This Refugee Family Farm Is Supplying Some of LA’s Best Restaurants
Founded by refugees from Laos, Thao Family Farm is beloved by chefs and non-chefs alike for its unique produce.
People love to talk shit on Fresno, California. I would know—I'm from there. It doesn't seem to matter what part of the globe I'm visiting, I can't seem to escape Fresno's unflattering reputation. It gets old.
You can imagine my surprise and delight when Fresno suddenly had a cool thing that other places didn't. No, not primo meth. Thao's Family Farm.
With the rise of farm-to-table dining, the US has also seen a rise in its appreciation for farmers. That is particularly true in Los Angeles, where farmers markets play a big role in the lives of chefs and civilian food lovers alike. One of the most talked-about farms, regularly singled out on popular restaurant menus around town, is Thao's.
I walk the Thao's property with Kong Thao, whose parents own the farm. He points out some of the 300 varieties of produce jutting out of the soil. There are 34 different kinds of tomatoes planted in OCD-friendly rows, hot houses filled with luscious basil.
"I think Fresno is still better than Bakersfield or Tulare or some of the other cities around us," he tells me. "It's not too bad here." I tend to agree.
Kong's parents Vang Thao and Khoua Her moved from a refugee camp in Thailand to Fresno when he was a toddler. His parents had been farmers in Laos, and when they came to California they picked up where they left off back home. They started their new life in America by renting land to farm until they could eventually buy a plot of their own.
"We've been doing it as a family for a long time. It's pretty much my parent's thing and all of us kids have a part in it," Kong tells me. "My parents are the backbone of it."
Of course, our childhoods in Fresno were very different. While I was being a brat in the suburbs, Kong was helping his parents work.
"Growing up as a kid, we revolved our days around the farm. You go to school, you come back to the farm," Kong says. "As a kid growing up, we didn't get as many opportunities as other kids because my parents were farmers, so we didn't have much time. We didn't have time to play sports. We didn't have time to do a lot of things."
Kong and his family never imagined that their farm would be producing as much as they do today, or that the farming profession would become something seen as cool.
"Growing up as a kid, we were sort of embarrassed our parents were farmers. You don't talk about it," Kong says. "Now it's sort of the cool thing. On menus, farmers get their own [social media] handles."
Kong sees pros and cons to having a strong social media presence.
"We're so tiny that if I post something [on Instagram], I get all of these text messages and we don't have enough product for everybody."
On the other hand, if his family can't sell something at the market, Kong can post on social media to find a buyer that way.
LA's best chefs love Thao's because not only does the farm grow amazing ingredients, the family is down to grow new things for them, too.
"I'm going to fly some of these out to the Philippines for Walter Manzke," Kong says, pointing to the flowering leek plants. "There are a few of our things he really likes to use that he can't get over there."
Pok Pok's Andy Ricker has given him Hawaiian turmeric seeds. Felix's Evan Funke brought him pepper seeds from Italy, and Michael's Miles Thompson brought some from the Caribbean.
That's not to say that the experiments are always successful, though.
"I put them in and a lot of them didn't work out. It's kind of hard to break the news to the guys," he says.
We arrive at the pigsty, where pork-to-be are playing around in the mud.
"These ugly guys like this, those are wild boars. The two straight across there are Berkshires, those are about three years old," Kong says. "And then the little black ones, those are called American guinea hogs."
But you won't find any pork for sale at the Thao's farmers market tent.
"It's really just for us. All of the chefs ask, 'Hey, can you sell me one, will you do this and that.' I've sold a couple to chefs before, but like I tell everybody, it's not something that's going to be a regular thing because we can't produce enough. These guys are really slow-growing."
Beyond providing meals for the family, the pigs help with processing farm waste.
"Here we almost have zero waste because if we don't sell the product, or whatever we don't sell, it comes back and the pigs eat it all, and we eat the pigs. It all kind of works out really well."
Kong takes me to another hot house filled with pots of Thai guava tree seedlings. It's his mother's latest project. His parents are in their 50s and still the heart of the farming operation.
"When they're picking, when they're planting, my mom's the first one there. She's the one showing everyone what to do. My dad does all the tractor work."
Walking through the tented rows of LA's farmers markets, I rarely think about the process behind the produce on the tables. This is where it starts, here at Thao's, with Khoua Her making sure to save seeds, the family tending to the fields, harvesting the carefully planned work. Then Kong gets in a giant truck and hits the road in the wee hours of the morning to make sure chefs, bartenders, and other customers get their goods—their piece of Fresno.