Dr. S.G. Appan

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Uncorrected Transcript

Interview with: Dr. S.G. Appan
Interviewed by: Dr. Padmaja Parthasarathy
May 17, 2013
Archive Number:


PP: I am Padmaja Parthasarathy it gives me great pleasure to be interviewing Dr. Appan and Mrs. Rajam Appan. This project is on behalf of the Foundation For India Studies and for the Indo-American Oral History Project, and this is in partnership with the Houston Public Library and the Houston Community College.
Doctor and Mrs. Appan, it really is a great pleasure for me to be interviewing you both today. Today is I think May 17, 2013, and this is going to be truly a great day for Houston, because we are going to share your wonderful story with the people of Houston and maybe throughout America.
Tell me just a little bit about yourself, what brought you both to this country and particularly what attracted you to the Houston area?

SA: Well, I also want to thank Foundation For India Studies, Krishna Vavilala, and I want to thank you Dr. Padmaja. It’s a privilege to have you interview me. You have noticed I have a little speech problem, so please bear with me. Okay. I come from Kerala, India, and my wife comes from actually New Delhi, but she is from Tamil Nadu and we came to the USA in 1967.

PP: And what brought you to the U.S., both of you in a matter of fact? Usually people immigrate to other places, either because of political oppression or economic oppression, or some other reason, but what brought you to the U.S., and particularly how did you settle down and why Houston? How did that all happen?

SA: Well, in the ’60s and ’70s, it’s a dream of every graduate in India to have a chance to come here for higher studies and job opportunities. In my case, my dad came to USA, invited by President Kennedy. My dad was active in the post-independent agricultural development of India. He was a coconut farmer in Kerala and he was an advisor to the Agricultural Ministry. U.S. government invited a delegation of 30 farmers to come here to study the U.S. agriculture; he was one of those. So that was my first window into USA from India.

PP: So in other words, because your father was already involved with this agriculture, that kind of enticed you to come here?

SA: Yes. And the second window was the U.S. Information System Library in my hometown, in Trivandrum, and I spent hours and hours there reading textbooks, which helped me a lot to pass exams, because my classmates didn’t have those textbooks. So that was my second window. And I was very anxious, eager to come to United States.
But one tragic note, that library was burnt down when the communist government took over Kerala. This is one of the first things that hit us, a tragedy.

PP: Yeah, sometimes what happens is some of these institutions are viewed as they are supporting or promulgating kind of foreign information, so unfortunately these things happen. But I have also participated in the USIS Library System in Mumbai, so I know how great they are. How about you Mrs. Appan, what brought you here?
RA: Well, we were married at that time and he got admission to University of Colorado, Boulder.

PP: So your husband got admission to the University of Colorado? Okay.
RA: Yeah. And I came like six months later, I had a baby; our first child was born in India.

PP: In India?
RA: In India.
PA: Okay. So you came immediately after the childbirth?
RA: Yeah, after six months I came here.

PP: So you were both very young, just with a baby, and you started your life in the United States. Was that kind of difficult? Was there any challenges that you faced?

SA: Well, we spent four years as students in University of Colorado, Boulder. Now, Boulder at that time was the hippie capital of United States. And you know the hippie culture, they love Eastern culture.

PP: That’s true!

SA: So we just lucked out. We fitted in so well. And plus, she is a very good cook; she cooks lots of good Indian stuff. We were so popular and were welcomed with very warm hearts. We had no problem in Boulder for four years.

PP: So they say, to a man’s heart the first thing is food and you were great at that. And tell me, so both of you, you were doing your Doctorate?-

SA: Yeah.

PP: And you were working or --
PA: No, I was a homemaker.

PP: Stay-at-home mom. And you had a young small baby, and then of course you were definitely promoting Indian culture with your Indian food. And I am sure that was the time of the Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, and all that. That kind of -- you would have -- even in those days to kind of spread the Indian culture among them. What brought you to Houston?

