DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Jay Lee and about a dozen other Hmong farmers living in central Iowa are asking for permission to grow water spinach, a staple among many Asian populations that is considered a noxious weed in the United States.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture generally bans Americans from growing or possessing the vegetable because it can create a quick-growing mat on lakes that kills or crowds out native species. It's illegal in Iowa now.
A USDA official from Nebraska discovered several Des Moines-area farmers with the plant last year. That has set off a lobbying effort for Iowa to allow the spinach, which tastes like the common varieties sold in the United States.
``Lots of Asians love this food dearly, so we wish to grow this,'' Lee said.
Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey sympathizes with the farmers. ``This would be like if someone said you couldn't grow sweet corn in Iowa,'' he said.
Except that sweet corn doesn't spread on its own.
``It's tough,'' Northey said. ``As you sit with them, you get the impression of how important it is to the food that they eat and even culturally, all over Asia. They are so used to it where they grew up, it's hard for them to believe that it could be a threat. Of course here, we see it as an invasive species that could come in and take over.''
As it stands, no one can legally buy, sell, possess or grow the plant in Iowa without a variance from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Northey and DNR Director Richard Leopold met separately with the Hmong farmers over the past couple of weeks.
``My staff are reluctant right now,'' said Leopold, who would have to approve the variance. ``They are not supportive of a variance of any kind.''
Doua Lor, Asian outreach officer for the Des Moines police, said he and others were shocked to discover the plant wasn't allowed.
The Hmong farmers have been working Iowa land for more than a decade, some for several decades.
``I've been here since '78, and I had no idea'' the plant was banned, Lor said.
The vegetable is often eaten uncooked in salads or in a cooked mixture with garlic, meat, or black bean sauce, a half-dozen Hmong farmers from Ankeny, Des Moines and Pella said during an interview.
``This is part of our diet,'' said Lee, who farms three acres in Ankeny. He'd like to plant a couple of short rows of a variety of the spinach that would grow in the soil, but not survive in water. He and other farmers said the spinach would die in the cold Iowa winter.
The farmers would like to grow enough to feed their families and to sell at the Des Moines Downtown Farmers Market. Just shy of 56,000 of Iowa's 3 million people consider themselves Asian.
Lynn Fallon learned of the dispute as she worked to help immigrant farmers through her job with Heartland Resource Conservation and Development. State entomologist Robin Pruisner and Cyndi Chen of the Iowa Department of Human Rights also are in on the debate.
The USDA listed the plant as a noxious weed after it clogged canals and ditches in Florida and Texas.
The Philippines has watched the plant take over shallow waterways, too.
Leopold has asked the farmers to prove, by offering peer-reviewed scientific studies, that the plant won't cause environmental damage in Iowa.
The farmers told the resources department that the plant is allowed, at least in limited circumstances, in California, Delaware, Florida, North Carolina and Massachusetts, but that list has not been confirmed, Leopold said.
Farmer Mai Vang Yang of Pella said the growers will abide by the government's decision. ``We would not grow if we do not have permission,'' she said.