“That’s pigeon peas, hun,” Sally says to me as she swiftly harvests handfuls of bronze seed pods into her bucket. “A lot of Indian people, Punjabi people, love to buy these. They boil them and stir fry them with their rice.” I let out a sheepish laugh, embarrassed that I couldn’t identify one of my own cultural crops. I am in Sally Manivong’s field on Diwali, the Hindu festival of light. On the other side of the world, thousands of people are preparing celebratory dishes made of pigeon peas. “Ah, but you were born and raised here so its kind of hard, right? My daughter was born and raised here and there are things that she eats that I would never eat. Being on a farm we get so much knowledge of our ancestors, and our history of what they ate at home, compared to what we have now.”
Sally Manivong has the kind of swagger that only a farmer-mom could have. In the cold November evening, she is out harvesting in her sweats. She has her cell phone headset in one ear waiting for a call from her mother, and one eye on her daughter who is running around the field rows. She still makes time to graciously tell me about her family and her farm. She shows me the two 5 gallon buckets filled shallowly with pigeon peas and long beans. It’s the end of the season at their farm where they grow crops such as eggplant, bitter melon, and angled loofah or sincua. “This is what little we have to take to market… and most the farmers here have to rent a vehicle just to get this stuff out.” The Manivongs sell both to an aggregation company as well as taking their crop to the San Francisco farmers’ markets themselves.
Sally is proud of her parents for enduring through the volatility of farming. “Sometimes at market we have people coming and telling us that we purchased this produce from somewhere else and are selling it. It breaks my heart because they don’t know the struggle that my parents went through to grow this stuff. There are times that my parents come home and they wont’ even eat because they are so tired from the work.”
Because of a lack of access to government programs, marketing services, and certifications that help brand and track individual farmer’s products, the painstaking work of small linguistically isolated growers is often not acknowledged, and worse, they are sometimes accused of reselling purchased product. “I want to ask those people how they can say something like that, because they don’t know the hardship. They have it so easy, to sit behind a desk or a counter, and the money rings up by the hour but for us we get paid by the week or by the month, from whatever we can grow. Even so we still send money back home to Laos.”
“The prices fluctuate. One day it could be $5, $10 a box, next day it could be $2,$3 dollars, or open price. Whatever we make here, a hundred, couple hundred dollars every other week, depending on the prices; it helps keep a roof over our heads and food in my kids’ stomach.” She adds as an afterthought, “Some people are more lucky. They can afford to buy fertilizer or chemicals, or other things, just to say that they have it. That way they can have better looking products. Through ups and downs we just do what we can and try to move forward.”