Kaying Moua’s farm sits at the end of a road east of Fresno. Winter mornings are chilly here, and the infamous Central Valley fog often settles near the ground early in the morning before burning off as the day heats up.
Kaying and her husband moved to this 40-acre plot a few years ago, after retiring from Long Beach. They wanted to be closer to their Hmong family and to the outdoors. With more space and free time, Kaying has become an entrepreneur.
Across her land she has planted moringa, a tree native to India but also found in many other tropical places. Kaying and her son, Sam, have set out to prove that the Central Valley, even with its sometimes freezing winter temperatures, can be a good place to grow moringa. It’s a mother-son project that could have a big payoff.
Moringa is a special tree -- it’s fast-growing, drought resistant, doesn’t have special soil needs and is extremely nutritious. Parts of it are often eaten in under-developed countries as a nutritional supplement because it’s high in protein, vitamins A and C, iron, calcium and zinc. Recently, the Western health food industry has discovered it, and some are even calling it a new “superfood.”
The fresh leaves taste a little like arugula and mix easily with other flavors, while the pod and seed taste stronger. When it's ground into a fine powder, good-quality moringa is a brilliant green color and smells a bit like wheatgrass.
“We’re trying to pioneer something that’s never been done before,” said Sam Moua. He and his mother have spent years crossbreeding different moringa varietals to find something that can withstand the cold. They’ve also started growing moringa in 18-foot-tall tunnel houses during the winter.
They’re trying to find ways to keep their moringa alive through the winter so they can get a jump-start on the growing season when the weather heats up.
They specialize in moringa because they believe there’s a future in it.
“I believe that moringa will make a different impact on the nutritious things we can provide local retail stores,” Sam said. The Moua family doesn't use fertilizer or pesticides on their trees, mostly because moringa doesn’t need it. “We’re trying to get back to natural living,” Sam said.
For Kaying, moringa started as a fun project and became a personal passion. When she moved to the Central Valley from Southern California, where she did electronics assembly, she felt sick all the time. “I didn’t fit this weather at all,” she said. “So I just catch cold and runny nose and allergies all the time.”
She started eating three moringa seeds every night and says she hasn’t been sick since. And she has found all kinds of creative ways to cook with fresh moringa, using the leaves in salad, the young pods in chicken soup, and frying the white flower in her eggs.
The Mouas, along with other Hmong farmers growing moringa, have been working with farm advisers at Fresno County’s UC Cooperative Extension to learn how to dry, powder and store their moringa so they can expand into new markets. Most farmers sell it fresh, but most of the health food craze exists around moringa powder, often imported from India.
“People are using it for anything from blood sugar management to keeping their cholesterols at a healthy level,” said Monica Wilson, owner of B-Alive Vitamins, a health food store in Fresno. “It’s very high in antioxidants. It’s considered a superfood.”
Wilson imports the dried and powdered moringa she sells from India, but she’s interested in switching to a local source if she can. “Traceability of our product is really important, so the closer the better,” Wilson said.
The UC Extension program is trying to help bridge the gap between small farmers, many who are Hmong, and business owners like Wilson.
“Value-added products are a great way for a small family farm to increase their income,” said Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, a small-farm adviser with the program. Many farmers are accustomed to only selling fresh produce. They plant a diverse set of crops in a small area and sell a little bit of everything. Producing a product that requires the extra step of drying, grinding and storing is a whole new world for many of them.
“I think there's a lot of opportunity there,” Dahlquist-Willard said. She’s particularly excited about how a product might bring the younger generation back to their family farms. Kids who have gone off to college for business, marketing or graphic design might see a new kind of future for themselves on the family farm with a product like moringa.
“We want to make sure that the resource that we're producing is a great product,” said Sam Moua. In this mother-son project, he’s the financial brains behind the operation. But Kaying is the chief farmer. Together they hope their innovative ways of growing moringa will not only help them access new markets, but also introduce high-quality moringa to the wider world.