A Visit to My Farmer
Bee and Mai Vue’s farm in Sutter County is a glorious two-hour journey from Redding, passing through the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge—where, in late spring, an infinite number of winged beings frolic and bask—to then float through the sparkling rice paddies of Colusa County before arriving at Bee Vue’s Produce Stand and farm. I enjoy the drive, wondering how it feels for Bee and Mai and their family, making this four-hour roundtrip journey every Saturday to offer their work at the Redding Saturday Farmers’ Market, booth ready at 7:30am. The family also sells at the Wednesday Farmers’ Market in Oroville. When I pull in to the farm, Bee and Mai do not hear me over the wind this day. I stop my vehicle and take in the view before my eyes, startled and awed at this flowing, expansive work of art.
I have bought these farmers’ food since they showed up at the Redding market about twelve years ago. Their daughter always shared instructions on how to prepare things that were new to me, like the long beans that we now stir fry in sesame oil and sprinkle with red chili flakes. When she married and had her first child, she was relieved of her place at the market, and now her sister-in-law is in attendance. Sometimes her children, the grandchildren, work the market as well. They have always been so kind and helpful, welcoming us into their stand and carefully loading up our purchases.
Today the Vues crouch low to the ground, on their haunches, bent over dark soil mounds. The couple are weeding two long rows of green onions. They position themselves right next to each other, as they have for many years of matrimony, the last twelve working the land, returning to their shared dream of farming, a dream they carried in their hearts when they and their two young sons journeyed to this country thirty-plus years ago. It’s my first visit to the farm. The wind whips Mai’s hat and scarves, flapping them to and fro. I turn to look into an enormous tunnel, where tomato plants surge upward, standing in neat, tight rows and bulging with green tomatoes. Twelve feet high, thirty-two feet wide, and seventy-two feet long, the tunnel allows early ripening each season. My eyes next drift to an expansive fig tree, the one that graced me with its fruits all these years. Suddenly, Mai stands to stretch her back, Bee rises as well, and the joyful tour is on!
A sturdy eight-foot fence protects the crops from the deer. Everything is impeccably clean and perfectly tended in his fields. No weeds, no overgrowth, just glorious shoots and verdant crops emerging from the carefully tilled mounds of soil. The level of perfection is incomprehensible to me. Bee laughs at my surprise.
I am a hard worker. I have never been lazy! Only some people like to do hard work, but it is good for your blood pressure. I always seek out hard work, and I am not afraid to do it! We see this work as exercise. You move your body up and down every day, and you stay healthy! This is every day, from 6:00 am to 5:00 pm. I work so hard because I need everything just like this on my farm—clean and organized! This is a good business! It’s better than my other job. People are hungry today. They buy food today. Next day, they’re hungry again. So they buy food again. You give people good food, and they go home and enjoy it. And they come back for more food. It is perfect. There is always a demand for good, healthy sustenance! And we know exactly how to provide it to them! So that is what we do!
It’s a family affair that brings abundant fresh produce to both the Saturday Redding Farmers’ Market and the Wednesday farmers’ market in Oroville. The twenty-acre farm was planted as an orchard twenty years ago and then pulled up in 2008.
The land was prepared so well for the orchard that it doesn’t need supplements. And we rotate the crops to increase soil fertility. Then all it needs is water! But water is expensive!
I tell him I have always been surprised how much food they can offer in each bulging bag for so little money.
It is difficult. Farming is expensive. All of the supplies and materials are extremely costly. But we do our best for the customers. Now with Covid, maybe some of them are unemployed. We are concerned about them. And the last few years we have noticed, people have less money to spend. So, we do our best to try and keep our prices low and give generous portions. We do it all for the customers!
Bee is excited to show me all his dedicated labor. Come this way! Come this way! Just next to the green onions are rows and rows of emerald-green strawberry plants sprawling forth from mounds covered with white plastic, bright red plump berries flashing against the green. If you have visited their stand at the market, you know about these succulent, juicy strawberries that Mai carefully replenishes on the tables. The rows go on forever, so far I cannot count them.
I have one and a half acres of strawberries! You have to control the water just right. The water is what makes the fruit sweet! The wind, the rain—they can ruin the strawberries. We watch over them very carefully, to make sure they have enough water to make them sweet.
Now we travel to his beloved blackberry patch. I had always wondered where on earth they were picking so many blackberries. Well, this is yet another part of his well-planned and executed work of art! Mature blackberry bushes are trained and rise up the fences, with the biggest green berries. He just transplanted two dozen more canes yesterday. The way he looks at these newly arrived plants and shows them to me exude his love of the labor. This is a full-circle-of-love operation, farmers to customers!
Come. Come. I’ll show you the raspberries!
And sure enough, he raises his arm to display even more cultivated abundance. How on earth did he learn how to grow all of this?
I am from Laos. My father was a US-CIA soldier who died in the Secret War when I was only eight years old. I studied in school from Monday to Friday, but on the weekends, I helped my mother with our farm. My mother was a farmer. We even had cows and pigs. When I was thirteen years old, we had to move to the refugee camp, Ban Vinai, in Thailand. My mother was dying so we had to live with an uncle. Mai’s family farmed as well. This is in our blood. We have learned how to work the land since we were small children.
