Immigrant farmers get helping hand in Georgia
The Hmong in Atlanta are keen to do agricultural work, but don't have the land or opportunity. Through a Heifer International grant, organic grower Skip Glover hopes to change all that.

By Skip Connett

Heifer Diversifies:
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.


About the Author

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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," 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.