Despite discrimination and drought, Punjabi Americans farm on
As America’s food basket dries out, Punjabi American growers fear the loss of their hard-earned farmlands.
On a bright February morning, Kulwant Singh Johl, a third-generation Punjabi American farmer, checked the rain gauge in front of his neat stucco home in Northern California’s Yuba-Sutter area. Gusts and drizzles had battered his peach orchard nonstop for a week, but it still wasn’t enough to quench the recent drought. “Five inches,” he told me by phone. “Way, way below average.”
Over the past century, Johl’s farm has expanded from just 10 acres to more than 1,000. It’s one of the many Punjabi American operations that together produce over 90% of the peaches, two-thirds of the prunes and 20% of the almonds and walnuts grown in the area. Even Johl, who is better cushioned for tough times than many other farmers, has had to scale down production and tighten his budget. But he fears that thousands of his fellow farmers of Punjabi origin in the Central Valley — especially those who came later and own less land — will fare much worse.
And indeed, the intensifying drought could devastate livelihoods of many multigeneration Punjabi American farmers in California. This year, many may have to sell their hard-earned farm plots and leave an industry that they hold in high esteem.
IN 1906, Kulwant’s grandfather, Nand Singh Johl, left his farming household in Punjab, a flat, watercourse-laced inland region at the foot of the Himalayas on the Indian subcontinent. He landed in Cascadia, in the Vancouver area, and worked in lumber mills around the U.S.-Canada border. There he encountered discrimination and racist mobs, and by 1908, he’d moved south, to California’s Yuba-Sutter area. When he first got a whiff of the pristine loam, he realized he’d discovered a farming nirvana — one that resembled his original home, 7,500 miles west.
Nand Singh Johl helped introduce rice farming to the state and worked hard to obtain his own farmland. But California’s Alien Land Law, enacted in 1913, prevented Asian people from owning and leasing land. So, like hundreds of Punjabis at the time, Nand asked a white friend to rent the property for him, under the friend’s name. He bought the 10-acre orchards in the fall of 1946, shortly after the racist restriction was repealed — 24 years before his grandson Kulwant migrated from Punjab to join his family here and keep their farm going.