Sikhs in California Keeping Up a 900 Year Farming Tradition

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KERMAN, Calif. — Simranjit Singh is a second-generation American farmer, but his agricultural roots go back 900 years.

Before his father moved to California from India in 1991, before India gained independence from Britain in 1947, before his Sikh culture took root in 1469, the civilizations of Northern India worked various agricultural lands, and Mr. Singh, 28, is part that unbroken lineage.

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On a secluded 100-acre farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California, he and his father tend the family’s raisin and almond orchards, determined to keep their heritage vital.

“Whatever is passed to me from my father is so valuable that I would be a fool to throw it away,” he says. “Farming will always be at the core of who I am.”...

...“Around here, you don’t have as many Punjabi workers as we used to have in the ’80s and ’90s, because the kids are now doing professional things,” said Simon Sihota, a prominent Punjabi Sikh farmer in the area.

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Like the Sran farm, Mr. Sihota’s business remains mostly a family affair. His son Arvin, 22, just graduated from California Polytechnic State University with a degree in agricultural and environmental plant sciences, and his older son Kavin, 24, has a degree from Cornell in enology, the science of making wine. His daughter Jasleen, 20, regularly helps with administrative duties for the family business.

The family works together in the same way that Mr. Sihota helped his father and grandfather in the fields when he was young. His father arrived in California from India in 1961 and eventually saved enough money to buy 40 acres; the farm has since grown to 3,000 acres of almonds, pistachios, wine grapes and peaches.

“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” said Kavin Sihota. “When I was out on the East Coast, I’d always miss the farming lifestyle.”

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Though young Sikh farmers like Kavin Sihota and Simranjit Singh are increasingly uncommon in this part of the world, their peers have found different ways to engage with the tradition of Indian farming and their Sikh community more broadly.

Since September 2020, farmers in India have been protesting new agricultural laws they say will devastate small farmers and limit the income their land can generate. The new rules minimize the government’s role in farming and do away with state protections, which farmers fear will leave them at the mercy of the unfettered free market.

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As word of the protests made it to the United States, young American Sikhs have shown their support on social media and at local rallies.

Anureet Kaur, 16, a high school sophomore from Selma, Calif., posted so frequently about the Indian farm demonstrations that her Instagram account with nearly 6,500 followers was temporarily restricted.

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“I’ll continue to raise my voice for farmers,” she said. “After all, I’m the daughter of a farmer.”...

...In Madera, Sohan Samran has shown support in a more tangible way. As a farmer and the owner of the Bapu Almond Company, he shipped nearly 7,000 pounds of almonds directly to the protesters in India...

...On a warm Sunday afternoon in Kerman, Simranjit Singh and Sarbjit Sran relaxed inside their home after working the fields at their homestead.

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Sitting beneath a painting of an ancient Sikh gurdwara, or place of worship, Mr. Singh pointed to his father and said with a smile, “This is my bapu, right here.”

One of the primary tenets of Sikh faith is seva, the principle that kindness, humility and service to others are what makes an honorable life.

For Mr. Singh and his father, their generational history of family farming is an active part of seva, and they believe that growing crops, tending to the land and providing food to their community are all acts of service.

“My work as a farmer is more than a job,” Mr. Singh said. “I feel like it’s a duty, and I’m just trying to do as much seva as I can in the limited time I have here on this planet.”

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