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They arrived from war-torn Cambodia in the early 1980s, and like thousands of refugees who have settled in San Diego in the decades since, they cobbled together meager livings any way they could.
It was 1984 when a dozen or so of the Cambodian refugees signed up for a City Heights class that taught them to farm. They plied their skills on a vacant city lot tucked away in a working-class cul-de-sac in southeastern San Diego, transforming two acres into a verdant source of food and community.
Every day they farmed, because it reminded them of the peaceful years before war broke out back home, before their friends and family members disappeared, before they were forced to flee almost certain death under the Khmer Rouge. They farmed to distract themselves.
They farmed that land for 26 years. Until this past summer, when they were forced to leave.
Unbeknownst to them, the land belonged to the city, but was leased by the Neighborhood House Association, one of San Diego’s largest nonprofit social service agencies, whose main facilities sit next door.
For more than two decades, the agency looked the other way as the farmers, lacking necessary permits, toiled day after day, erecting a fence and installing irrigation, building small huts for shade and harvesting their crops.
This year, the Neighborhood House’s long-term lease with the city came up for renewal. Because the agency had never developed the farm parcel, the city asked the nonprofit to give it up so it could be leased out.
And so on July 1, the Neighborhood House posted a notice on the fence surrounding the two acres: “All persons occupying these premises and garden must vacate and remove all possessions no later than July 31, 2010. This parcel is being cleared for return to the city of San Diego.”
Within a month, the farmers were gone and the gate had new locks. The bureaucracy of permit requirements and city code that the farmers had dodged for 26 years caught up, forcing them off the land they had no legal right to occupy.
Today, the farm sits overgrown, padlocked and off-limits. There are no plans for the land that has been an important part of a few poor farmers’ lives, except to clear it.
Hay Chay, a slight old man with deep gray eyes, was one of the original farmers. He said he always thought the farmers were allowed to work there. When he completed the farming program offered by an organization whose name he’s forgotten, he was awarded a certificate of completion. Sometime in the last 26 years, he lost the certificate he thought was proof of his right to farm there.
“I had the certificate,” Chay, now 69 and too frail to farm, said through a Khmer interpreter. “They should have come to me.”
The Neighborhood House did attempt to contact the farmers before posting the eviction notice. On June 10, a spokesman said, the agency sent a certified letter to Chay, whose name was on the water bill. The letter was returned as undeliverable, said the spokesman, Luis Gonzalez.
Michael Kemp, the nonprofit’s chief operating officer, said its staff tried but was unable to tell farmers they would have to leave, because of language barriers, because no one knew who was in charge, and because the farmers were hard to track down. So on July 1, they posted the signs.
The agency had to prioritize its lease negotiation so it could continue operating next door, he said, which meant meeting the city’s request to return the land. “At the end of the day, we needed to go about our primary business, which is serving about 30,000 people a year,” Kemp said.
Jim Barwick, director of the city’s Real Estate Assets Division, said the city could not allow the farmers to continue operating without proper permits.
“When we inspected the property, we inquired about who was down there,” Barwick said. “If there’s going to be a community garden there, we’re fine with that, but we want to make sure there’s an agreement that covers the city’s liabilities” in the event of injuries or other mishaps.
Phal Chourp, a regular customer at the farm, learned of its fate a few days after the farmers did.
She called Amy Lint, who led the nonprofit International Rescue Committee’s effort to establish a nearby neighborhood farm last year. Lint met with farmers and with the Neighborhood House Association. The farmers asked for more time so they could harvest their crops.
The Neighborhood House agreed on the condition that the farmers provide their names, that they clear the land no later than October and hand over the keys when the harvest was complete.
The farmers feared giving up personal information, Lint said. And for the farmers, the thought of destroying more than two decades of work was too difficult. They left instead. In the months since, the farm has become unkempt but hasn’t died. Red chili peppers are growing in abundance.
“I was very sad because it is a big waste,” Ourn Lun, 60, said from beneath a faded knit cap as she stood outside the farm, which is now padlocked and posted with “No Trespassing” signs. She planted a sapling banana tree in the late 1980s and watched it grow well above her head. On July 31, she gave her crops — oregano, squash, bitter melon — a final watering before leaving.
But she hasn’t been able to stay away. She’s come a few times, once crawling over a sagging section of the chain link fence to pick a few vegetables. The plants have survived weeks without watering, she said, because years of care made the soil so fertile.
The farmers built the farm little by little, and in doing so found a sense of purpose in a community where refugees often struggle to find their footing.
“No matter how I feel, when I came here I was peaceful,” Lun said.
In the afternoons, they had picnics under the shade of the huts they built because they reminded them of home. They ate vegetables from the garden. They shared fried fish.
They gave vegetables to friends, and when the harvests were plentiful, they earned extra money selling surplus crops to local markets.
For that reason the farmers were content to keep out of the spotlight. They were poor, and many received a government check because they were seniors or disabled.
They preferred not to draw attention to the fact that they were earning extra money off the land. That could have compromised their aid. Instead, they took to the garden’s work quietly.
Over the decades, farmers came and went. Most of the originals got too old to toil, and some died. They passed their parcels along to younger Cambodians, though the children and grandchildren of the first generation showed less interest in taking up hoes and shovels.
By the summer of their eviction, there were only four farmers left, each tending to about a quarter of the two-acre parcel as the group looked for others to join them.
Now, as their plants have become overgrown, the farmers have become distressed.
Lun visits the farm to be near the banana tree she raised. And Chay said he doesn’t know what will happen to the farm. Once recognized as its leader, he feels powerless.
“I hope they can open it again,” he said, though he didn’t know who “they” were.
Since the farm’s closure, Lint has been exploring the possibility of re-opening and operating it much like the successful New Roots Community Farm nearby.
“These people, if they’re lucky, make maybe $5,000 a year,” she said. “And isn’t that what we want? It’s a shame that people are made to feel like growing food is illegal.”
But she is worried about the labyrinthine and expensive permitting process the International Rescue Committee had to navigate to establish New Roots. It took about a year and cost the agency more than $40,000 to get required permits.
The city’s Development Services Department has been trying to streamline the permitting process, she said, but before going down that path, “we want to know what we’re getting ourselves into. If it’s going to cost us another $40,000, we can’t do that.”
Dan Joyce, a senior city planner, said the New Roots farm was an unusual case because the site was on sensitive wetlands, subjecting it to more stringent review.
“If there are no environmentally sensitive lands there, it should go much faster,” he said. The IRC will need a neighborhood development permit, which costs at least $5,000 and requires community support, but won’t have to pay for other permits and environmental consultants like it did at New Roots.
Lun didn’t know why she’d been forced to leave the farm until I explained it to her. She just wants to return. If she’s allowed to, she said, she’ll expand her plot to surround her banana tree, which grows near the fence.
“If I can come back here,” she said, “I will be so happy.”