|Seeds of change
For Central Valley Hmong families, the farming tradition
faces an uncertain future
Olivia Wu, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 3, 2005
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As dusk descends on fields that hours ago registered
temperatures above 100 degrees, Zong Xiong hoists the
last boxes of kabocha squash into the family truck on
the outskirts of Fresno. It's Friday, and she works
alongside her father and mother. In the days before
they had the cooler, they would pick from morning to
afternoon, and load through the night. Tonight, Xiong,
27, comes from her home, and helps transfer two days'
worth of boxes. The 6,000 pounds of produce loaded,
they head to her mother's, perch for a quick bite, and
snatch a nap.
At 11 p.m., Xiong settles into the truck for the five-hour
drive to the Saturday Alemany Farmers' Market, the oldest
continuous farmers' market in San Francisco. As she
sways in the truck, Xiong's thoughts jerk forward and
back. She's made this trip for 16 years. Back when she
was a sixth-grader, she and her brother and sister would
get out of school, pick the fields, load the truck and
head to market without a break.
Her thoughts skip to the present: Now, with her pharmacy
degree how can she find a job and pay off her loan,
live the American dream? Then she skips to the future:
How will her parents ever own their own farm?
She herself has sworn not to farm.
In a country known for abundance and technology, Hmong
farmers find themselves squeezed by large-scale farming.
In a state known for agriculture, they are squeezed
out of real estate, and in a city known for chef-farmer
connections, they are isolated. Within a short half
generation of farming in their adopted country, the
children of Hmong families are fleeing the farm. Although
the Hmong story is one of successful immigrants, it
may be a story of failed farms.
Xiong is one of thousands of Hmong and other Southeast
Asians who come from farming families in the Central
Valley. Persecuted by the Laotian government, her parents
immigrated from Laos in 1980 with three small children.
The Hmong are descended from a tribe of nomadic farmers
that originated in China. They have farmed the mountainous
regions of Laos from as early as 200 years ago. Many
gravitated to farming when they arrived in the United
States. Working in close, extended family units, they
made a living on leased acreage. But lacking English
and knowledge of the American market and government
regulations, they live in an always tentative, and sometimes
Born to farm
"There's huge potential in the immigrant farmer.
The government is bringing in tens of thousands as refugees
and immigrants who are staying here and wanting to farm,"
says Hugh Joseph, co-founder of the New Immigrant Farming
Initiative, based in New York. NIFI, a not-for-profit
organization, is dedicated to sustaining local farms
and helping new immigrants learn American farming.
"Waves of immigrants for two centuries have settled
New England, the Midwest, the West, and have homesteaded.
(But) there's no more frontier, and farming's a much
more complex world," Joseph says.
"A lot are coming as refugees, from African and
Southeast Asia. A lot are struggling. They want eventually
to own their farms. Whether the kids end up taking over
the farms is an open question."
The sons and daughters are the ones who master English
and bridge their families' culture with that of the
mainstream. Yet "they see how hard their parents
have to work and scrape by for a living and they see
the enticement of other jobs," says Richard Molinar,
small farms adviser for UC Cooperative Extension in
The skill- and brain-drains reflect the decline of
the American small family farm since the mid-20th century.
However, the speed with which it is happening among
the Hmong is startling.
The situation is especially deplorable in California,
surprising in an agricultural state with diverse, ethnic
cities, where the organic and farmers' market movement
started and where many programs are designed to connect
farmers to restaurants and chefs.
It is home to about 1,200 out of 2,000 Hmong family
farms, concentrated in Fresno County, says Molinar.
While Minnesota ranks as the highest in Hmong population
nationwide, California has the highest number of Hmong
farmers, he says.
The population shifts
Both states are losing the Hmong to Midwest and Southeastern
states such as Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, North Carolina
and Georgia, where private banks partner with the USDA
to make loans to Hmong farmers. In those cases, they
have scored huge successes as excellent poultry farmers,
expanding to grow produce and raise other livestock.
"Where we see that farming is viable and where
there's land ownership, the children continue,"
says August Schumacher Jr., former undersecretary of
agriculture. The price of real estate and a sluggish
collaboration between private and federal banks are
blocking, rather than easing, the refugees' chances
of owning land, he says.
Still, there are small, not-for-profit agencies that
create co-operative and other innovative lease models
to help Hmong farmers. Among them are the Small Farms
Resource and Training Center in Fresno and Opening Doors
Inc. in Sacramento.
The Hmong, prime candidates for organic farming, often
are overwhelmed by the paperwork and certification process.
In the Central Valley, where most of the land has been
farmed conventionally, they are also reluctant to wait
the three years for the land to be declared chemical-free.
"We're not doing anything to get them to stay.
In fact, they're discouraging them," says Molinar.
He says that in the last two or three years, Hmong farmers
have been fined for using relatives in the field, citing
lack of workman's compensation insurance, but striking
at the heart of the Hmong family structure. The fines
go up to $25,000, says Molinar.
As a result, "They're afraid to go out and work,"
says Molinar. He echoes other farm agency workers, who
say the Hmong "are some of the hardest-working
people I know." They grow beautiful produce and
sell it at low prices, says Molinar.
At the Alemany market, Xiong puts up a hand-written
sign for 50 cents a pound for winter melon and squashes
at stall numbers 85 and 87, where for nearly 12 hours,
the family sells its crop of squash, greens and root
vegetables.There is no time to eat breakfast. Her father,
Chertai Xiong, 52, stacks a couple of boxes to block
out the sun and tries to catch a nap for the drive home.
The rest of the Xiongs bag produce and make change.
