Mark Arax, L. A. Times, May 12
FRESNO — On the edge of suburbia here, where farmland awaits the developer’s plow, the magnificent gardens of Southeast Asian refugees rise and fall.
On leased ground no bigger than 5 or 10 acres — small potatoes to the giant industrial growers — the refugees plant their own longshot dreams: Chinese bitter melon, Chinese broccoli, Thai chili, ong choy, su choy, daikon and kohlrabi.
The best strawberries in the San Joaquin Valley are grown by a tribe of CIA-trained commandos who fled the highlands of Laos after the Vietnam War. Thai eggplant, slightly spicier than its Armenian cousin, is the specialty of the lowland Lao.
This spring, anticipating another harvest of low prices in the nation’s most productive farm belt, some Southeast Asian niche farmers are planting a new cash crop under the brutal sun: marijuana.
In the past month, Fresno County investigators have busted a half-dozen marijuana fields hidden by borders of cherry tomatoes. A more ideal camouflage crop — the tomato and the pot plant have similar leaves — would be hard to find. Nearly 40,000 squat but prolific bushes have been yanked out and set ablaze, an illicit harvest worth $40 million on the streets — more than last year’s value for cherries or Valencia oranges or sweet corn in Fresno County.
Five lowland Lao refugees have been arrested and charged with cultivating marijuana for sale. The record heat of spring has not only pushed the vineyards and fruit orchards several weeks ahead of their growing cycles but matured the marijuana in half the time.
“This is the earliest in my 23 years as a narc that we’ve taken off so many marijuana plots,” said Lt. Rick Hill of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department. “Usually, the plots we find are in the mountains, and they’re mostly operated by gangs from Mexico. These new plots are down on the valley floor, and it’s Southeast Asians who are growing them.”
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