It's a bountiful life: In the field and on the air
Sept./Oct. 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Interview by Megan Alpers
Photos by Tomas Ovalle
Sam Vang plays multiple roles in the Fresno community—and far beyond.
Images of strawberries, oranges or broccoli may come to mind when you think about California farms, but the diversity of our state's flora is unparalleled. Just ask Sam Vang, a soil conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Fresno, who helps local farmers grow crops traditionally found in mountain areas of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
Introduce us to the 25,000-strong Hmong community in Fresno.
The Hmong families of Fresno are a hard-working and industrious group of people. They brought to Fresno their unique culture, such as custom, language, clothing, food and most of all, their agrarian background. … Farming was their way of life for thousands of years. They brought many nutrition-rich vegetables into the valley.
What types of fruits and vegetables do Hmong farmers grow?
Some unique vegetables grown in Fresno are lemon grass, Thai chili peppers, Hmong herbs and Asian vine crops such as bitter melons, wax gourd and luffa. Lemon grasses are harvested November through February, and Thai chili peppers and vine crops are in season mid-June to October. Hmong herbs are grown under high-tunnel (hoop-shaped) greenhouses and are harvested year-round.
What is the highlight of your job as a soil conservationist?
What is rewarding for me is to see Asian farmers improve their farming skills in terms of increased yield and improved quality. … Also, they have advanced their understanding of natural resources (for example, soil, water, air, plant, animal and energy) and are capable of taking care of them.
As a USDA soil conservationist in Fresno, Sam Vang helps Asian farmers master Western farming techniques.
You've also been a radio host for 15 years. Tell us about your program on KBIF-AM in Fresno.
My focus is to educate the Hmong and Punjabi farming community in accessing USDA programs, advancing their Western farming skills and protecting natural resources.
The conversation continues with Sam Vang, who plays a dual role in the Fresno area
As a soil conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture…
Through field assessments and collaboration, Vang helps farmers grow traditional crops using the latest growing techniques and technologies. His goal is to help sustain the region's natural resources and provide farming opportunities for generations to come.
What is it like to live within the Hmong community?
Living in the Hmong community is fulfilling. It brings out the family values, fellowship, leadership of the elders and younger generation as well as community support.
What is your favorite Hmong dish, and how is it prepared?
My favorite Hmong dish is stir-fry bitter melon beef in oyster sauce. The bitterness and crunchy texture of the bitter melon, combined with the flavor of soy and oyster sauces melting in your mouth, makes the dish incredibly tasty.
As a radio host…
Vang also hosts a radio show on KBIF-AM in Fresno for Hmong and Punjabi farmers.
Vang also shares his knowledge via KBIF, a Fresno radio station that broadcasts in a number of languages in California and beyond. Through the station, Vang has reached farmers thousands of miles away, such as Kai Lee, a Hmong farmer in Thailand, who took Vang's advice about corn-growing techniques to heart and doubled his yield—and income—in just three years.
How do you educate yourself about such a diverse array of plants to be able to answer questions from across the world?
I had farmed for many years prior to working with the USDA and going back to college. I had traveled abroad observed many different farm operations as well. I graduated with a bachelor's degree in agronomy and crop production emphasis from California State University, Fresno. I conducted an experiment on lemon grass, along with several Asian vegetables, during my study at CSU, Fresno, for two years. (Other trials I have run included an) on-farm experiment on a permanent trellis system for Asian vine crops at Cherta Farms Inc. for four years.
Why do you choose to live and work in California?
I chose to live in Fresno because of the agricultural opportunity. I moved here from Southern California in 1989 to farm. I started my farm with limited Western farming skills and no knowledge of USDA programs. In 1994, my crops were wiped out by a hailstorm and I lost almost everything. It made me realize that I needed to learn Western farming skills so I can better farm in Fresno. I went back to school and obtained my bachelor's degree. After I graduated, I decided to work with the USDA-NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and reach out to my fellow Asian-American farmers who have the same struggles as I did.
In terms of why I chose to work in California, it is so that I can exercise my passion and utilize my knowledge to help farmers. I have always loved plants and animals. I told my father, "When I grow up, I want to be an agronomist and teach people to take care of the land and grow healthy food." My father wanted me to be a classroom teacher, but I really have become a teacher after all, even if it isn't the kind my father envisioned. It is rewarding to be able to work in an area that I can make a difference in helping farmers grow healthy food to feed families not just in Fresno, but the world as well.