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Voices Of The Drought: Small Farmer Chia Lee

Rebecca Plevin
Valley Public Radio
Chia Lee and his brother, Teng Lee, are concerned about the drought's impact on their Parlier farm.

Starting this week, Valley Public Radio will share an occasional series, called Voices of the Drought. First up, is the story of small farmer Chia Lee.

Back in Laos, Chia Lee grew rice and corn on a mountainside. He never worried about rain there.

“We’re waiting for the monsoon rain in Laos, once a year, so we don’t worry about anything,” Lee says.

But for the last ten years, Lee and several family members have grown bitter melon, cherry tomatoes, green beans, and peanuts on a 26-acre farm in Parlier. He sells his produce at a San Francisco farmers market and to local packinghouses.

These days, he can’t count on a monsoon – or much rain at all.

“Last year, I have three acres of cherry tomatoes, and by August, the water level was dropping down, and my pump couldn’t draw any water, and I was losing lots of produce by last year,” Lee says.

This year, the situation is looking dire. This is the driest California has been in five centuries. The drought was recently upgrade from “extreme” to “exceptional.”

Lee relies on a well and surface water to irrigate his crops. But this year, he’s concerned his well may go dry. And he doesn’t know how much surface water he’s going to get. He also says his sandy soil is so dry, that it soaks up water quickly.

“If the water keeps going down like this, maybe we stop planting something,” he says. “Without water, no water, no crop growing.”

That would spell trouble for Lee and his family members who share the land. Lee leases the farmland, and says he makes just a few thousand dollars off it each year. That, combined with his wife’s teacher salary, must stretch to cover their three children who still live at home.

The money he makes is, “just to survive. Just enough to survive for my family.”

In Laos, Lee and his family would hold a week-long celebration in April to pray for rain. He says it might be time to hold a similar ceremony at his Parlier farm.

He would, “cook something, and come here and pray,” he says. “After a couple days, weeks, if we see no rain, do it again. Still no rain, we can’t do anything.”

He might have to do that soon. Lee expects to start planting in the next week or two.

Rebecca Plevin was a reporter for Valley Public Radio from 2013-2014. Before joining the station, she was the community health reporter for Vida en el Valle, the McClatchy Company's bilingual newspaper in California's San Joaquin Valley. She earned the George F. Gruner Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and the McClatchy President's Award for her work at Vida, as well as honors from the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Plevin grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is also a fluent Spanish speaker, a certified yoga teacher, and an avid rock-climber.
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