If you want to find chefs at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market, there are three obvious places to look: Schaner Farms, Coleman Family Farm, and Windrose Farm. Behind the artfully arranged tables of produce, chefs congregate at the foot of these farmers’ box trucks, writing checks, tasting produce, and gossiping with other bleary-eyed cooks.
The popularity of these farms is called out on restaurant menus across town. I’ve spotted “Coleman Farm’s lettuces” on the menu at Milo & Olive. Schaner Farms avocados get lip service from Suzanne Goin and Akasha Richmond, and at the bottom of the Cooks County menu, Coleman, Schaner and Windrose are the first three mentions under the banner “local farms and ranches we support.” Yet, in this precious farm-to-table world, when was the last time you saw, “Fresno Evergreen okra” on a local menu? A quick search found just one mention of the farm—an Instagram photo of their skinny long purple eggplants from farm-to-table evangelist Bruce Kalman. In the caption he exclaimed, “it’s hard to believe nature makes this color.”
That’s exactly how I felt when farmer Chao Her snapped a Japanese yam in half, exposing a purple interior the color of Barney. Chao and his family own and operate Fresno Evergreen. They are part of a large Hmong community who settled in Fresno between the late 1970’s and early 1990’s. During the Vietnam War, a significant number of Laotian Hmong men were recruited by the CIA to fight the Vietnamese, but when Saigon fell in 1975, the Americans left the Hmong communities at the mercy of the Vietnamese communists. Those who survived, fled to Thailand and the US. Today there are over 20,000 Hmong residents living in Fresno alone.
Chao tells me that while they grow more variety in Fresno than they did in Laos, his family has been farming for generations. As we chat over a box of sweet potatoes, I spot Caleb Chen of Wolvesmouth eyeing the Asian greens. Next to Caleb, Brian Lea and Mesraim Llanez of Trois Mec and Petit Trois are stacking Japanese eggplant, and daikon in a black produce crate. They tell me that both restaurants buy most of their herbs here, and both Lea and Llanez seem particularly impressed with the staying power of the parsley, which can stay fresh in the walk-in for up to a week. Evan Funke of Bucato is also a cheerleader for the Hmong growers like Fresno Evergreen and Vang Thao who sells at the Saturday market. “Their herbs are always stellar,” he says, “mint especially—basil and parsley too. The variety is insane. If you look at the diversity of (what’s on the table) you know that they are rotating their crops effectively for seasons.” Funke is also enamored with their flat-leafed mustard greens and Chinese broccoli which he cooks stracotto (aka low and slow) as if it were Italian spigarello.
Variety is part of the appeal at the Hmong farm stands. In addition to peppers, eggplant, okra and herbs, Fresno Evergreen sells three varieties of bitter melon, fresh peanuts, long beans, Chinese squash, and Vietnamese spinach (also known as Malabar spinach.) Young ginger, still clinging to tall grassy stalks, consistently stops customers in their tracks. “It’s delicious” says Josiah Citrin, who pickles the young ginger in champagne vinegar and tarragon.
Where to find Hmong Farmers: Fresno Evergreen (every other week at the WednesdaySanta Monica Market, Saturday Santa Monica Pico Market and Sunday at Studio CIty and Mar Vista), Xiong Pao Her (every other week at the Wednesday Santa Monica Market) and Vang Thao (Saturday Santa Monica Downtown Market and Tuesday Torrance Market)