Way before the organic eating wave could even be considered a trend, early immigrant Asian American families were unknowingly at the forefront of the movement. Whether for personal consumption or for selling purposes, several API communities have an obscure history of foraging in the Pacific Northwest. A few decades ago, mushrooms, berries and other produce were popular items. Today many families have continued the tradition and depend on commodities such as flowers as their means of support.
Situated in Lacey, Wash., Salal Evergreen Florist is a family-run business that harvests salal stems from the shrub, which flourishes in the forests of the northwest. Used for floral arrangements, the Cham and Cambodian communities have developed an industry over the past 30 years growing from just a few individuals rummaging in the forest.
Salal grows on pine trees and near the Olympic Mountains where the business owns some land on which they can pick the brush, said Mukhtar Sou, who works in the family business alongside being a student. He said they now ship worldwide from Lacey where hundreds of thousands of the stems are stored in freezers.
Sou pointed to the tradition of farming in Cambodia as the industry’s genesis. While rice and vegetables were the primary produce for trade, the florist and other Asian immigrant communities have adapted to the climate of the Northwest and built a transnational industry out of the naturally-growing salal.
Another flourishing foraging-based venture are floral businesses in Seattle’s Pike Place Market courtesy of Hmong flower farmers, who fled the Vietnam War and kept their tradition of farming in the U.S. as their primary source of income. Granted plots of land in places like Carnation and Auburn, Wash., Hmong farmers grow flowers and sometimes other crops with the help of Mexican Americans.
When times were difficult and before the boom of grocery stores in the International District, many families looked to naturally growing produce around the region for every day consumption.
Rango Le, whose family immigrated from Vietnam and now reside in the Seattle area, remembers how his mother would pick Chinese water spinach in Seattle’s Golden Gardens Park.
“In the wooded area, there was a creek where they grew. I would help her bring it to car, and a lot of people would look at us wondering what we were doing,” said Le, remembering how he felt embarrassed as a fifth grader.
In the village his family hails from in Vietnam, everyone harvested and picked their own vegetables, said Le. He said that bringing that tradition to America was his mother’s way of saving a few dollars when times were tough.
International District nonprofit organization Inter*Im Community Development Association (CDA) specializes in community development, including providing affordable housing. Many residents received housing but still felt out of place because an important part of their lifestyle was missing: a garden. In 1975, plots of land at Danny Woo Garden became available to low-income seniors to allow them to connect with their cultural heritage since many practiced farming in their home countries.
“Most of our gardeners are first-generation immigrants, and a lot brought seeds from their country of origin,” said Rachel Duthler, the garden’s program coordinator. “People are eating food that is important to their custom and culture and in a sustainable way.”
Duthler agreed that ethnic communities play an integral part in the organic movement but are often overlooked.
Most ethnic grocery store owners in the International District rely on wholesale companies to supply produce catered to the Asian American customer. While many may laugh at the thought of growing or harvesting their own fruits and vegetables now, they remember when it wasn’t uncommon for families to pick strawberries to sell for extra money in the summers. It was also a way of acquiring ethnic produce at a time when ethnic grocery stores weren’t as common as they are today.
According to The Natural Marketing Institute, Asian and other ethnic consumers are more interested in organic foods than the general population. They are more likely to seek out stores that carry organic foods. Though the trend of foraging was often out of desperation, it also meant the beginning of a healthier and “greener” alternative to the pesticides and chemicals in today’s groceries.