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.
It's a mistake Johnny hasn't forgotten or forgiven. On a recent Friday morning, Johnny was in a dark mood and didn't want to talk. He had turned his phone off; no one knew where he was. When he finally arrived at his house at 9:30 a.m., drinking Miller Lite, his black tank top was matted with sweat. He'd been in the fields and greenhouses since daybreak, threshing and boxing water spinach. He said he didn't have time for disruptions, especially questions about his relationship with other villagers. He's through with them, he says — they do their thing; he does his. "They can kiss my ass," he said, later adding, "I don' care what they say. I'm not here to make friends. I'm here to get rich."
But watching Johnny rage and perspire, it became clear that he, just like everyone else here, probably never will. There are countless frustrations in selling water spinach. It takes hours to clean, prepare and package. Knuckles bloat and split open under the strain. Then, after all that, a pound of the crop gets barely 70 cents in Texas. The cost of a Coke. It's insulting. Most families make far less than $100 per day, and sometimes they can't even get that. The crop spoils, or the wholesaler, for whatever reason, doesn't want the haul anymore, and hundreds of pounds get burned. Because the crop's not a regulated or publicly traded commodity — like wheat or cotton — there's no insurance or speculation to assuage risk or buffer losses. Every family in every way is on its own.
Johnny Bopho, 45, one of the most disliked men in this village, was born in Savannakhet, Laos, and belongs to one of the only Laotian families in this community.
Farmers sell each bundle of water spinach, which weighs around one pound, at a price of between 50 and 90 cents. It takes hours to cut, clean and package one 30-pound box of water spinach.
On days like today, though, it's better not to think like that. Johnny has sunk everything into his water spinach business. So he contemplates possibilities. If he could funnel water spinach up North somehow, or build more greenhouses, or find some way to control the price, then he'd make real money. He could retire before his body fails. On days like today, when Johnny already feels beaten and tired and has a long drive and uncertain prospects ahead, it's better to entertain fantasy. So he loads up his white van, slams the door and creaks down the moonscape dirt road, alone and Dallas-bound.