Almost every morning at 6:30 a.m., Karen Ta Kea heads out to her backyard Columbia garden and greenhouse to tend to her seedlings and plants. She likes to work outside, she said, and “get my hands dirty in the garden. It makes me happy to work hard.”
Karen immigrated to Columbia from Cambodia in 1980. She worked for Campus Dining at the University of Missouri until 1992, and then took a factory job where she is currently employed full time while her husband, Ot, has now retired. During their free time, they focus on the garden as a hobby.
The family’s Southeast Asian roots influence what they grow in the garden along with traditional Western vegetables and herbs. Her stall draws customers from the local area, but also folks from Africa, Burma, Vietnam, and India, looking for ingredients grown in their homeland. “We all love the diversity of Columbia, and the ability to complement our produce with other vendors’ and farmers’ products,” she said.
Among the array of produce she sells are rosemary, thyme, basil, cilantro, tomatoes, zucchini, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, daikon radish, Thai chilies, garlic, mustard greens, yu choy, cucumbers, squash, and baby bok choy — her favorite vegetable. She likes to sauté bok choy in oyster sauce, with a little garlic and pepper and serves it with rice. “I eat a lot of vegetables in the summer,” she said, and “not much meat. I like to eat what I grow. We love to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to the community and are happy when they choose to eat healthy from Columbia Farmers Market.”