Hmong farmers in Missouri expand farming approaches
ROCKY COMFORT, Mo. (AP) — Fue Yang was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. His family immigrated to the United States in 1980 when Yang was a month old.
His parents, who fled Laos in the late 1970s, spoke little English, but Yang learned it early in school and church. He’s been translating for his family and members of the Hmong community since he was 5.
Today, Yang farms on 43 acres in far southwestern Missouri, just north of the Arkansas state line in McDonald County. He has cattle and raises vegetables to sell at area farmers markets.
Yang’s parents, his wife and five children live and work on the farm. Right now, they have a bounty of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, ginger, green beans, sweet potatoes, okra and squash.
As their ancestors did, the Yangs farm by hand: planting, tending and harvesting. But over the past couple of years, Yang has begun to embrace new techniques, building three “high tunnels.” The structures — large metal hoops covered in plastic — allow him to grow vegetables all year.
Yang is learning — and teaching — new ways of farming through a program meant to help all small farmers increase their year-round efficiency and productivity. In its second year, the Winter Production Education Center is run by MU Extension, Lincoln University Cooperative Extension and the Webb City Farmers Market.
Through Yang, other Hmong farmers are expanding their approaches to farming even as they honor their traditional methods, the Columbia Missourian reported.
Yang offers workshops and high tunnel walk-throughs on his teaching farm as a part of related grant from the Missouri Department of Agriculture for high-tunnel instruction. People stop to ask for advice on how to do their own high tunnels, as well as a range of other farming questions, he said.
“Everybody’s tight-knit, all the farmers,” Yang said. “We exchange ideas. Everybody knows each other. Whenever we have problems, they’ll ask, or if I have problems, I’ll ask them.”
The Hmong are an ethnic group largely from the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia. Their efforts to immigrate to the United States after the Vietnam War were helped by legislation allowing them to settle here as refugees.
In 2000, the U.S. Census showed only 26 Hmong people living in Missouri. By 2006, a number of the Hmong immigrants began buying farms in southwestern Missouri. By 2010, census data showed, 1,329 Hmong lived in Missouri. At least 900 made their homes in neighboring McDonald, Newton and Barry counties.
Hmong farmers in the area have built 10 high tunnels so far, said Eileen Nichols. She manages the Webb City Farmers Market and plays a key role in the project, which is for small farmers in the area, not just the Hmong. Nichols expects the number to double within the next two years due to interest in the education center, she said.
“Your plants will be a lot bigger, they’ll produce a lot more ... and you have the protection from the elements because you won’t get the wind damage or the hail damage,” Yang said. His family had to replant crops several times this past spring after they were damaged by wind and hail. That costs in time and money.
Nichols said high tunnels can be challenging to get the hang of at first, so it’s important the farmers have access to education and trouble-shooting.
“It’s a challenging form of farming, but it can be an important addition to the farm’s profits,” she said.
Nichols reached out to Yang, who is studying business agriculture at Crowder College, because he is interested in farming innovations but remains steeped in his ancestral culture and community. The Hmong farmers were interested in the farming techniques offered by MU Extension, Nichols said, but they needed someone with the skills to teach them in their own language and culture.
MU horticulturist Robert Balek, who is based in the Jasper County Extension office, works with farmers involved in the project on high tunnels and other techniques. Balek said the initial challenge was more than a matter of translating from English to Hmong and vice versa.
There were barriers in communicating concepts, such as the use of fertilizer, which had no easily understood equivalent in the Hmong culture. There were roadblocks in reading pesticide labels and identifying insects and plant diseases particular to the area.
Nichols said the cooperative extension educators from Lincoln, with their focus on minority and limited-resource small farmers, have taken the lead on the planning, implementing and supervision of the education center.
David Middleton, a farm outreach worker with Lincoln, said older Hmong farmers have expanded their produce to include tomatoes, potatoes and other staples familiar to American palates “because that’s an income for them.” But they also have introduced Asian vegetables to the farmers markets, including long beans, water spinach, Thai basil, Thai peppers, Asian corn and the fruit bitter melon, he and Balek said.
Despite the challenges, Balek, Yang and others see the necessity of incorporating the new farming techniques.
“The world is changing and we need to change with it,” Yang wrote in a description of his work with the high tunnels for a class at Crowder College.
“I am choosing to go backwards in order to move forward. Backwards in the sense of small local farmers growing for their families and their surrounding community. Forward in a sense that one day small local farmers might just feed people in their world.”
Mai L. Her believes that helping individual Hmong farmers with their farming practices benefits the greater community. Mai, who asked to be called by her first name for this article, advocates for Missouri Hmong farmers — she was one — in her work with the USDA. She is the Missouri farm coordinator for Hmong National Development, a nonprofit, advocacy organization based in Minnesota. Mai connects local Hmong farmers with the USDA and other grants, which make it possible to build farm infrastructure and begin their small farm businesses.
Mai was 10 when her mother woke her up in the middle of the night and told her, “Get up, pack your things, you are to take one little bundle.” It was 1975 in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and her family needed to leave immediately.
Mai’s family — six children and their parents — piled into a jeep in the dark and drove to the banks of the Mekong River, where a man canoed them across to safety in Thailand.
Now, Mai, who lives in southwestern Missouri where the MU Extension-Lincoln Cooperative Extension project is based, champions Hmong families moving to the area, mainly from Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.
They are attracted by the opportunity to return to their agrarian roots, in the warmer hills and pastures of southwestern Missouri, and to work for themselves, Mai said.
About 80 percent are livestock farmers, mostly chickens, Mai said, but almost everyone has a vegetable plot at least for personal use and many for extra income at the local farmers’ markets.
“You give us a piece of land, we’ll know what to do with it,” Mai said. “We’ll survive.”
Information from: Columbia Missourian, http://www.columbiamissourian.com