I am almost always waiting for the click of a rifle when I walk onto someone’s land without proper permission. Here in California’s Central Valley, hardly a square inch of the valley floor is public land. Jimmy Xiong, however, barely raised his head as we drove onto his land, and waved us in with a gentle motion. He and his colleague Choua were kneeling across from one another harvesting a thick row of lemongrass when we asked to speak with them. The scent of the just-harvested stalks filled the air around us with a pungent and appetizing aroma.
Jimmy’s sensitive demeanor is reflective of the way he treats his soil. “Sometimes I use fertilizer,” he says, “But this soil is very good. I don’t have to put much into it.” We notice a pile of last season’s Japanese eggplants and opo (squash) in a pile in the middle of a row. Instead of “cleaning” the field, a conventional practice of removing all remnants of last season’s crops and throwing away all of the the precious organic material, Jimmy spreads the “agricultural waste products”, or unused vegetables, back onto the field to degrade naturally and contribute to the quality of the soil.
“I was 18 when I came from Laos with my parents,” he tells us. “In my country they grow all of these same things: long bean, lemongrass, chili.” When asked about scale and if he would like to expand to more acreage, Jimmy replies, “No, this is enough for me. I don’t have the machines, the tractors and things like that. I hire someone to come and drive the tractor.” Jimmy only brings a tractor on his land once or twice a year. “Mostly my family comes to help me,” he says in regards to labor. We notice someone leisurely picking large red and yellow peppers in the corner of the field. Jimmy tells us that sometimes, if a buyer needs produce they will come to pick it themselves or send an employee to fill the order since he doesn’t have workers.
Jimmy supplies vegetables to direct buyers in Fresno as well as markets in Stockton, Fremont and Pittsburgh/Daly City in the Bay Area. “This year we are getting an OK price for lemongrass,” he says. “The market is fine, but if there is no water, then no farming.” He tells us how 2 years ago, his plants were very strong. “You turn on the pump and lots of water would come. Now its very slow. I need to save water.” He points to the much larger gauge of irrigation piping that was used by the land-owner. Jimmy has switched to more efficient flat irrigation tubing that conveys water at the same rate to all of his crops.