For close to three decades, a group of mostly poor Cambodian refugees eked out a subsistence living by farming a parcel of land at the end of a southeastern San Diego cul-de-sac. The sprawling farm was impressive. Over the years the refugees had erected a fence, huts for resting and their own irrigation system.

But the land was owned by the city of San Diego, and the farmers didn’t have the right to be there. Last year, the half dozen who remained were evicted.

In the 10 months since, what was once a rare expanse of productive green in a poor residential neighborhood has fallen into unsightly disrepair. The fences have folded in on themselves. The rare Southeast Asian crops that the aging farmers grew, like bitter melon and Cambodian green beans, have all died. A pile of old mattresses has been left at the farm. It has become a dumping ground and a blight.

In November I wrote about the bureaucratic complications that led to the farmers’ eviction. The Neighborhood House Association, a social service nonprofit, leased the land from the city but never developed it. It was included in the nonprofit’s lease for an adjacent piece of city property where the group has its facilities. For more than a quarter century the agency turned the other way as the refugees built their farm on the land, which became a gathering place for the Southeast Asian community and the locale for frequent communal meals whose ingredients were grown on site. The farmers even managed to get the water bill in their name.

But last year the nonprofit’s lease came up for renewal. The city’s real estate division wanted the undeveloped land back. The nonprofit told the farmers to leave.

In the weeks to come, the San Diego City Council is expected to consider a zoning law change that would loosen restrictions on community gardens in residential neighborhoods citywide. That should, in theory, make re-starting the Cambodian farm a possibility. But even if the laws are changed, the refugees will still need to reach an agreement with the city of San Diego to use the land and reclaim the farm.

Jim Barwick, the city’s real estate director, has said the city would be willing to work with the farmers if the legal structure was in place to do it.

Phal Chourp, a leader of the Cambodian community who was a regular visitor to the farm before its demise, said she and local refugee assistance groups couldn’t do much until the City Council has changed its zoning rules. If that happens, she said, she’ll work to get the city’s permission to use the land and invite the farmers to come back and return it to what it once was.

Ourn Lun (right) was evicted from the city-owned
land where she’d grown food with other
Cambodians for almost three decades.
Hay Chay (left) established the farm
with about a dozen other refugees in 1984.

When I first reported about this story back in November, those farmers said they looked forward to that day. At the time, some of their crops were still producing. The farmers would arrive to hop the fence peppered with No Trespassing signs and harvest what they could.

They speak little English and since the farm closed some of them have depended on their children or food stamps to get by. One farmer, Ourn Lun, was given a small plot at a two-year-old City Heights community garden run by the International Rescue Committee, a local resettlement agency. But its yields, Ourn said, are meager in comparison to the old farm, whose soil was rich from many years of organic cultivation.

Samol Ye, another farmer, visited the garden several times a week just to be near it and cry. It reminded her of the rural Cambodian village she fled in the 1970s, after it was ravaged by war.

But visiting got to be too stressful, she said through an interpreter. It was so close yet still out of reach. So she stayed home instead, to “watch TV until I’m crazy.”

Here’s a Google image of what the farm used to look like, and some photos of what it looks like today:

Sam Hodgson contributed reporting.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter:

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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