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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Low harvest prices prompt some refugees to plant marijuana

Mark Arax Los Angeles Times

FRESNO, Calif. – On the edge of suburbia here, where farmland awaits the developer’s plow, the magnificent gardens of Southeast Asian refugees rise and fall.

On leased ground no larger than five or 10 acres – small potatoes to the giant industrial growers – the refugees plant their own longshot dreams: Chinese bitter melon, Chinese broccoli, Thai chili, ong choy, su choy, daikon and kohlrabi.

The best strawberries in the San Joaquin Valley are grown by a tribe of CIA-trained commandos who fled the highlands of Laos after the Vietnam War. Thai eggplant, slightly spicier than its Armenian cousin, is the specialty of the lowland Lao.

This spring, anticipating another harvest of low prices in the nation’s most productive farm belt, some Southeast Asian niche farmers are planting a new cash crop under the brutal sun: marijuana.

In the past month, Fresno County investigators have busted half a dozen marijuana fields hidden by borders of cherry tomatoes. A more ideal camouflage crop – the tomato and the pot plant have similar leaves – would be hard to find. Nearly 40,000 prolific bushes have been yanked out and set ablaze, an illicit harvest worth $40 million on the streets – more than last year’s value for cherries or Valencia oranges or sweet corn in Fresno County.

Five lowland Lao refugees have been arrested and charged with cultivating marijuana for sale. The record heat of spring has not only pushed the vineyards and fruit orchards several weeks ahead of their growing cycles but matured the marijuana in half the time.

“This is the earliest in my 23 years as a narc that we’ve taken off so many marijuana plots,” said Lt. Rick Hill of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department. “Usually the plots we find are in the mountains, and they’re mostly operated by gangs from Mexico. These new plots are down on the valley floor, and it’s Southeast Asians who are growing them.”

As sheriff’s deputies canvass the truck farms of Fresno County looking for greener-than-green plants, Southeast Asian leaders are complaining that their community is being unfairly singled out. In one news release, the Sheriff’s Department advised landowners leasing property to Southeast Asian farmers to inspect the rows for cannabis.

The refugees counter that the majority of their truck farms are clean and that authorities, by targeting Southeast Asian farms, are making it difficult for future refugees to lease farmland.

“Anyone who reads the local paper has the conception that Southeast Asian farmers grow marijuana,” said Tzexa Cherta Lee, a leading Hmong grower and packer in Fresno County. “Someone even asked me the other day if the white caps we put over the plants to protect them from frost is the Southeast Asian way of hiding the marijuana.”

The Hmong, a tribe of 18 clans from the Laotian highlands, were slash-and-burn farmers who lived in jungle huts until the CIA recruited them to fight communist forces during the Vietnam War. After suffering high combat mortality rates, the Hmong began resettling in central California by the tens of thousands in the late 1970s.

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