Immigrant farmers program takes Heifer International
down a new path
From its start in the 1940s as a charity dedicated
to ending the cycle of chronic hunger and poverty,
Heifer Project International could sum up its
mission with "not a cup, but a cow."
Today, the cow is more likely to be a worm or
a fish or a bee.
"We are branching out and becoming quite
diverse," says Kathy Colverson, program manager
for southeastern United States. "We are increasingly
working with different populations where large
livestock species aren't appropriate, either because
we are working in urban settings or with ethnic
groups not interested in them."
Typical of Heifer Project's efforts to address
the most pressing agricultural needs in the United
States is a new initiative to help immigrant farmers
get reestablished here. The Little Rock-based
organization now has six projects up and running,
ranging from a new farmer development program
run out of New York City to the Southeast Immigrant
Family Farm Partners in rural Georgia.
"In many respects, this project is a different
step for Heifer because traditionally we have
worked with low-income people who are either ethnic
or minority," Colverson says. "This
is our first big effort for our North American
program to work with immigrant populations."
For the immigrant farmer program, Heifer is providing
its partner organizations with a three-year grant
that ranges from $20,000 to $100,000. After a
two-year, follow-up reporting period, Heifer will
consider a second round of funding for those projects
that prove successful.
"Without the grants it would be difficult
for our partners to start these types of projects,"
Colverson says. "We act as a networker as
well as a funder, and help find collaborators
and venues for people to meet."
So far, the immigrant farmer project has targeted
Hispanic and Asian populations.
"Hispanics are the fastest growing group
of small farmers in the United States but I wouldn't
be surprised if the Asian immigrant population
follows closely behind them -- they have such
a strong work ethic that you will see them being
quite competitive," she says.
Helping farmers sustain themselves is not new
to Heifer but this is the first time the organization
has worked so closely with the Hmong, whose farming
techniques go back centuries. Indeed, Heifer is
looking for universities to do more research on
how the Hmong have resettled in this country and
what their biggest needs are.
"There are no defined models we are aware
of in the regions we are working, so we are creating
them as we go," she says. "As we develop
this model we will be doing a much more in-depth
evaluation of the population and their interests
and indigenous knowledge, which is why it lends
itself nicely to university research."
While supporting organic farming per se is not
Heifer's main goal with the grants, the organic
marketing arena offers a good opportunity to get
immigrant farmers established.
"Our inspiration is more in identifying
a low-income population that has a tremendous
need and interest in agricultural enterprises
and to develop their community and empower themselves,"
she says. "Teaching them organic methods
and how to market through farmers markets may
prove to be a great opportunity for them."
Ultimately, the projects aim to help immigrant
farmers find land -- either to lease or buy. But
finding affordable land in the urban areas where
most of them live is nearly impossible and getting
transporation to outlying counties is an equally
difficult task, Colverson says, adding that Heifer
is partnering with the USDA to address these barriers.
Skip Connett is an Atlanta-based
freelance writer who grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania
and is longing to get back to farming. Until then,
writing about organic farming is possibly the
next best thing.
Posted July 11, 2003: The day is early but
already the sun is hot over the sloping field where elderly
women are hoeing patches of short-grain rice, exotic sweet
corn, heirloom pumpkins, and oriental radishes. If not for
the red clay and southern pines, this scene could be plucked
out of Laos, where these Hmong immigrants depended on farming
until they were forced to flee their land after the Vietnam
"When they are working out here, growing things, they
forget about their sadness," says Kee Moua, one of 50
Hmong living in the long row of rustic apartments converted
from a chicken house. Not even the summer heat and the stench
of raw sewage seeping into the field can prevent these displaced
farmers from keeping their traditions alive.
On the other side of Atlanta, organic farmer Skip Glover
stands in a tomato field, surveying an overgrown meadow along
the creek that borders his prosperous farm. With a hesitant
smile, he says: "If all goes well, we'll be growing rice
The distance between these two plots of land is only 50 miles.
But in many ways, they represent two distinct worlds, separated
by a wide gap in language, culture, and resources. With a
three-year grant from Heifer Project International, Glover
hopes to start bridging these two worlds this summer. It's
an ambitious project, one that could provide a model for helping
immigrant farmers return to their agricultural roots in regions
where they have often have no land to grow their food and
limited experience with local marketing practices.
Called the Southeast Immigrant Family Farm Partners, the
program Glover is developing at his farm is one of six pilot
projects Heifer is funding. The others are located in Lowell,
MA, New York, NY, Lewiston, ME, Milwaukee, WI, and El Paso,
TX. Either just beginning or in the first year of operation,
each of the programs are aimed at removing barriers for immigrants
who yearn to return to their agricultural roots. The Hmong
are the targeted immigrants in three of the projects.
"These folks are very ambitious and keen to do agricultural
work, but they just don't have any way to do it," says
Kathy Colverson, PhD, Heifer Project program manager for the
Southeast. "We saw this as an opportunity to link them
back up with their traditional heritage -- to grow their traditional
crops and assist them in selling through local farmers markets."
Having worked with other cultures and already established
an elderly farmer program for Koreans, Glover was a natural
choice for the Southeast project. The Georgia native's involvement
with an earlier Heifer grant working with inner-city youth
also proved that his farm had the resources and he had interest
in the educational aspects of sustainable agriculture.
