"You can see almonds over there, almonds on this side, on that side. We are pretty much surrounded. Pretty soon you won't be able to see anything." Kaihli indicated to the ring of industrial almond orchard surrounding she and her husband Lee's farm, but within this wall of almond clones a mad diversity is flourishing.
Kaihli leads me down the walking path that cross-cuts the Vang's peaceful 20 acres in the community of Del Rey, in South Eastern Fresno County. Lee and Kaihli provide space to 5 other couples growing crops such as bitter melons, peppers, lemongrass, summer and winter squashes, sweet pumpkins, sour leaf (also known as roselle and best known as the base for the vibrant Mexican beverage jamaica), corn, string beans, long beans, peas, taro, okra, an assortments of herbs, greens, peanuts, and many others. Kaihli leads me down a short row, full with the fragrance of two varieties of thai basil and hot chiles ranging from green to red to purple to black. Rounding a corner, a bright tropical stand of sugar cane emerged--fresh sugar cane growing in California is a rare treasure.
Lee and Kaihli's love for one another is palpable. While we walk through the waning sun she gently asks him to identify the crop growing to the left, and he sweetly asks her how best to cook with lemongrass (her favorite is to mince the herb finely into barbecue sauce to create a succulent pork marinade). Their trust in one another and their passion for their work, their family and their community is felt through the soil. The couple started farming after both leading lives in the technology field. As second generation farmers, they both recall working with their families in agriculture. "We have always farmed, it's in our genes. It's our survival skill because wherever we go, whether we are in an apartment or out here, we always have to have a little plot of land for cilantro, onions, garlic...the basics. We are getting back to our roots. We are getting back to the earth and back to our roots," says Kaihli.
Lee and Kaihli use their families' traditional agrarian principles while expanding their reach into much more innovative crops and growing practices. For instance, Lee is experimenting with growing moringa (Moringa oleifera). Long grown and cooked by peoples across South Asia and the African continent, moringa has recently been heralded as the next superfood in the West and is being imported from around the globe to dry into powder as an herbal supplement. The fresh leaves, on the other hand, lend an earthy tang to soups, stews and curries while providing an excellent source of protein, calcium, potassium, vitamin C and other vital nutrients. It is a known combatant of high blood pressure. Lee, a natural innovator, is growing the plant out of curiosity and faith in its medicinal properties. He sees a traditional and long lasting crop as an investment in the generations to come. "Its something that is going to benefit the future. We are growing 3 or 4 acres of moringa. We will pass it off."
The couple has painstakingly tested and confirmed the best methods of picking, preserving, and packaging the fragile leaves. They are one of the few domestic producers of this very specialty crop and are prepared to sell wholesale as well as to make direct sales to individual buyers.