SA: Okay. Well, after my PhD I was looking for a job, that was the time the ecological movement was getting very hot in this country, and my PhD was in ecology. So my first job was in a company, a research group in Houston, to study the impact offshore petroleum drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. I was located near New Orleans for two years, in a town called Picayune, Mississippi. We were there for two years. Then we moved to Houston in ’71, and since then we have been here. I count my blessings that Indian community here in Houston is so vibrant. I am so glad I was able to settle down in Houston and spend the past 40 years and enjoyed so much. Now, Mississippi was also -- we were very warmly treated.

PP: So you have traveled around, so you have been in Colorado, so then you went to Mississippi, in between Louisiana, Picayune and Houston.
RA: Near New Orleans.

PP: So you have traveled around, so you have possibly enriched every place that you went to?

SA: We got enriched. We enjoyed the culture, being a part of this country, and so many warm friends; it was a great experience for us.

PP: So when you were setting down, Mrs. Appan, did you find it challenging, totally different culture, with our clothes, with our -- the red dot, and our kind of Indian accent. Did you at all face any ethnic or cultural challenge or prejudices?
PA: No, I never had any prejudice, everybody were curious to know why I am wearing the red dot on my forehead, and they used to call me the lady with the native costume on. And they interviewed me and put in the front page of Picayune Times.

PP: Oh! Okay, this was in Louisiana?
PA: Yeah, in Mississippi, Louisiana. And we had International Day and all the American friends of mine wanted to wear sari. So we had very good memories of our travel from Boulder to Picayune and very warm Southern people.

PP: Yes, that’s what they say. So you have retained all these fond memories of your setting down in these places.

SA: Yes. I would like to say that in Mississippi in ‘60s and early ‘70s, there was discrimination. Like for example, the Blacks had separate section in the bus, movie theaters, doctor’s waiting room. Now, I am talking about early ‘60s. This has changed completely now, and in those days there was discrimination. So I made sure she wear a sari when we go out, so we would not be forced to sit in the wrong section in the movie theater. But the people were so warm, like she said the whole town welcomed us. Like she said, the newspaper put a full page picture with a welcome. They were so warmhearted people.

PP: So you were able to settle down quite easily?

SA: Yeah.

PP: Now, tell me, when you came to Houston, and you were still working with that company that was involved -- you kind of tapped into your ecology background. Tell me a little bit about that experience and what you did?

SA: Well, the professional experience?

PP: Professionally how were you able to settle down, were there any challenges, what was kind of the nature of your work?

SA: Okay. This was an emerging field at that time, so my PhD in ecology was a big help. We had plenty of research money to study, and Houston, as you know, is the energy capital, lot of offshore drilling activities from Houston and New Orleans, so I had a very productive career with that company for some ten years.

PP: So your background in ecology really paid off in this particular city, because they were already very much entrenched in the energy field, they were able to tap your potential and you were able to take advantage of that.

SA: Yes.

PP: That’s wonderful! That’s a rare combination that it happens.

SA: I just lucked out at that time. But I was not too happy in my career, because I like to be with nature and with plants, and turned out that all I was doing was computer modeling of ecosystems, massaging data to produce modeling results. It was exciting, but I had this itch to be a farmer.
PA: American farmer.

PP: That comes from your family background I suppose.

SA: Yeah. And plus, USA is the most advanced farming technology country in the world. It’s amazing; one man can produce or can manage 1,000 acres of wheat with machinery. And technology in this country is amazing. So it has been my dream to be a successful farmer in this country. Luckily --

PP: So were you able to realize your dream?

SA: That’s the thing, luckily I had a wife who said, go for it. That was a big, big risk we were taking, leaving a research career and becoming farmers, with very little knowhow. I knew how to grow plants, but I had no business experience of how to run a business. That's where I needed help. So we took the plunge in ’82.

PP: So tell me, and I really would like to get her input also on that, but go ahead and tell me how you started this whole thing?

