While some may perceive gardening as an ordinary task, GT Florists & Herbs has turned it into an art. Born into a family where agriculture was a rich and profound part of their history, owners Gianina and Touteng Thaoxaochay (also known as Teng) made sure they took a part of their Laos roots and planted them right here in the Central Valley as a way to preserve their family’s culture and passion for farming.
“There isn’t a generation that didn’t do agricultural work. It’s a tradition that we assumed someone would get out of but we happened to always go back to it,” the couple’s eldest daughter Lilian said with a laugh. “My great-grandfather grew opium because it worked good as a southeast Asia cash crop in the 1800s, my grandfather grew rice and corn to help support his family, my uncle grew strawberries that were popular in the 90s and my family did lots of herbs and specialty crops.”
After being detained as children in refugee camps temporarily placed in Thailand, both Gianina, who was an only child, and Teng (youngest of seven) didn’t come to the United States until near the end of the Vietnam War. However, through all the warfare and chaos, the Thaoxaochay family continued its desire to farm.
In 1980, the United States adopted the Refugee Act which allowed Gianina and Teng to move to the United States as children. Gianina moved to Oregon while Teng ended up in Dallas, where he lived a normal teenage life outside of speaking three languages (Hmong, Lao, and Thai). They were introduced through family in 1989 and married in California where they welcomed their firstborn Lilian, 28; Allen, 26; Alisia, 25; Amelia, 22; and Jeremine, 19.
A decade after arriving in the United States, the family moved into agricultural work once again , starting with wholesale Asian specialty crops. Teng was the first farmer in the Central Valley to grow habanero chilis after he was sought out and asked to plant the seeds by a local company who shipped out. That same year, GT started growing golden beets which are known to be sweeter to the pallet and lighter on the hands. Another of GT’s specialty items is sweet chocolate mint used both in tea and as a garnish. They also offer rainbow colored carrots and tomatoes. Later in the summer, they will have Mexican and Thai varieties of passion fruit and guava available. In addition to these specialty items, GT also grows flowers, herbs, tomatoes, vegetables and leafy greens in the winter.
“My dad has his own special greenhouses, so we can grow tropical fruit right here in the Valley,” said Amelia, the second youngest of the siblings. “[He] likes tropical fruits.”
The Thaoxaochay family started experimenting with the art of farming when people started to request things like French tarragon rather than Russian ones that appear the same to the eye but don’t quite smell or taste as nice.
“We kept growing what would grow here and what was popular – and that’s why we’re successful,” said Teng Thaoxaochay. People can count on us to have mint, to have basil and all those things you use every day. We’re a fresh farm only. It’s important to listen to customers, not just what they want but how they use it.”
Although Teng believed farming was an important aspect to his family’s heritage, education doesn’t take a backseat to that. It was Thaoxaochays No. 1 priority for their kids to go to school so that they could choose what they want to do and work for themselves, instead of someone else.
“The farm is my thing, and my wife’s, Gianina. If any of the kids want it, I hope they can do it better because they already know how hard it can be,” Teng added. “But I don’t think any of them want to be farmers. Mostly, they just help us and we help them. When they get on with their lives, I don’t know how things will look but it will probably be different than our lives now.”
Currently all five siblings help their parents research products especially upon consumers’ request in between regular jobs and school. The four oldest are college graduates from Stanford, Fresno State, UC Santa Cruz, and UC Merced. The youngest brother, Jeremine, is currently finishing up his second year at Sacramento State.
Teng hopes to one day retire when all his children get good jobs, but he expects to continue working on his personal projects like starting an orchard of tropical fruit or spending some time back in Laos.