Xiong and her mother, Zee Xiong, 46, are helped by her
brother, Tong, 29, who has come with Xiong's son, Brandon,
and her young sister, Marlena, 7. Sister Der, and Xiong's
husband, Touly, also help occasionally.
Bunches of Chinese and Indian greens sell for $1. Eggplant
and many greens, including taro and something called
"okra greens," which become mucilaginous when
cooked, but are not from the okra plant, are stacked
The shoppers, like the farmers, form a teeming, moving
patchwork of color and a babble of languages: English,
Cantonese, Mandarin, Cambodian, Italian, Vietnamese,
Japanese, Filipino, Spanish, Punjabi and Arabic, Russian,
Polish, among others. The Xiong family is one of 16
Hmong families who have space in the market of 90-plus
stalls. Alemany is the oldest public farmers' market
in San Francisco, having started in 1943.
One of those who stops at the Xiong stall is Peter
Jonas, 53, a resident of Bernal Heights, who has been
shopping at the market since 1981 and has become a family
"Alemany has soul to it," he says. "It's
better bargains, too." Jonas says some at Alemany
refer to the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market as the ATM
market. "It's so groomed and marketed, where Alemany
is just the produce at the end of their work,"
he says. He gravitated toward those farmers with the
strong entrepreneurial spirit, including the Xiongs.
It was a teenage Zong Xiongwho captured his attention.
"We were buying jalapenos and she said, "You
know how we like them? We start a little fire in the
field and grill them.' "
Yet the participation of the adult Xiong kids in the
Saturday market, says Jonas, "is out of pure loyalty
to their parents. They know this is what supported them
and allowed them the opportunity they have." However,
"They have no intention of farming and going back
The tight family struture is the greatest strength
of the Hmong, says Schumacher, currently an ambassador
for the Kellogg Foundation's Food and Society Initiative,
based in Battle Creek, Mich. The professional, grown
children of Hmong poultry farmers in the Southeastern
states live on the farm and become part of the family
That kind of culture is difficult in California, where
farmland sells for $8,000 to $15,000 per acre, up from
$5,000 two years ago, says Molinar. Only about 7 percent
of Fresno's Hmong own their land. "They're always
asking me about farmland to be available," he says.
The way it was
Back home on their lot in Fresno, Chertai and Zee return
to the planting, growing and weeding. From Sunday through
Tuesday, they spend all daylight hours doing what they
did in Laos, as their parents and grandparents did before
them. At midday they gather under a tarp, pull out rice
and leftovers, and cut up a few vegetables from the
field for a simple lunch.
In some ways, farming was easier in their homeland.
"In Laos, we have chickens, (a) pig, cow, horse.
If you clean (land) you can farm it," says Zee.
"No irrigation, no fertilizer. You just wait (for)
The comparison between the subsistence farming and
their current practices is ironic. In Laos, more is
left to nature, making it less fruitful, but less complex.
That life was fine and even idyllic, with the continued
heritage of the younger generations promised. But the
persecution they experienced at the hands of the Laotian
Communist government propelled them to leave.
"They're so cruel; they have regulations,"
Zee says. The couple walked to Thailand, taking only
what they could carry on their backs. "He carried
rice. I carry children."
Once here, the Hmong were given refugee status because
they assisted Americans during the Vietnam War. Chertai
was schooled as a mechanic and Zee as a seamstress.
They tried their new professions for nine years, but
felt trapped, especially since they had to use English
and live in cities. They missed the freedom of working
Back to the land
With assistance from relatives, the Xiongs began with
2 acres, planting Chinese vegetables. Eventually some
Indian customers gave them seeds to grow Indian vegetables,
such as Indian bittermelon and fenugreek greens (methi).
Now they lease 19 acres, growing crops such as Italian
cucumbers and other Indian vegetables they don't know
how to cook and eat, but sell well.
On the edge of a row of eggplant, they have a small
patch of Hmong herbs for which they don't know the Hmong
names, much less the English names, but that are cooked
traditionally with chicken soup. They avoid marketing
native vegetables, not knowing how to pass on a recipe,
and certain that the outside world would not like it.
Xiong estimates her parents net $25,000 a year. But
the success doesn't come without ironies.
"They don't call us farmers," Chertai says.
"Only big farmers, with many, many acres."
Back in Laos, they grew everything organically and naturally;
here they have been taught the large-scale, conventional
American way that relies on fertilizers and squeezes
their profits. They have yet to learn cutting-edge,
organic and sustainable practices to supplant the slash-and-burn
method they used in Laos.
Chertai looks over the fields. It is too late for him
to switch to higher- value, long-term crops such as
stone fruits, which he has not done because his leases
don't last more than three to five years. "I'm
too old. Cannot own land. (But this) is my place."
The best part of American farming is being able to
use machines, he says. The worst: "Too many chemicals."
He and Zee have no regrets about the children moving
off the farm. "It's very hard work," says
Zee. "They have education." Xiong remembers
the stick held over them when she was a child -- "You'd
better work hard if you ever want to get off the farm."
The parents' hands, though, belong in the land. "They're
the type of people who like to work all the time. They
don't stop. Farming satisfies their drive to work,"
She feels the drive to take care of them. Quietly,
she says, "Hopefully, my gift to them is to buy
them their own land."
Where to find the Xiongs
The Xiong family usually occupies stall numbers 85 and
87 at Alemany Farmers' Market. They sell a mixed crop
of more than 20 items, including various Chinese greens,
Indian greens, bitter melons, eggplants, cherry tomatoes,
cucumbers (about six varieties), squashes and gourds
(winter melon, kabocha squash and others), chiles, peas,
beans, daikon and more.
Alemany Farmers' Market, 100 Alemany Blvd. (at the
interchange of Highway 101 and Interstate 280) is open
6 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturdays. For more information, call