SA: Well, I got a little bit forced into it, because in early ‘80s when President Reagan took charge as the President, he cut down funding for ecological research. So in fact my company was running into problems, so I had to leave to be honest. So we thought instead of moving to some other location; I have offered job opportunities in other cities, we loved Houston so much we didn’t want to leave. So we thought the option we have is to do something of our own. So we bought some land and started growing stuff.
And another luck in my favor was like ‘80s, the herbs, fresh herbs became so popular as health food. There was tremendous explosion of demand for fresh herbs. So we switched over into 100% fresh herb growing and we were really able to capitalize on that.

PP: I have heard you have done some pioneering work in the field.

SA: Yeah.

PP: And again, go ahead and share. And I think she had some contribution to make to it too, I am sure, with all her culinary talents?
RA: Yeah, in those days we didn’t get our spices, we didn’t have any Indian stores.

PP: Okay. This was -- was in the ’70s?
RA: ’60s and early ’70s. And Houston was the very first store I have seen. In Boulder and in Mississippi we didn’t have any Indian grocery. So we had to grow our own vegetable if you want.

PP: So you started a little bit of farming even then?
RA: Yeah, everywhere I lived, even in Boulder I used to grow my mint and my cilantro and all that, and that carried on. All my life I have been having a little garden wherever I lived, even in my childhood. So when we came to Houston we tilled all our backyard and started growing all different kind of Indian vegetables.

PP: Oh, vegetables as well as herbs?
RA: Yeah.

PP: Okay. So your backyard garden you were doing all that?
RA: Yeah, yeah. So that motivated us that we can grow here everything we need. So we started out with vegetable and then we switched to herb, like he said. So that's how we started.

PP: What about your background, how did that background, educational background contribute to this, this culinary talent and this garden and herb growing?
RA: Garden is my hobby and cooking is my passion.

PP: And then your educational background also I think --
RA: Yes, I have home economics and --

PP: So you were a graduate -- you graduated in home economics?
RA: Yeah.

PP: And at that time, when you were contemplating starting your own business, were you working?
RA: Yeah, I was working in a hospital as a supervisor.

PP: Oh, you were in a hospital, what kind of work were you doing?
RA: Supervisor in dietary.

PP: Oh, so you were?
RA: Yes.

PP: So you kind of matched your path from culinary talent to the dietary.
RA: Yes.

PP: So you were a dietitian?
RA: A dietary supervisor.

PP: Dietary supervisor?
RA: Yes.

PP: I see.
RA: I worked 30 years.

PP: So there was a kind of a natural progression?
RA: Right.

PP: Okay. Wonderful!

SA: That helped me a lot to take this plunge, at least we had one paycheck coming to feed the kids.

PP: That's absolutely right.

SA: And carried the health insurance and things like that. That helped a lot. So she held her job and freed me to plunge into farming, and that's what we did. And like I said, herbs became the hot thing and we capitalized on two aspects of herbs; one, all the herbs were coming from California.

PP: To Houston?

SA: Houston. And the grocery chains in Houston were hungry for fresh herbs locally grown, because as you know sitting in the truck for ten days and warehouse for another week, the herbs lose all the nutritional value. So locally grown herb was a big thing and we capitalized on that.

PP: So what happens when the herbs are kind of sitting in the truck and on transit and in the grocery store, tell me --

SA: Okay. What happens is herbs -- you buy herbs for two reason; one the flavor; and number two the antioxidants, which gives us the health benefit. Now, the moment you clip basil from the plant, for example, or mint, for example, the moment you clip it from the plant, the antioxidant starts declining. And it's a physiological process called senescence, and in about three, four days there is nothing much left.

PP: So the nutrients from these herbs are lost and one of the reasons we consume these herbs is for the nutrients?

SA: Yeah. The flavor may still be there, but the antioxidant, which is a nutritional value, declines rapidly.

PP: I see.

SA: So we came up with a natural method of post-harvest retention of the antioxidants, and it's a totally natural method and we patented that. So the combination of locally grown, plus this patent give us a big edge to push our herbs and compete with the big guys in California. And we got into the three major chains in Houston; the H-E-B, the Fiesta, and the Central Market, and now we supply almost all the fresh herbs for these three grocery chains.