Bee is Hmong and speaks Hmong. The Hmong have been a displaced people for too many centuries. They lived in southern China for thousands of years, but in the eighteenth century, for both political and economic reasons, they began migrating and settled in northern Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. When I ask Bee if he misses his life there, he says he doesn’t.
I have lived more of my life here than in Asia. This is where I feel at home. Here I can change my life. My four children and my eight grandchildren have a better life. They learn English when they are little, at three to five years old, at school. They study, and now they all have professional careers. That is what I want for my family. They have a good education, a good job, and they own property. Young people should go to school. They shouldn’t farm like me. Not everyone can change their life like I could, because of my uncles’ help. I am a lucky one!
Bee, Mai, their two young sons, and his three brothers came to the United States, sponsored by an uncle in Crescent City, who started the paperwork in 1978. They arrived with refugee status, in 1988. Bee and Mai had another son and daughter here in California. He moved from Chico to Oroville, and while Bee worked full-time at a casino, his uncle in Yuba City, who also farms twenty acres in Sutter County, taught him more about farming in California. And then he started his own farm. For two years he worked full-time and farmed, but for the last twelve years, he has focused solely on farming. He has three employees to help him and Mai farm their leased twenty-acres.
I am a fast learner! I watched everything. I paid very close attention to all the details. And I worked with my uncle, side by side. And that is how I learned to do this!
I am surprised to learn Bee has a whole back section of farm, and we jump on his two-person Mule SX to get to the other side. We stop to peek at the tomato starts all lined up in yet another small greenhouse. And now we are driving through two fields of all the crops he brings to the market. Here they are, tucked into the earth, a palette of all he shares with his customers on his tables!!! Potatoes, yellow onions, cucumbers, zucchini, crookneck squash, long beans, and watermelon are in neatly tilled rows. This is where the peppers at the market come from, the red, green, and yellow peppers and the jalapeño and Thai dragon chilies. In an adjacent plot, the plants that have provided the snap peas and snow peas have already been picked nearly clean. Now the cabbages, bok choy, the red and green chard, the mustard greens, and pea shoots spring up from the soil. The Japanese, Thai, and Indian eggplant are in the ground as well. I take in cilantro, basil, Thai basil, red onions, and lettuce varieties that his stall recently showcased. There are more tomato plants maturing in straight rows. He points out a freshly tilled area where he will plant the tomato starts tomorrow. A row of garlic with lacy pompom heads is left growing for seeds. On our way out, we see all of the harvested garlic piled up under a tree, drying until its turn at the market.
As our tour draws to a close, Bee stops his Mule SX next to his white vegetable stand. He points out his wife’s rows of flowers.
My wife. . . she loves her flowers! She loves arranging the bouquets and sharing them with our customerst. When people stop at the farm to buy our produce, they always come right over here, to her flower patch, to take photos of themselves with her beautiful flowers.
A smile of deep appreciation lingers on his face as we take in the green foliage and spiked leaves from bulbs in three neat rows, the beginnings of the lavish bouquets Mai offers for sale.
A customer has just pulled in in the hopes of buying some of Bee’s delicious strawberries. Bee urges him to please stop by again, maybe tomorrow. The stand does not have a set schedule—they only open on the days they are working nearby and can be sure to switch out the food every couple of hours.
We only serve the best food, the freshest produce to our customers, with no blemishes or marks. I have to stop working every couple of hours to come refresh the food. If something is overripe or wilted, I do not sell it to my customers. Only the best, highest quality for our customers!
He looks at his whitewashed produce stand and smiles to himself.
The food that cannot be sold to customers does not go to waste. My friend up the road has chickens. All the produce we cannot sell goes to his chickens. We do not waste food.
He pauses again, reflecting, looking out again over his beloved farm, basking in the endless labor of love that he has poured into this farm.
We were so concerned when Covid-19 broke out. We wanted our customers to be healthy. We wanted to provide them with food that was clean and safe. We followed all the guidelines. We wrapped and wrapped and wrapped our produce. And we set up a system so that we were the only ones serving our customers the produce. It was difficult. But we did it! And as always, we managed to provide only the best for our customers!
We head back over to the two long rows of green onions. Mai has slowly edged her way up the long row, removing one by one every single weed invader. The wind is so fierce today—she constantly readjusts her hat and face scarves. I call out to her and wave goodbye and she waves back wholeheartedly.
As I drive away, I am filled with gratitude for all the delicious food Bee and Mai have put on our table over the past twelve years. We enjoy their fruit in the morning as a refreshing way to begin. We toss their golden cherry tomatoes with their fresh basil and douse them with olive oil. Their cucumbers become an after work snack, crunchy and refreshing with salt and pepper! We roast their jalapeños and serve them with our steaks and salads at night and again, in the morning, with our fried eggs. We boil their beets and serve them over our salads with slowly sautéed red onions. The Vues have fed us well for many years. Before each meal we share, we bow our heads and hold hands, and thank the universe for the bounty that farmers like Bee and Mai provide to us, always with a gentle smile and kind heart.
Please feel welcome to visit Bee’s Produce stand on Pass Road in Sutter, California, at the Oroville Wednesday market from 9am to 2pm, or at the Redding Saturday market from 7:30am until noon. Bee and Mai and their family look forward to meeting you and sharing their delicious produce with you and your family!
Ann Sittig, a regular and years’ long customer of the Saturday Farmers’ Market in Redding, counts more than one farmer as the source for the simple food she and her partner enjoy at their table.