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
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
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 War.
"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
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 over there."
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
"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
"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 it."
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, and melons.
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
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 says."
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
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
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," Glover says,.
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 housing.
"In the long run they will need to own their land, but you
need to start somewhere," he says.