank of America to get a $250 loan for a PG&E meter that same year.
“The manager was happy to help,” Mok said. “He said the Chinese are hardworking.”
Kam Lau, the former president of the Bay Area Chrysanthemum Growers Association, also remembers the good old days.
“We are lucky. We bought our place in this valley when the land was cheap," Lau said. "Then the electronic industry moved in and the (value of the) ground went up.”
Val Dolcini, California state executive director of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, points to urban growth and suburbanization in this region as barriers to land ownership for farmers over the past half century, especially those who want to buy significant acreage.
In fact, the cost of land is an issue throughout the state.
Small farmers like the Moks have lived under the shadow of encroaching development as growing towns have attempted to annex nearby open space. In 2002, Gilroy’s city council earmarked 664 acres of the county’s agricultural preserve for industrial development, but it has yet to materialize due to the sluggishness of the economy.
In the meantime, Greenbelt Alliance has played a role in designing San Jose’s general plan update, approved last November, which would safeguard urban reserves in southern San Jose as wildlife corridors and ranching and agricultural lands through the year 2040.
“There’s so much land within cities and towns that can be redeveloped,” said Michele Beasley, senior field representative at Greenbelt Alliance. “It doesn’t make sense to sprawl.”
Owning land has bestowed a certain amount of security for these small farmers. Yet ownership ties the older generation of Chinese growers to the land in a way that it may not for their children in years to come.
Although both grass-roots groups and the USDA have stepped up efforts to reach young and new farmers, some Chinese growers don’t envision their children taking over the land when they retire.
“My own kids don’t eat Chinese vegetables,” Judy Kuang said.
Kam Lau agrees that domestic Chinese crop farming is in its twilight.
But Wing Mok, whose business has survived recessions, chrysanthemum viruses and foreign competitors, is more optimistic.
“When we retire, someone else will come. The sky never falls," Mok said.
Public Radio International partners with New America Media to elevate public awareness of, and discourse about the experiences, struggles and successes of the over 38.5 million immigrants across America. The partnership is part of the "Immigrant Lives" initiative, funded in part by the Rita Allen foundation.