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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 fearful, state.

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 Fresno.

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.

Family loyalty

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 on boxes.

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.

Cultivating loyalty

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 friend.

"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 to it."

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 economy.

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) rain."

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 outside.

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," Xiong says.

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 (415) 647-9423.


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