By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Trevor Bach
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In a small farming village hidden down dirt roads among shrubs and tall grass, everyone's sleeping, and the rain won't stop. It's early afternoon on a Tuesday near Rosharon, a small town south of Houston, and the downpour has canvassed the paths with deep crevices and pockmarks, making driving all but impossible. Not that anyone here would ever be driving at 2 p.m. Afternoon is when they sleep.
Afternoon is when the only sounds flitting across this intensely insular and homogeneous community of Cambodian farmers are the warbles of swamp frogs and the cackle of a smoldering trash fire. Mobile homes, their frames expanded with slabs of corrugated iron and long, slanting awnings, line the dirt roads. They look almost exactly how they would 9,000 miles away in Southeast Asia. "Little Cambodia," villagers call this place. But looming behind the rusting shacks is something you wouldn't find anywhere in Cambodia: dozens and dozens of greenhouses.
Perhaps 90 Cambodian families live here, but like so many other mysteries coursing through this village, no one's really sure how many there are. Some say 50. Some say 120. The Cambodians cringe at exactness. In a community completely dependent on cultivating and exporting a prohibited — and highly profitable — plant, ambiguity and secrecy are crucial to survival. You can't trust anyone, not the other villagers and especially not newcomers like Johnny Bopho. He and the other sharks moved to town around six years ago with big-city entrepreneurialism and a rapacious business plan to wring a fortune from what, by every measure, is just a weed. But a weed that has so consumed this village that it's all anyone seems to talk about, all anyone thinks about. It's omnipresent, heaped in large piles outside most homes, stuck to the bottoms of shoes, poking out of the mouth of a passerby.
They call it a lot of names: trakuon in Khmer, ong choy in Mandarin, rau muong in Vietnamese, water spinach in English. The plant has a spindly stalk, swallowed in leaves shaped like a dog's tongue, and a maddening resilience. During the 1990s, water spinach nearly strangled some waterways in the Everglades with a canopy of vegetation — "Impenetrable," Florida reports said — until state environmentalists found a pesticide potent enough to eradicate it. Since then, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has added one more name to the list — "noxious weed" — spurring states like Iowa, Vermont and Arizona to outlaw it.
In 2007, cultivation under permit was allowed in Texas. Before that, water spinach was banned outright, though farmers here have clandestinely grown it for decades employing, incredibly enough, butcher knives and scissors — exactly as in Cambodia. It's hellish, monotonous work, leaving shoulders stooped and hands gnarled. But newcomers like Johnny have unleashed modern machinery on the village: tractors, ATVs, behemoth coolers, anything that can maximize output and crush other operations.
This dichotomy, along with the escalating competition, awakened what has become the community's dominant conflict. No one here seems to like, let alone trust, anybody else. This isn't the pastoral pocket of Southeast Asian farmers that authorities may think it is, but the epicenter of an emerging, combative and largely informal market. Both local and national regulators, seemingly unfamiliar with Southeast Asia, dismiss water spinach as either an invasive species or some quaint Asian oddity and have misunderstood the vegetable's importance, allowing nearly unchecked and untaxed movement and industry expansion. Meanwhile, this bizarre little village has been trapped inside some sort of libertarian dystopia where every farmer competes with everyone else in the absence of any mutual agreements or government intervention.
The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department says if you find water spinach — essential in scores of Asian dishes — in any restaurant or grocery store in the state, it almost certainly came from here. Beyond that, the area's water spinach melts into a little-understood underground economy, scattering across the nation inside semi-trucks bound for places like Nebraska, Michigan and Oklahoma and ultimately arriving on someone's platter. And that's where the demand is. From the West Village to Sunset Boulevard, Asian restaurateurs who care about authenticity, say chefs like Seattle instructor Gregg Shiosaki, need water spinach for soups and stir-fries.
The trade to get it there works like an ethnic conveyor belt: The Cambodians, Hmong and Laotians grow the crop and then sell it for 50 to 90 cents per pound to the Vietnamese and Thai, who run the wholesale transport system. The wholesalers cart it to the markets in Texas and beyond, which are predominantly governed by the Chinese. This is sometimes done legally, with permits. Sometimes not. Last year, a Houston wholesaler, L & V Food Supply, was fined $17,000 for illegally taking water spinach to Oklahoma. May Produce Company out of Rosemead, California, smuggled it to Minnesota in 2010, the USDA says. A different company, May Food Produce Wholesale, located in Houston, was asked to pay $12,500 in 2006 for allegedly violating federal regulations by transporting it to Wichita, Kansas, according to public records. A representative for the Houston company responded: "That was a long time ago."
The grocery stores then sell it to the consumer for anywhere from $2 to $10. This entire process must occur within five days, before the plant spoils. And the higher you get in the hierarchy, or the deeper you move water spinach into cold climates where cultivation's impossible, the richer you get. Johnny Bopho, who says he amassed a business acumen from decades in the drug trade, moves a staggering 10,000 pounds of water spinach every week across Texas and to Oklahoma. He hustles the plant like it's a narcotic, saying if you cut out wholesalers and ship your own, then you're in the real money. Or if you can somehow control the product supply — which is what he tried to do years ago but failed — you can build a fiefdom.