Illegal Cambodian Weed Sales: Authorities Are Clueless

The invasive plant water spinach is banned in some states — and essential to Asian cooking. In a small village outside Houston, relocated Cambodians are growing and selling it across state lines, hoping to get rich.

This was an era of simplicity, before the economic wolves infiltrated the town or the authorities demanded everyone get a permit to farm. People were poor, yes, but they found some modicum of sanity in the work. "It was our crop for our people," resident Chheav Peng said. The Village was a place for forgetting — the genocide, American bureaucracy, intractable poverty — where dogs ran collarless and no one cared if the music was too loud or you had a few numbers on a piece of paper to grow a weed.


One day years ago, from across the nation, the newcomers began materializing in The Village in Rosharon. From Boston, Philadelphia, Ohio, the Bronx, a smattering of Cambodians embarked on a journey spanning hundreds of miles to arrive here, at this confluence of rural Cambodia and impoverished Texas. In The Village, the rumors went, you could escape the cold and eat real Khmer food. In The Village, you could dispel the trappings of memory and time. In The Village, you could make a fortune.

Yin Vuth displays a bundle of water spinach.
Daniel Kramer
Yin Vuth displays a bundle of water spinach.

This type of talk holds great sway among Asian refugees and immigrants, according to scholarly research. Asian Americans new to the United States, especially refugees of the Vietnam War, have shown a remarkable propensity for entrepreneurialism because, quite simply, they had no choice, writes C.N. Le, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, in Asian American Assimilation: Ethnicity, Immigration, and Socioeconomics. Many of them spoke little English, and employers often didn't recognize their experience and education, exiling them to nontraditional industries. So they opened Asian markets and restaurants, got into gangs like Johnny or, as in several separate communities in the United States, grew water spinach.

Even today, if recent migratory patterns are any indication, myths of warmth and water spinach still elicit something visceral in Cambodians. Over the last decade, New York City's Cambodian population, for instance, has tumbled from around 7,000 to 3,000, local immigrants say. Florida's Khmer population, meanwhile, has swelled from roughly 2,400 to 6,200, the U.S. Census Bureau found. In that time frame, the number of permitted farmers in The Village has increased 50 percent, from around 60 to around 90 today. Nearly ten new operations have started in the last year alone. How many more there are, without permits, is anyone's guess.

A community of Vietnamese water spinach farmers sprouted in southern Florida. Another in Central Valley, California. Some Hmong launched production in central Iowa. With the exception of the community in California, all these enclaves clashed with the states over their right to cultivate and sell a federally designated noxious weed, resulting in much cultural confusion and a few hilarious White Man moments. Texas Parks & Wildlife, especially, appeared flabbergasted when dozens of rural Cambodians suddenly crashed a 2009 meeting in Austin.

"Okay, Ruby," Commissioner Peter Holt told one of the farmers when she asked to speak, according to the meeting's minutes. "I'd better pronounce it" — pause — "V-O-N-G-S-A-L-Y, I think? Think so." Then, "Michael Lee? I think — am I — yes, Michael Lee?" Later, "Patrick Ong...O-N-G? Patrick? You're all right? Okay."

Despite the puzzlement, the rural Asian farmers from every state have invariably trotted out similar arguments, which went beyond weeds and regulation and touched on the difficulties of assimilation. Water spinach became a metaphor for something greater. The refrain: This is our culture. We can't get employment otherwise. Your wars brought us here. "I know over 100 families in Rosharon that got no skill, no education," one participant, Chelsea Tang, told the Texas agency. "They depend on water spinach."

Eventually, the Florida and Texas agencies buckled and allowed production after they decided that water spinach wasn't an environmental threat after all. The Iowa Department of Agriculture didn't rescind its regulation, a representative said, and the plant is still prohibited. While Texas and Florida permitted farming water spinach, the caveats were fastidious. Farmers needed a permit to grow, sell and transport across state lines, and had to follow specific packaging guidelines. They needed to maintain exacting quarterly documentation. But then something strange happened. The farmers in Texas were pretty much forgotten, economically at least. No one knew how much the plant could be worth.

Texas Parks & Wildlife representative Luci Cook-Hildreth, who issues water spinach permits, had no idea that more than 40,000 pounds of the weed could clear The Village in one week, calling that "wild." "Maybe the farmers can pull a fast one on us," she said. "But (how much they grow) doesn't even fall into the realm of the things we're particularly concerned about."

Al Tasker of the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service said: "It surprises me that there's that much going on. It's an awful lot of product for something that's federally regulated." Seemingly indicative of what's been an utter misunderstanding of the water spinach trade, Texas game Warden Nick Harmon, who monitors The Village, said, "They grow things that I guess would be considered food items in their culture."

But water spinach is apparently much more than that. There's almost something metaphysical about the crop. It was enough to get Sameth Nget, a portly, garrulous Cambodian stricken with diabetes, to abandon his shop and trucking career near Boston and move his entire family down to Texas. A weed did that.

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