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A tale of 2 Californias: Hmong farmers flounder, Silicon Beach flourishes




Farmer Fong Tching thins out his strawberry plants before spring Friday, Dec. 23, 2005, in Fresno, Calif. Hmong farmers like Tching is an ethnic Hmong, a tribe from the hills of Southeast Asia with agriculture in its blood. Many like Tching are facing numerous challenges including stricter regulations and labor shortages as their children abandon the family's agricultural traditions for more lucrative jobs.
Farmer Fong Tching thins out his strawberry plants before spring Friday, Dec. 23, 2005, in Fresno, Calif. Hmong farmers like Tching is an ethnic Hmong, a tribe from the hills of Southeast Asia with agriculture in its blood. Many like Tching are facing numerous challenges including stricter regulations and labor shortages as their children abandon the family's agricultural traditions for more lucrative jobs.
(AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)

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Are economic opportunities in this nation growing or shrinking?

The answer? Yes.

For some, especially those in the tech sector, things have never been better. But, then there are struggling industries, like farming.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, net farm income is at the lowest level since 2009. California is the central hub to both of these industries, so one might infer that it's the best of times and the worst of times in the Golden State.

To get a better sense of what the landscape of economic opportunity looks like, Take Two spoke to two people at the center of the action:

Interview highlights

Chukou Thao, you grew up on a farm in Central California. Can you tell us about who the Hmong farmers are in this state?

The Hmong people came from Laos. They're part of the group that helped support the United States during the Vietnam War. And after the war they came to the United States as refugees — refugees coming without choice. It was either come to the United States or be killed.

They came to the Central Valley for the opportunity to farm because many of them do not have the language skills, the job skills or the tools to be successful in the mainstream workforce.

What are some of the biggest challenges that Hmong farmers are facing?

Four years of drought. Now that it's off the front page of the newspaper everybody thinks we're in good hands — but we're not.

It's like a savings account, Alex. They begin at the beginning of the year: $300 bucks to plow the land, another hundred dollars for the seed and they're hoping that at the end of the year they can collect all that back plus a little bit more. They're basically, in American terms, living paycheck-to-paycheck, day-by-day.

When you have a drought, that's when farmers start to realize that this is it: this was their present and future.

Derek Smith — this scenario that we just heard from Chukou Thao — it seems like the exact opposite of what we're seeing in your world, the tech world. To me, it seems like technology is the place to be. Is that consistent with what you're seeing?

Absolutely. This is an exciting time to be in Los Angeles. With the growth of high tech in our local economy, it's changed areas drastically. Playa Vista is now an extension of Silicon Beach and just in two years the growth that we've seen in high-tech jobs and companies moving into the area has been incredible.

What is interesting, though, even though the story for Los Angeles is on the opposite side of what we see in Central California, when you drill down, and you look at some of the surrounding communities like South LA, or Watts or East Los Angeles, there's a huge gap in terms of how some of these communities are benefiting from the innovation community in Los Angeles.

The average salary for someone coming out of college in this day and age here in California going into the tech world — how much can a person make?

Derek Smith: The sky is the limit. If you have the right skills, and there's demand for those skills, you could make in the six-figures. Easily, an entry level developer or programmer could make $75-thousand a year starting out.

Chukou Thao: Derek's number? $75-thousand? Take away one zero and then times it by two. That's about the average income of a small family farm — about $15-thousand a year. That's for the whole family. We, the Hmong people came here, it was like time travel. There was no running water; there was no electricity. So coming here is 100-times better than what they have in the homeland, but compared to what's happening in Los Angeles? It's still two different worlds.

Derek, what do you think when you hear that?

It's interesting. I think technology is indirectly connected to our food issues. I don't think there's a solution or an app that can solve the drought in California, unfortunately, but I think there are other cases where technology may help and support farmers down the road.

I make the case that when you can create innovation in underserved areas or where there is a lack of or presence of innovation driven by technology, you can increase and change the dynamics of food.

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

To hear more of the conversation with Derek Smith and Chukou Thao, press the blue play button above.

Series: A Nation Engaged

Much of the anger and anxiety in the 2016 election are fueled by the sense that economic opportunity is slipping away for many Americans. As part of our collaborative project with NPR called "A Nation Engaged," this week we're asking: What can be done to create economic opportunity for more Americans?

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on Facebook.