Fam Lee and her husband, Nathan, farm a three-acre plot of land along Bond Road in Elk Grove. They pick the strawberries each morning and sell them from a brightly-painted stand next to the field where Fam's uncle grew strawberries before them.
The Lees are part of Sacramento’s lu Mien community, an ethnic group from Laos that came to California as refugees after the Vietnam War. Fam Lee's parents were subsistence farmers in the highlands of Laos. When they came to California, they used their farming know-how to grow food for their families in their own backyards. Some community members branched out into strawberry farming in Sacramento County.
The Lees were drawn to farming after having children because they could work for themselves and set their own schedule. The family lives close to the farm plot, their children attend nearby schools and their extended family live in the area.
The small, three-acre plot has its upsides and its downsides, says Lee. It’s a manageable size for the couple to plant, weed, irrigate and pick the strawberry crop themselves. But she says the year-to-year lease presents challenges. The timeframe makes it difficult to plan ahead and make longer-term investments in their farm.
“It’s really hard to plan for the next year,” says Lee. “We wish we could lock in the land for five to 10 years. That way, we could figure out which parts of the plot to rest, which to plant. When you use the land this much, you have to let the land rest. But year to year, you don’t know if you’ll be able to continue or not.”
The Lees' strawberry plot is one of dozens of small-holder lu Mien and Hmong farms sprinkling the landscape of Sacramento County.
They grow Chandler, Albion, Santa Rosa and Seascape varieties. The couple is proud that they sell strawberries picked the same morning, unlike imported strawberries that travel long distances in refrigerated trucks.
“These strawberries have thinner skins. They’re softer. You almost have to eat them right away,” Lee says.
She talks about how delicate strawberries are — and how they need just the right amount of rain. The fruit likes warm enough temperatures to bring out the sweetness, but they can't take too much heat. Lee says, last summer, most of their strawberry plants burned in the heat wave.
They grow the strawberries using conventional methods in keeping with Sacramento County agricultural regulations, says Lee. She argues that it’s too costly for their small operation to grow strawberries organically.
Lee points out that many of the farmers in the lu Mien and Hmong community are self-taught. She took over the farm from her uncle who was growing strawberries at this site before her. Her parents were subsistence farmers in the highlands of Laos and in Thailand. She says they've passed their knowledge onto her. “They know a lot about farming, even though it’s a very different climate here.” Lee had never seen a strawberry before she moved to the U.S. as a child.
Nathan and Fam Lee’s roadside stand is open Monday through Saturday, April through October, until they’re sold out. There’s no marketing and no website.
“It’s all by word of mouth,” Lee says. “We have a lot of customers who buy one time, they like them, and they start to spread the word for us.”
She says most of their customers are very kind. A few try to “bargain her prices down,” Lee notes. “My price is reasonable, two baskets for $5. They still complain.”
So she tells them, “Don’t bargain. We work hard. Everything we have here is fresh. We don’t refrigerate the strawberries.”
“They bargain down, I bargain up,” Lee says, with a smile.