The history of Chia-Xin Farm weaves two often-told American tales. Both are of roots and seeds. One is the story of all small farms, essentially a work story, with luck and industry thrown in, hopefully in equal measure. The other is our immigrant story, also a work story, suffused, as all immigrant stories are, by anxiety of displacement, loneliness, and well-muted sadness over extraordinary sacrifices, more than are demanded of those of us who live where our parents and grandparents made a home long before we had to find our way.
It’s also a story of lost and found. Lost was a name, Chia Cheng Huang. Too hard to pronounce said a co-worker when Charles came to this country 31 years ago. Be Charles instead. It’s easier.
The first job gone too. Brought into the US to New Jersey to help a now-defunct company raise and keep orchids healthy for sale, Charles had the temerity to ask for a raise when his 18-month contract was up for renewal. After all, he had worked seven days a week for more than 10 hours a day, and had helped sales increase by 30 percent.
“After 18 months, I asked them for a raise because I worked so hard. And the company said no. They said, ‘Your pay is not above what it would be in Taiwan,’ so I quit and started out on my own. I thought this country would give me more opportunity and a chance to succeed.” When the time came to return to Taiwan, Charles didn’t go. “I changed my mind and I stayed.”
He had 2,000 dollars of his own and a few new friends who loaned him money. Charles bought land in Lebanon, New Jersey and began his greenhouse business. His university education in Taiwan had been in horticulture, and he had grown up on a small 10-acre orchard owned by his family. He had knowledge and enough experience. The rest was a question of will. “I struggled for so long. Life has been up and down for so many years. It’s been very, very tough. You’ve never had the experience but when you come to this country…. I had no friends, or a few friends, but I wasn’t born here. I have no classmates. I don’t have neighbors. I don’t have grandparents. I don’t have nephews. I don’t have uncles. I have to learn to speak English and adapt to food, to custom, to culture. It’s been very hard for me.”
The Right Flowers to Grow
Charles didn’t begin with orchids. “Back then orchids weren’t that popular and people felt they were too expensive.”
In addition, they’re expensive to grow, and you can’t turn them around more than once a year or over two years to sell. It takes patience and money to make an orchid farmer, Charles observes. “And if you don’t have the money, you don’t have patience,” he laughs. So he turned to “simple flowers, seasonals” growing them in the greenhouse, and turning them around two to three times a year to sell, first wholesale and then eventually in a shop he established on the grounds. Fifteen years later, after returning to Taiwan and marrying his wife, Liang Ju Huang, and waiting three years to satisfy Immigration Services and be reunited with her in this country, Charles moved to his second farm, 40 acres in Franklin Township, New Jersey. He named the new farm by combining part of his lost name, Chia Cheng, with his young son’s, Shaoxin, and founded Chia-Xin Farm.
Charles’ son, first name Andrew, is 21 and about to graduate from NYU in business, and his daughter, Elisa Shaoyen, is a junior in high school. The Lebanon property is much smaller now. His wife keeps the flower shop and the greenhouse that supplies it with flowers, and Charles manages the Franklin Township site. “So we never have fights,” Charles says with a laugh. Geography prevents it.
Roots At Last
Charles’ Franklin Township business has grown into 10 acres of orchard, and 10 of nursery, including the greenhouse area. He grows vegetables on about 15 acres and uses the last five acres for storage, a house, and a vegetable stand in the front. In addition, there are quarters for the one or two workers who need it, while a few others, from Guatemala, commute each morning from Bound Brook to be there at 7:00 in the morning, when the day begins.
Because he expanded from seasonal flowers to specialty Asian vegetables, Charles sees customers from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York looking to buy either produce or plants they can’t get anywhere else for backyard gardens. “Asians, you know, like to eat fresh vegetables,” Charles says. “It even costs more to grow your own, but they’re fresher, so they put them in their backyards. Most Asians eat fresh vegetables every night,” he adds. He increases his customer base by advertising in Chinese magazines and newspapers. For those customers who came to know him at the WWCFM last summer, and called to make special requests, Charles brought what they’d asked for to the farm market for pick-up. “They saved time and didn’t have to come over here.”
This season at the farm market Charles feels more ready to meet a customer base he better understands. “We were not well-prepared last year, but this year we’re well-prepared. We’ve prepared a lot of stuff, a big display and a nice display.” Charles plans to offer a lot of different vegetables, flowers, strawberries and nursery plants and trees.” He welcomes an early opening because he has timed tomato and pepper plants for garden planting. “That would be the right time,” he says, “especially for the people with Chinese vegetables. They don’t have to drive one hour to come here to get it. By April or May, we have packed cars coming, all looking for special vegetable plants.”