PP: So this kind of innovation, the special technique that you have developed, as well as some kind -- you said like some way to preserve the nutrients in these herbs, that's what helped you capitalize on that green market for these herbs?

SA: Yeah.

PP: So now you have a large clientele too.

SA: Yeah.

PP: Tell me, what is this, is it a container, is it a --

SA: It's a system based on NC2 hydration. The hydration helps to preserve the physiology. The physiology of the tissue continues if it is hydrated. So we figured out a way to have what we call NC2 hydration through the entire supply chain of the industry, from the farm, to the trucks, to the warehouse, to the grocery shelf, and eventually to the home fridge, the hydration continues. It is a simple system, we happened to put that together, and we lucked out, and we are number one, if I may say so, in fresh herbs in Houston.
Now, I would like to point out that this country, the opportunities and the freedom to do anything you want is amazing. So you just have to find the niche in anything you do. Like cardiology, one out of six cardiologists in this country are Indians, and they are some of the best in this country. And like Patels and Motels, they are dominating that. So you just have to be innovative, that's the key.

PP: Yeah, both innovation and entrepreneurship are highly encouraged in this country. Not only that, America is a land where innovation is born, nurtured, and spread throughout the world.

SA: Exactly!

PP: And that's what you are saying, you are saying that helped this innovative spirit and the entrepreneurship, that's encouraged, really helped you and you are thankful for that.

SA: And Indians are very good with that. We have Indian signing in just about every field, as you know. Like yourself for example. I think I am confident that the Indian community in Houston and elsewhere is going to set records in this country.

PP: That is especially true, because America is a land of immigrants. And every immigrant is enriched by the land they live in, by the country they settle in. But at the same time, the country is enriched. And you have certainly enriched this country by your contribution and this revolutionary way of protecting and saving the nutrient elements in these herbs. And what role did you play in supporting this new innovation with your culinary background and dietitian background?
RA: Well, my specialty in the farm environment is growing the plants from the seed.

PP: Oh, from the seeds?
RA: Yeah. I do the nursery work.

PP: Oh, you do the nursery work?
RA: Yeah. Some 20,000, 30,000, whatever it takes to make the demand. I grow the seedling in the wintertime, in the greenhouses, and then by March end or April first week we start planting.

PP: So the seeds that you have planted, they are seedlings?
RA: Yeah, right.

PP: And this planting takes how many months?
RA: Couple of months.

PP: Couple of months, oh I see.
RA: Yeah, because in cold weather -- see, we are trying to make nine months out of a year at least growing.

PP: Growing season?
RA: Yeah, outdoor, and in order to do, put the plant down in March, we had to start growing it in January on.

SA: I pick on her for all the new ideas; she has contributed enormously. We sit down, brainstorm all of the advances, innovations, she has a major part.

PP: It is amazing how you were able to kind of collaborate and at the same time husband and wife team pushing this idea forward, the innovation, and with both your background. Tell me a little bit about your own family background. That I am sure had a lot to do with who you are today, how the family background inspired you to contribute and to innovate.

SA: Yes. I would like to point out that my older daughter; I have two daughters, my older daughter Mangala and her husband, they are running the family business full-time right now. And their help was, at our advancing age, without their help we could not have done it. And plus, she had -- she grew up here, she had all skills to communicate, PowerPoint presentation for marketing presentation. She was great at it. And without her help we could not have reached this enviable position in this business now.
Now, but farming had some downside also, like 15 years ago when you go to a party and introduce yourself and say you are a farmer, you see people drifting away from you. It was not a glamorous professional to be in, and that was a problem we had to endure for a long time.

PP: Yeah, I know there are some -- we have some preconceived notions about different professions.

SA: Yeah, yeah.

PP: And somehow we have a -- some professions are held in very glowing manner, but without farming we won't have fresh vegetables and fruits. I mean, I for one definitely recognize the contribution you have made and all farmers make for growing food. But also kind of your background in terms of your family, from India that you came, how they supported you, or how they inspired your education, nurtured you?

