From Bitter Melon to Sinqua: MNC Moua Farm Shares Their Roots | CUESA

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September 13, 2019

From Bitter Melon to Sinqua: MNC Moua Farm Shares Their Roots

Opo, sinqua, bitter melon, and Thai chilies are just some of the popular varieties of vegetables you’ll find at MNC Moua Farm, the newest member of the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. For more than 30 years, the Moua family has grown a wide variety of traditionally Asian vegetables and herbs at their Fresno farm.

“We’ve been experimenting and growing more and more different crops every year due to popular demand from farmers markets,” says Gary Moua, a second-generation farmer at MNC Moua Farm. “That’s what got us started growing different varieties.”

From Laos to the Central Valley

Gary’s parents, Dirksen and Chee, migrated from Laos to California in the 1980s bringing some knowledge of farming, so they decided to start growing vegetables. “My parents stuck with farming ever since they got here because it’s all they knew,” says Gary. “They had to learn everything on their own and learn from their mistakes each year.”

Gary’s parents, along with thousands of Laotian refugees, fled to Thailand to escape the Vietnam War, and immigrated to the U.S. to escape persecution. The Central Valley, especially Fresno, is home to the nation’s largest Hmong diaspora, primarily refugees from Laos who arrived in the late 1980s to become farmers. Among all the refugees, the Hmong people had the fewest resources to adapt to American society. As a result, the Hmong relied on farming as a solution to feed themselves and their community.

“It was a bit difficult for my parents at first because they worked their way toward finally being able to save up for farming equipment,” says Gary. “They never had tractors at the time nor any farming equipment. My dad was finally able to buy three tractors later on, which made it easier for him.”

Struggling to Find Farmworkers

Gary and his parents currently don’t have any farmworkers, so they do all the work on their 16-acre farm themselves, which can make it challenging to keep up with market demand.

“One of the hardest things about farming is that when you don’t have workers, you have to manage the farm and the farmers markets stands at the same time,” says Gary. “So when we’re at the markets, there’s no one taking care of the farm.”

According to a 2019 California Farm Bureau Federation survey, more than half of Californian farmers have been struggling to find sufficient labor to harvest their crops over the last five years. As immigration policies have become more restrictive, many migrant farmworkers are aging and not being replaced by the next generation or American-born workers, while some have moved on to higher paid jobs and other industries. This can make finding and keeping workers difficult for farmers.

“Not having farmworkers is challenging because we have trouble keeping up with everything,” says Gary. “It’s been difficult to manage both at the same time without farmworkers.”

Deepening Roots at the Market

Despite the hard work and long hours, the Mouas remain dedicated to growing a diversity of crops for Asian communities and beyond. Along with tomatoes, peppers, and basil, you may find specialty crops such as kabocha squash, lemongrass, and okra.

Focusing on Asian vegetables has helped the Mouas define their niche at the farmers market. “Every year, we have lots of customers who tell us they want us to grow this or that [vegetable], and it just helps us overall at the market,” says Gary. “We also do our best to explain what each crop is used for and the benefits of those crops.”

Gary also recalls numerous instances when he received questions about how to prepare a specific item, and he’s been able to educate customers. “We always get questions such as ‘What is this for?’ or ‘How do you prepare it?’ and even ‘What are the benefits?’”

Some of the most popular Asian crops Gary gets requests for are eggplant, bitter melon, and moringa, a plant native to Africa and Asia that has edible leaves, pods, seeds, flowers, and root. The moringa leaves are known to be high in protein, vitamins A and C, calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium, and potassium.

“I always tell people about moringa and educate them a little about it. We always sell out of it at the majority of the markets we’re in,” says Gary. “Most people that come to the farmers markets are those that we’ve known for a while, so they trust the quality of the products that we bring to them.”

Find MNC Moua Farm in the front plaza of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.

Photos of bitter melon plant and farm field courtesy of MNC Moua Farm.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to growing thriving communities through the power and joy of local food. Learn More »