In U.S. fields, these farmers connect to their Chinese roots

Changhe Zhou left his career as an agricultural researcher and professor to fulfill a lifelong dream. In 2016 he became a farmer and opened the Huanong Ecorganic Farm in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina.

Zhou is one of a large number of people of Asian descent in the United States who have recently turned to farming, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of Asian and Asian-American farmers in the United States grew by 21 percent to 22,016. California, Hawaii, Texas and Florida have the most, though they farm in every U.S. state.

Man crouching by row of plants (Courtesy of Changhe Zhou)
Changhe Zhou works on his farm in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina. (Courtesy of Changhe Zhou)

Zhou, 56, graduated from the Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan in the 1980s, a time when the Chinese government paid students’ way but also chose their careers for them. Zhou came to the United States in 2001 to work at a U.S. Department of Agriculture fruit science lab. He later took a job as a university researcher. He and his family have green cards and are working toward citizenship.

About farming, Zhou says, “It’s very interesting, even if it’s very difficult and very dirty. … I can use my knowledge, my research from the past, from the last 35 years, and use it on this farming. I find new things every day. That’s very exciting.”

Woman and man standing in tent by baskets of produce on table (Courtesy of Changhe Zhou)
Changhe Zhou and his wife sell their produce at a farmers market in Morrisville, North Carolina. (Courtesy of Changhe Zhou)

At farmers markets in Carrboro and Morrisville, North Carolina, Zhou has started introducing customers to vegetables like luffa squash, which grows up to 61 centimeters in the U.S. and twice that in China.

There are many people of Chinese heritage thriving in the U.S. as entrepreneurial farmers. The 2017 Agricultural Census shows 70 percent of farmers of Asian descent make land-use decisions or choose crop varieties. Additionally, 82 percent take responsibility for the day-to-day farm operations.

Chinese vegetables and family recipes

That autonomy allows farmers to explore their heritage by growing Chinese vegetables. For Scott Chang-Fleeman, who recently opened Shao Shan Farm in west Marin County, California, choosing what to grow is a balance. There’s gai lan and bok choy, the Chinese broccoli and cabbage he sells to a San Francisco restaurant in the hopes of expanding the market for organically grown Chinese vegetables. He also produces an everyday variety of lettuce that helps support his business.

“I have a conservative approach to what I’m growing,” says Chang-Fleeman, a 25-year-old great-grandson of Chinese immigrants who made their way selling groceries in Los Angeles. “I spent a lot of time in the winter talking to farmers, figuring out what things people want to buy, and going to farmers markets and seeing what people are willing to pay.”

Smiling man in greenhouse holding basket of produce (Courtesy Scott Chang-Fleeman)
Scott Chang-Fleeman opened Shao Shan Farm in west Marin County, California. (Courtesy Scott Chang-Fleeman)

Wen-Jay Ying, whose business, Local Roots NYC, delivers fresh vegetables in New York City, says children of Chinese immigrants struggle to find locally and organically grown varieties of the vegetables their parents cooked for them when they were growing up. Ying has recently added gai lan and hon tsai tai, a leafy green used in salads and stir-fries, and other vegetables to her locally sourced food deliveries around Brooklyn and Manhattan.

For Leslie Wiser, food has always provided a tangible connection to her Chinese heritage. When she traveled to Taiwan in college, she stayed with relatives and copied down her grandmother’s recipes to take home to her mom.

In June, Wiser, 42, will reap her first harvest at Radical Family Farms, three-fifths of a hectare in Sebastopol, California, north of San Francisco. Among her crops are several varieties of pai tsai, a Chinese cabbage that serves as an ingredient in her grandmother’s recipes. She builds new traditions by traveling to Taiwan with her two children every year, savoring the culture that infuses her farm.

“Learning the language, shopping at night markets, getting all our food locally and cooking with local vegetables — that’s the only way I know to keep my cultural heritage: through food,” she says.