Asian, Latino farmers lead strawberry industry

07/04/2014 2:13 PM

07/05/2014 7:10 AM

Yong Va Yang put four children through college thanks to hard work at his Turlock strawberry patch.

He and his wife, Blia, who both fled war-ravaged Laos in the 1970s, started farming the 6 acres along Monte Vista Avenue about 20 years ago.

Today, they are part of a notable trend: 85 percent of the state’s strawberry farmers are of Asian or Mexican descent, according to a report this week from an industry group. That’s not the case with any of the other major sectors in California agriculture, where the vast majority of farmers have European roots.

The report, from the California Strawberry Commission in Watsonville, offered a few reasons for the success of these groups: The fruit produces high yields from small plots. The land typically is rented rather than purchased, which reduces upfront costs. And consumers can’t seem to get enough of the product, which has health benefits to go along with the flavor.

The Yang farm, on land leased from a housing developer, relies on family labor in preparing the beds, weeding, watering and harvesting. It’s hard work – there’s still no machine for picking the delicate fruit – but it has been worthwhile for these immigrants.

“They don’t take anything for granted,” Bee Yang, the youngest of the couple’s four children, said Thursday. “They see how hard it was before.”

Yong Va Yang was a police officer in Laos but had to flee when a new regime took power. The family made their way to Thailand, where Bee Yang was born, to await their journey to the United States. The Yangs lived in Memphis before moving to California.

The farm, now managed by Bee Yang, produces berries mainly for freezing by Dole Packaged Foods in Atwater. It also sells them fresh, along with other produce, at a farm stand.

The patch is surrounded by homes, businesses and California State University, Stanislaus. That has forced the family to no longer fumigate the soil for diseases. The Yangs also are concerned that this year’s drought could stress the well that irrigates the plants through drip lines.

The Northern San Joaquin Valley accounts for less than 1 percent of the state’s nearly 40,000 acres of strawberries. The season here used to run from April to July, but heat-tolerant varieties have stretched it into October. Merced County is the region’s top producer.

Almost all of the California crop grows in the coastal belt between Santa Cruz and San Diego counties. It ranked sixth in gross income among the state’s farm products in 2012, bringing an estimated $1.94 billion to growers.

The report is titled “Growing the American Dream: California Strawberry Farming’s Rich History of Immigrants & Opportunity.”

It said 65 percent of the farmers are Latinos, a quarter of them former field workers. The 20 percent who are Asian include Japanese American farmers, who have been part of the industry for about a century, and people with roots in Laos.

Alfredo Ramirez, an immigrant from Mexico, went to work in 1973 for Lassen Canyon Nursery, a strawberry plant producer based in Redding. Today, he manages the Manteca-area branch of the company, which produces about 500 million plants a year for farmers and gardeners around the world.

“I don’t have any worries,” Ramirez said Thursday. “I make enough money to live.”

The same sentiment came from Laotian immigrant Brian Saetern, who lived in Merced before taking on a 4-acre strawberry patch near Manteca.

“I like strawberries,” he said in the report. “They give me enough for my family to survive.”

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