Shur Yang, the King of Spinach

Since I dug my feet into the dirt of the local food movement a number of years ago, I’ve wanted to learn more about the Hmong farmers that dominate many of the local farmers market stands. I recently had the privilege of meeting with Shur Yang, whose family operates a vegetable stand at the Minneapolis Farmers Market.

Shur’s love for farming and local produce streams with properties of July sunshine. His positive demeanor is enough to intrigue anyone, and is wildly inspiring considering the farm is merely a “side job."

Shur attends school full time, his father is a welder, his mother a teacher. In fact, Shur mentions that his family tends crop not for primary income, but for tradition and “relaxation.” This (so-called) relaxation includes picking crops all through Friday and Saturday nights during the summer in preparation for weekend farmers markets. The farming is all executed by hand, from start to finish, and utilizes zero pesticides or fertilizer. There is no question the art of farming is treasured dearly by the Yang family.

A visit to the Yang family farmers market stand is a testament to their passion. Observing Shur and his family in action is akin to watching a kitchen during a summer Friday night dinner rush. Every action is calculated, down to opening and prepping of each bag for its fill. Each customer I witnessed spent at least five minutes in Shur’s presence, learning how to select, how to store, and how to cook like the master. Some customers had traveled from as far away  as Chicago.

Shur was quick to point out that the cool summer which was tough on many crops produced a banner year for greens. The Yang stand provided the proof, with many varieties of lettuce, herbs, and other exotic green vegetables. The (jokingly) self-proclaimed “King of Spinach” possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of produce that would - with effort - take me a lifetime to acquire, especially with greens. Still, Yang is a terrific salesman - after just a few hours of conversation, I was practically ready to buy a few acres and give it a shot myself.

I left the Yang stand at the farmers market with three overflowing bags - all greens. My score ranged from mature “strong cilantro” to Ju Choi, Chinese Broccoli, Baby Romaine, and Pea Shoots. Shur provided detailed descriptions of every single item I chose.

The Ju Choi and Chinese Broccoli were two particularly exciting picks, and both were exquisite. The stalk of Ju Choi is a bit like asparagus in flavor, but it also boasts large leafy greens that wilt beautifully after a few hot minutes in the pan. It paired great fried up with other great local food: onions, garlic, and patty pan squash in a simple stir-fry.

The Chinese Broccoli, also known as Kai Lan, is a taller hybrid of broccoli with just a tease of flower at the end and healthy supply of leaves - it's now my ultimate rock-star vegetable, like Led Zeppelin meets the Beatles in my mouth. The entire plant is edible, and so vibrant in both color and flavor that I found myself eating meals consisting only of it.

Shur’s non stop energy and uber happy personality is infectious. Cliché as it may be to say you can taste the love that goes into the crops produced by the Yang family, it’s accurate. Shur beams with pride, and rightfully so. He’s methodically staking out a claim for local produce with a vigor and skip that should make every single locavore proud.