Albion Monitor /News

Florida Spinach Wars

by Arjay Morgan

Florida leery of Asian plant that grows four inches per day

(AR) TAMPA -- Spinach or noxious weed? Junior would probably say it's both, but it's no joking matter to a group of Vietnamese farmers and the state of Florida.

When Saigon fell more than 20 years ago, a trickle of farmers found their way into the southeastern part of Florida's Hillsborough county. Land was relatively cheap, mainly because the Anglo tomato farmers were tired of having their winter crops frozen out, but to the Vietnamese the land had promise.

It wasn't that those farmers were posing a threat to U.S. agribusiness; theirs was a small, select niche composed mainly of their Oriental cousins.

What those farmers saw in the land was the potential to grow fertile crops of Chinese water spinach (Ipomoea aqatica) year-round. The plant is considered a primary vegetable in the diets of Cambodian, Chinese, Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese people, and the Hillsborough farmers sent tons and tons of it to markets up and down the Eastern seaboard.

It's an amazing plant. It can grow as much as four inches a day, and its tendrils can extend 70 feet -- and therein lies the problem.

Many do not speak or read English, so perhaps they were unaware the plant was considered a predator

Florida is very leery of plants that can grow like that, having been badly burned by the importation of an innocent aquarium plant called hydrilla. It chokes out the state's waterways, clogs up dams and water intakes and can kill an outboard motor in seconds. Florida spends millions every year just to control the pesky plant -- control, not eradicate, because the vegetation has a foothold and it won't let go.

Not only is Florida unhappy with foreign plants that can take over the landscape, but the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture doesn't like them, either. To that end it has declared Chinese water spinach a "noxious weed," and has banned it.

Not to be outdone, Florida law says the mere possession of the plant is illegal, and that includes the stuff that's served on the salad plate.

Meanwhile, the Hillsborough farmers just continued to grow, and sell, their Chinese water spinach. Many of them do not speak or read English, so perhaps they were unaware they were cultivating and making a living from a plant that was considered a predator.

About a year ago some Florida agricultural inspectors were in the area looking for bug pests. To their horror they found acres and acres of Chinese water spinach being cultivated by the Viet farmers under plastic- encased greenhouses. Worse yet, some of the tendrils had escaped.

The wheels began to turn.

The state told the farmers the plants had to go.

The farmers hired a lawyer.

A consent decree was hammered out.

The farmers reluctantly signed it, agreeing to get rid of the plants by June 1.

Then, last month, the farmers had a change of heart.

They are protesting, saying the order inhibits the production of a food crop, and that it will put several hundred workers out of jobs.

The ban was "not only a loss to the farmer, but also [a] deficit to our cultural heritage"

According to Tin Ngo, vice president of the Vietnamese Community of Tampa Bay, the farmers feel they were forced to sign the consent decree, or be faced with prosecution for growing it for the past 20 years.

"If they sign it [state officials] say [they] will forgive for [the] last 20 years; if [we] don't sign, [the state] will fine you now and for [the] last 20 years," said Ngo.

He related the farmers signed, but realize the "legal system set up so [there is] no real appeal ... [Our] only chance is to get [the] legislature to change the regulation, but [we] can't get any legislator to go along because we are such a small group."

Ngo said the ban was "not only a loss to the farmer, but also [a] deficit to our cultural heritage."

"The Vietnamese Community of Florida has [tried] many times to explain to Robert Kipker, the Florida DEP Biologial Administrator that water spinach cultivated by Vietnamese farmers in Hillsborough county does not create an environmental problem. But the hard heart [of] Robert Kipker can not be convinced and insist[s] on destroying the farmers' crops," said one of the farmers' press releases.

Their point may be well taken, at least in some quarters.

Ngo says that since the crop has been grown for 20 years with no problems, there probably won't be any. "If it hurt the environment I would not do it," said Ngo. "But for the past 20 year[s] we create[d] no problem. It can be controlled, and we need to work together closely."

The farmers are looking for a place to hold a demonstration. Florida is sticking to the June 1 deadline.

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Albion Monitor May 5, 1996 (

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