SA: Well, my dad, like I mentioned, was a coconut farmer, he was all for it, but he passed away before I became successful in farming. And my mom, bless her soul, she didn’t like me going into farming, because in India you go from the farm to a desk job; that is called advancement. Now here I was going from a secured research desk job back to farming, so she didn’t like that at all. But I had very good support from my family. Even though they didn’t like it, my mom supported me wholeheartedly.
So my grandfather was a farmer also. He migrated from Tamil Nadu to Kerala some 150 years ago in such of better farming areas. So farming is in my blood, and I am so glad my dreams came true and I was able to support my family and be a successful farmer in this country.

PP: And not only that, you have taken that farming to a next level with your innovation. That’s one thing. Secondly, you are carrying on the family tradition. Now, you have recruited your daughter and son-in-law to carry on the tradition too.

SA: Yeah.

PP: And your parents, I mean, I have heard living in the community that your father has done some exceptional work in translating Thevaram, am I right?
RA: Yes.

PP: Go ahead, tell me about it.
RA: Well, my father had passion to translate Thevaram and Thiruvasagam from Tamil to English, so all our children who don’t read and write that level of Tamil can get benefitted. And he published it, and a lot of families in Houston carry his books. And he is still writing another book, third one.
RA: This is your father?

SA: Yeah.

PP: How old is he?
RA: 96.

PP: He is still writing?
RA: Yes.

PP: And he translated those big binders full of all the poems, both in English and --
RA: From Tamil to English translation and translated.

SA: We celebrated his 96th birthday last month, we were in India

PP: So you have pretty good genes.

SA: And role model.

PP: Both of you carry illustrious genes.

SA: Yes. And role models, inspiring.

PP: Yes, role models, absolutely! And I am sure you are great role models for your children. Now, coming to that, you are great role models for all immigrants with your -- as a matter of fact, you have overcome the kind of preconceived notion that farming is not as glamorous as maybe a research job, but you have overcome that. That’s one thing. But secondly, your innovation. And third, with your taking on this new project, giving up your research job, you were showing the young immigrants, they can take on different types of challenges and still succeed very well and have a very happy life.
Do you have kind of a message that you want to share, both in terms of young immigrants, immigrants who are coming in from India, do you have kind of a message from your life experience, your work experience living in Houston?

SA: Absolutely! I think let me point out my second daughter, Sheela, is an OB/GYN physician. Now, 15 years ago she went for medical school interviews, and the first few interviews she didn’t do good, she got turned down. Now, she could have -- she can sit there and cry and blame it on Indians are being discriminated, but she didn’t do any of that. I am very proud of her. She called the professor, the doctor who interviewed her, asked for an appointment to see him. She went back, sat down with him, made him tell her what mistakes she had made and she corrected all of that. She got admission from several medical schools.

PP: That’s great!

SA: I think the combination, the best of both worlds, the best of what Hindu helped, the best of values of Hindu religion, which has taught me, and the best that this country has to offer. Now, in my case I may have 70% of Indian heritage and 30% of this beautiful country, but my kids have 70% of the best things offered in this country, but still has a foundation of the values we have taught them. So I can see that my kids, plus all the younger generation growing here would have a great future, because they have the best of both worlds and a message to the young generation, go after your dreams. This is the best country in the world to reach any heights. You can dream of stars and reach there. If I can do it, with all the handicaps I have; like income was a big thing for me. It took me 20 years to reach a six figure level income. Our kids, right after school.

PP: Do you concur with that, what he says, or you want to add anything more to it?
RA: Well, if you want to achieve something you can, all you need is the determination to reach there.

PP: So determination, courage, and dreaming big.

SA: Yeah. And perseverance. Nothing is easy.

PP: Let us close the interview with that, perseverance, determination, dreaming big, and working hard to achieve that. And just to introduce myself. I am a writer. I have written a number of books focusing on early childhood and special education, and that’s what I try to practice everyday too. Thank you very much! It has been a great pleasure for me to be interviewing you.
RA: Same pleasure!

SA: Thank you!