Amherst, Mass. The path through the New England woods by a beaver pond opens into a scene from another continent as women no longer young laugh and chatter, stooping to tend the delicate sprouts of water grass and exotic melon vines climbing woven wood trellis.
Meet the Khmer Growers of Western Massachusetts four Cambodian sisters and their friends who are raising money to rebuild the Buddhist temples in their homeland by growing the vegetables they know best.
They began selling to Massachusetts' ethnic farm markets seven years ago. And this summer thanks to a couple of bushels of exotic basils and sinuous melons a former top U.S. agriculture official brought to high-powered chefs they are adding some chic restaurants in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., to their growing customer list.
The aim is to open new and more lucrative markets for immigrant growers here and across the country, said Gus Shumacher, a former Massachusetts agriculture commissioner who served as undersecretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration.
"The chefs love this stuff and it is such high quality food that it should be getting top dollar," Shumacher said. He has also brought Hmong and other immigrant growers in Fresno, Calif., together with chefs in San Francisco and Los Angeles and is working with farmers in Iowa, Wisconsin and North Carolina.
"It's very challenging to find quality Asian goods," said Michel Nischan, executive chef of the Heartbeat restaurant at the Hotel W in Manhattan, who is buying from the Cambodian women and other western Massachusetts growers.
"As people have been able to travel more their palates have expanded. They want the exotic and interesting," he said. "And these folks are growing it all."
Seeds of a new life
Prak Ky's return to farming after escaping the killing fields of the Pol Pot regime started when her doctor gave her a stern warning. "He said I must exercise or I would die," she said.
He told her sister Prak Kom the same thing.
The elderly women, sitting cross-legged in a shelter in the field, burst into uncontrollable giggles as they recalled the doctor's suggested exercise: jogging.
Instead, they began a small garden at the apartment complex where they live. Some of the seeds they planted were seeds that members of the small group of Cambodian families here had brought with them when they fled.
"They were farmers and the seeds were all they had to bring to a new life," said Sokhen Mao, the women's nephew, a teacher and an organizer for the Hampshire Community Action Coalition. In the summer he helps his mother and her sisters on the farm.
Peter Westover, the town's conservation director, saw their garden and was fascinated by the multicolored basils and trailing vines. He was so impressed at how much the women were growing on the tiny plot that he helped them lease a 40-acre plot of town conservation land.
"We had just been mowing the big field and hoping to be able to do more," he said. "I'll never forget the look on their faces when we walked over the hill and they saw the pond and the fields."
"I was so happy," said Prak Ky. "It is so beautiful. Our prayers were answered."
They now have more than four acres planted without an inch wasted in more than 30 different kinds of Asian vegetables, greens and hot peppers. The crops range from lemon grass and baby corn to the more exotic water grass or tachouen which resembles asparagus. They also grow big-leaved arum, fish cheek basil, sticky melon, two-foot long Asian beans and sinuous melons.
It's a mosaic of varied shades of green now, but this year's snowy winter and late frosts took their toll.
"I planted that corn three times," said Prak Ky. "Twice everything was gone. It was so cold."
The farm is set up as a nonprofit to finance reconstruction of the temples. It is a lesson in an old culture that could have vanished in a new American world where children and grandchildren have other interests, Mao said.
Children from the town's public schools come to study the farm. Students from area colleges also help.
Still, it is the older women in the community, working by hand, that do the bulk of the weeding and planting. They laugh and talk as they work and assure their children that they take frequent breaks to rest.
"They are out there every day in their conical hats," Westover said. "They are wonderful workers. They don't walk. They trot."
"This is what is good for me," said Prak Ky. "Now, I'm healthy."