Still, the immigrant farmer project, and working with the
Hmong in particular, is proving to be one of Glover's biggest
challenges. Most Hmong in Atlanta don't speak English, live
30 miles away, don't have transportation, and often have large
families to care for after working night shifts in factories.
"There is no problem getting them interested in this
type of program nor lack of markets," he says. "The
problem is not having enough land and getting farmers interested
in helping them get started."
War left Hmong without a country
While they lived in the rich, fertile mountains of Laos,
the Hmong centered their life on subsistance farming and family.
During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited their men and boys
to fight the North Vietnamese. When the country fell to communism
in 1975, thousands of Hmong were killed because of their loyalty
to the United States. More than 150,000 Hmong refugees have
come to this country, settling primarily in the agricultural
regions of California, Minnesota, and North Carolina.
One of Hmong leaders in Atlanta is Pa Se Yang, 39, a computer
technician who came to the United States in 1976 at age 12.
He was two-years-old when his father was ambushed and killed
by the Vietcong. For safety and a better education, Yang was
sent to a nearby city while his mother supported his six brothers
and sisters growing rice. He still remembers the bombs falling
on his village and spending long hot days with nothing to
eat as his mother toiled in the rice fields. Today, his mother,
age 65, lives in Detroit, speaks no English, and spends most
of her time in her backyard raising pumpkins and cucumbers.
"That is the only thing she looks forward to,"
says Yang, who was recently laid off from his job.
Yang's mother is not the exception, especially among first-generation
of refugees. Since moving to Georgia more than 20 years ago,
Yang has met numerous Hmong immigrants who would like to get
back into farming but don't have the resources or knowledge
of local farming techniques.
"The way Skip farms is the same way we farmed in Laos
-- no chemical or pesticides," he says. "When I
heard about his program, I wanted the Hmong to be a part of
Like many cities around the country, Atlanta is struggling
to accommodate the large influx of Asian and Hispanic populations
that are changing the character of entire neighborhoods. Yang
estimates about 5,000 Hmong live in Metro Atlanta, attracted
by the city's job market and warm climate. Until recently,
the Hmong community has kept a low-profile and has been poorly
organized, many working at menial jobs and living in poor
housing as they try to secure a fragment of the American dream.
Three years ago, through the Pan Asian Community Center,
Glover began introducing Asian immigrants to organic farming.
He invites up to 50 youths to his farm where they get their
hands dirty learning basic organic farming principles. More
recently, he donated part of his garden to elderly Koreans
who arrive in a church van several times a week to tend to
their oriental radishes, turnips, braising greens, black beans,
It is the Hmong, however, that Skip Glover feels a keen interest
in helping, in part because of their history. "They were
our cannon fodder and they haven't been treated well,"
says the 62-year-old Glover, who lost a high school friend
in Vietnam and has traveled throughout Asia.
How to help the Hmong assimilate to American life without
losing their cultural identity is a challenge that is being
played out in Glover's 40-acre farm. "We are doing sort
of garden-type fusion farming where their traditional methodology
can fuse with our organic practices and established markets,"
Glover says. "Hopefully, it will help them keep their
cultural ties through working together as families."
Although there are few models for this type of fusion farming,
Glover has already visited Hmong communities in Florida and
plans to travel to Fresno, CA, where a farm school for Hmong
is helping displaced and fledgling farmers learn farm management
and marketing practices.
Already, Glover has started clearing one of his hillsides
and developing contoured fields similar to the terraced strips
of land the Hmong worked in the mountains. In addition to
growing rice and corn, he plans to increase his chicken flock
so the Hmong can learn to raise and market organic eggs. Establishing
worm beds and selling castings at local farmers markets also
is in the works.
"I have a framework for how it should work, but will
be in a state of change, according to their needs," he
Keeping traditions alive
The Hmong are most interested in growing their traditional
rice, which is not only the main staple of their diet but
the center of their New Year celebrations. Several of Yang's
cousins have successfully grown small plots of rice in Georgia
and North Carolina -- hardly enough to meet local demand.
Last year, the Hmong who farm behind their chicken-house apartments
planted nearly two acres in rice; all of it dried up in a
drought that has devastated farmers in the South for the past
four years. This year, they switched to corn, never expecting
this would become one of the wettest growing seasons on record.
Anticipating and coping with these and other vagaries of
farming in the Southeast is what the Hmong will be learning
from Glover. Helping them get their traditional foods to the
various ethnic groups in Atlanta and setting up booths at
local farmers markets also is a major part of the program.
So far, the biggest challenge is lack of transportation.
Most Hmong don't have cars, and driving to the Glover farm
from the largest Hmong communities can take an hour -- or
twice that long during rush hour.
An even bigger challenge will come after the program has
ended and Glover's land is no longer available to grow their
crops. "Although that question is largely unanswered
at this point, I hope in a couple years, we will have found
ways to establish community gardens or communal farms -- patches
of land that can be shared with immigrant families,"
One wealthy landowner already has shown interest in helping
the Hmong get established in Glover's community, through leasing
land at a nominal price and possibly providing them with affordable
"In the long run they will need to own their land, but
you need to start somewhere," he says.