For Immigrants, Farmers’ Markets Are a Home Away from Home

“These beans are from my home in Laos, these are from China, and these are from the Philippines,” says Pheng Ong, patting piles of skinny beans on his table at the Stockton Certified Farmers’ Market. He does not mean he flew his produce here from overseas. Like Ong, who is a Hmong refugee, the long bean varieties are Asian by origin only. Ong grew them on leased land in his adopted home of Lodi, only thirteen miles from here.

More than a million Southeast Asian immigrants have settled in California since the United States withdrew its troops from Vietnam in 1975. Their journey was often harrowing, through war-torn countries and grim refugee camps to a bewildering new culture. For these refugees and many other immigrants, culinary traditions are a lifeline. Their best bet for finding fresh old-country ingredients is certified farmers’ markets such as this one each Saturday, Stockton’s biggest, serving 30,000 customers a year, under a cross-town freeway.

While Ong’s long beans might send many Californians scurrying for an exotic cookbook, his customers know exactly what to do with them. “I like to cook them with a spicy, lemon-grass fish sauce-and chicken,” says Orn Snguan, who was born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Besides the fifty-five vegetable and fruit stands, the Saturday Stockton Market hosts six seafood vendors and-something no supermarket offers-four live-poultry vendors.

California farmers’ markets provide soulful sustenance to millions of consumers, whether immigrant or native-born. Customers enjoy chatting with the farmers who produce their food-and the feeling is mutual. For farmers, the markets also make economic sense. When Ong drives his pickup to the Stockton Market, he avoids wholesale distribution costs of packing, storing, and cooling, netting as much as twice what he would from a wholesaler. A vendors’ gross receipts from a day at the Stockton Market range from $400 to $800.

The advent of farmers’ markets in California coincided with the post-Vietnam War Asian influx. The intent of the Certified Farmers' Market Program of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, launched during the late 1970s, was to ease conventional distribution regulations so that small farmers could sell their produce locally. Today’s vendors-more than 4000 farmers at the 416 certified farmers’ markets-are exempt from strict size, shape, and packing regulations. This translates to less food waste, as customers choose a crooked cucumber or a tiny pear for its fresh flavor, texture, and nutritional value.

Farmers’ markets in Stockton have expanded to Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays at various sites but the original market under the freeway remains the biggest. While an overpass wouldn’t seem the ideal awning, this one is high and wide enough that the traffic noise, dust, and exhaust don’t land here. The only cloud hanging over the market these days is a pending change in the way poor people buy food. Low-income shoppers use food stamps, as well as coupons from the WIC and Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition programs. Food stamp sales alone (RIGHT?) average more than one million dollars a year at the Saturday market and a recent week’s take in WIC coupons was more than $6,000. The worry is an anticipated switch to digital swipe cards. The system, called Electronic Benefits Transfer or EBT, will require farmers to buy a gadget that will automatically deduct dollars from a customer’s account and deposit it in the farmer’s account. Sounds simple, but the technology is complex and costly.

“A lot of the growers are not going to touch it,” says Carlos Dutra, manager of the Stockton Certified Farmers’ Market Association. Besides buying the card-reading machine, vendors will have to set up accounts with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, a potentially intimidating transaction for those whose English and bureaucratic skills are shaky. “Some of our farmers don’t have bank accounts and aren’t yet integrated into the same small-business world as other food-sellers,” says Dutra, who fears the digital red tape will scare them off from the market.

Dutra takes hope from state officials’ promises to find ways to ease the transition both for farmers and consumers. Stockton already got a lucky break in the scheduling of the county-by-county transition. “We will be the last market to adopt EBT,” he says, smiling. “By that time, the other counties should have worked out the bugs.”

As Dutra watches buyers and sellers chatting, sampling, and taking home bags bulging with fresh, high-quality local produce, he can’t help but believe the digital turbulence will pass. “It’s better than the grocery store,” he says. “There’s no competition.”