The immigration of people from countries all over the world to the United States has made a huge impact on many of the consumer goods Americans enjoy today—including in the industries of food and farming. Historically, the immigration of Asian people to the U.S. in the late 1800s (a movement that coincided with the Gold Rush in 1848) was particularly momentous for the U.S. food supply. Notably, Chinese immigrants made up 75 percent of California’s agriculture workers near the end of the 1800s, introducing new farming techniques that led to a shift from dependence on grain crops to the cultivation of more vegetables and fruits. And according to the most recent U.S. Agricultural Census, the United States still has about 26,000 producers who identify as Asian. To celebrate this year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, let’s take a look back at two fascinating Asian thought leaders who have shaped agricultural practices in the U.S.
Larry Itliong: A Leader in Securing Farm Workers’ Rights
Many of us may never have heard of the “Delano Grape Strike of 1965,” but this significant farm-worker strike helped reform labor laws in America. A Filipino immigrant named Larry Itliong led the organization of the strike following his direction of the Asparagus strike of 1948. Itliong had also founded the Filipino Farm Labor Union in Stockton, California, in 1956. Itliong’s efforts over the years led to significant changes in farm worker benefits, including higher pay, medical insurance, and enhanced safety precautions for pesticide applications in farming.
Itliong also contributed to the founding of the United Farm Workers of America, a merger of two previous workers’ rights organizations (the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), led by Itliong, and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, two notable Latine civil rights activists who also made great strides in reshaping worker rights in the 1950s and 1960s). Today, UFW has expanded its reach beyond California to help even more workers. As the UFW website states, “the UFW continues its activism in major agricultural sectors, chiefly in California. UFW contract agreements protect thousands of vegetable, berry, winery, tomato, and dairy workers in California, Oregon, and Washington state.”
Changhe Zhou: An Ag Researcher Turned Farmer
It’s not every day that an esteemed researcher gives up their lab work to spend more time in nature and grow their own food. But Dr. Changhe Zhou, a scientist who once worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Fruit and Vegetable Laboratory in Maryland and as a researcher at Virginia Tech University, decided to quit his more-traditional job in 2016 and is now a full-time farmer in North Carolina. Zhou’s educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in vegetable science, a master’s degree in plant pathology, and a doctorate in fruit science. His education, alongside his desire to grow his own winter melon and hon tsai tai (an indigenous produce in his homeland of Henan Province in central China), laid a strong foundation for Dr. Zhou to successfully manage the type of farm he had longed for since his childhood (both his parents were also farmers).
Today, Dr. Zhou’s Huanong Ecorganic Farm in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina, grows more than 50 species of Asian produce and sells them in various farmers’ markets in North Carolina. Zhou believes in a “hands-on approach” that allows naturally occurring wildlife elements such as insects and weeds to aid, rather than hinder, crop growth. In a recent interview, Dr. Zhou said this about his farming practices: “For farmers you have to first do everything by yourself so you know what’s going on—what’s tricky, what’s good, what’s bad, how do we improve …. So even though I was a professor, I still do everything by myself.” Because Dr. Zhou’s farm is “ecorganic,” there are no pesticides, fertilizers, or manures used to control for pests or enhance the growth of plants. Drawing on his background in plant sciences, Dr. Zhou has crafted an environment in which he can use natural elements to support both crop protection and development.
While AAPI Heritage commemoration was first announced in 1977 to observe the first Japanese immigrants coming to the United States (May 7, 1843), and the great contributions of Chinese immigrant workers for the construction of the transcontinental railroad (May 10, 1869), today, more than 40 years later, we are still excited to say, “Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month!” We hope putting a spotlight on these two leaders will inspire you to continue to learn more about how Asian Americans have helped shape important practices in today’s food and agriculture industries.