Oct 26, 2017

Water Spinach Farmers Struggle To Recover After Hurricane Harvey

Rosharon, TX
USA
by
Hansi Lo Wang
,
NPR
Water spinach farmers in Rosharon, Texas, are worried about the fallen beams and torn plastic sheeting for their greenhouses as winter approaches. Photo: Hansi Lo Wang, NPR
Water spinach farmers in Rosharon, Texas, are worried about the fallen beams and torn plastic sheeting for their greenhouses as winter approaches. Photo: Hansi Lo Wang, NPR

Water spinach goes by many other names. A staple among some Asian-American families for stir-frys and soups, this stalky vegetable with arrowhead leaves and hollow stems is known as ong choy in Cantonese and rau muong in Vietnamese.

But in a Cambodian-American community tucked down the gravel roads of Rosharon, Texas — about a half-hour south of Houston — most people call it by its Khmer name trakoun.

Often sold in the produce section of Asian-owned supermarkets around the country, the vegetable is the main source of income for many families in Rosharon.

This country town is one of the few parts of the U.S. where water spinach is grown commercially. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has issued more than 50 active permits in Rosharon for growing water spinach, a highly regulated, invasive plantthat the federal government considers a noxious weed, making it illegal to sell across state lines without a permit.

But almost two months after Hurricane Harvey and historic flooding totaled many of their homes and damaged their water spinach greenhouses, the farmers are still recovering, worried about what will happen to their way of life.

Before Harvey, Sok Sum and his wife, Sreyaun Pin, would often spend early morning hours crouched inside the three greenhouses behind their home, each more than half a football field long. Harvesting water spinach inside the plastic-covered greenhouses too late in the day could mean getting heat stroke, Sok says.

...

In about two hours, Sum and his wife would fill a 25-pound box with small green bouquets of bunched-up water spinach to sell to a local supermarket or wholesaler. In a week, they could earn about $300 to add to the disability benefits Sum's been receiving since after a welding accident from a factory job

But Sum says he hasn't been farming since Harvey and the flooding turned his home into a ramshackle shell. It took about a week before the water receded in Rosharon and he and his neighbors could return to their houses.