Those in the community who are against growing marijuana are afraid to speak up, because the growers often have guns, he said. Bosavanh, who is also a pastor, says people come to him instead to complain. "In Laos we had nothing, and we came to the U.S. because we wanted to improve our lives. Most of us are honest, good citizens."
There are no official estimates of how many Laotians grow marijuana on farmland and in backyards, but community leaders say it has become common and blatant — something people talk about openly at the grocery store. Multi-generation families are making enough on marijuana farming to buy houses and cars, Bosavanh said, eventually pushing those who cannot afford such comforts to also start planting pot.
"They say, 'I do it because everyone else does it,'" he said.
Lt. Richard Ko, head of marijuana eradication for the county sheriff's office, said the incentive for growers is great: high grade marijuana can bring up to $2,500 per pound locally and $4,000 per pound out of state. Each plant can produce three to 10 lbs — and plants grown on prime farmland with good soil and irrigation tend to be big.
A farmer could reap millions of dollars per acre growing pot, Ko said, compared to a few hundred dollars per acre growing vegetables. "There's a lot of money to be made in farming marijuana."
This summer and fall, federal authorities and six sheriff's offices across the Valley made 188 arrests, and seized 82 weapons, $113,783 in cash and more than 480,000 marijuana plants. Investigators say many of those arrested were Southeast Asian growers, mainly Laotians.
But few growers are charged and convicted, said Wood, the special agent with the Department of Justice, because there are simply too many growers and too few resources to prosecute them. And investigators have to catch them selling out of state or for profit, he said.
In the September raid on the Fresno County farm, all 50 people were released and none were charged with a crime, according to the U.S. Attorney's office. Officials declined to say why no one was prosecuted.
Last year, Wood said, saw a large increase in home invasion robberies and other crimes connected with agricultural marijuana grows — including the shooting a teenager in April at a Fresno-area marijuana farm. Two brothers, both Laotian, will stand trial in the slaying of the teen and burying him in an orange grove.
Michael Voravong, 29, is charged with shooting 16-year-old Sammy Mercado when the teen and two others tried to steal marijuana. Marshall Voravong is charged with being an accessory.
After a third Laotian man was arrested in Utah with a trunk full of processed marijuana, he had led detectives to Mercado's grave. He told investigators he helped the Voravong brothers bury the body, and that the three of them planned to split the pot profits.
Neither brother has entered a plea. Charles Magill, the lawyer representing Michael Voravong, said his client was "being framed by the guy who was caught with the dope."