Growing a Bright Future
A family’s long journey to an Oahu farm.
In 1977, at the age of 8, Tracey Oulayrack, her mother and five siblings walked from their home in Laos for three solid days to cross the border into Thailand. When they arrived, the family was met by patriarch Souane Oulayrack, who had preceded them. Hopeful of getting to the United States, the family waited for two years in a Thai refugee camp before they joined relatives on Oahu.
In 1979, at age 12, Souk Hoang, his parents and three siblings rode a paddle boat across the Mekong River to enter Thailand from Laos. Because they had relatives in the United States who could sponsor them, their wait in the refugee camp was shorter, and the family settled in Mason City, Iowa, where they lived for 10 years as farmers. The Hoang family decided to move to Hawaii.
Tracey and Souk both learned to speak English and got an education. They met in business school, married and started a family. Like the immigrant families that came to work on the sugar plantations in Hawaii over a century ago, this family is repeating the story of assimilation and hard work. Immigrant families still work hundreds of small farms in areas such as Mililani, Kahuku and Waimanalo.
Souane Farm is 14 acres in Kahuku, leased from the State of Hawaii, where the family raises cucumbers, long beans, beets, okra, bitter melon, jakfruit, avocado, mango, momi apple and fresh herbs. Tracey’s two brothers and a sister work the farm with her parents. She and Souk buy produce from the family farm as well as other Kahuku and Oahu farmers and then sell it at farmers’ markets three days a week. Likewise, her mother sells at four markets a week and another sister sells at five markets a week.
For Tracey and Souk, the work week is full. On Tuesday and Wednesday they are picking up, cleaning, packing and pricing hundreds of pounds of vegetables and fruit for the Kailua Thursday Night Farmers’ Market and the Friday morning market at Kaiser Clinic on Pensacola St. Then it’s more of the same after each market, preparing for the Saturday Farmers’ Market at KCC. They are happy to get a little reprieve on Sunday and Monday, though that will not be for long, as they have decided to farm a couple of acres in Mililani that they hope to have producing by summer. All this while raising three children ranging in age from 4 to 13, overseeing their education, hopeful that they will go on to get college degrees.
Before working in the family business, Souk worked as an accountant for a travel company. “There are advantages and disadvantages to having your own business. We like it because it’s our own business. It’s hard work, but we rest when we want and we take off whenever we want,” said Souk, who adds that they never take off. “At least I get to see my wife more.”
The Hoang family’s future is bright due to their energy and fortitude but it is as unpredictable as their flight from Laos. The perennial risks of the farmer—fickle weather, plant diseases and insects that can wipe out a field—can produce anxious moments among the most tenacious of farmers. “Most farmers over grow in the winter months, knowing that a third of their crops will not make it. During the summer everything grows well but prices are lower,” explained Souk. “Farming is never a hundred percent.” But when a family has already come so far, success seems more possible than ever.