Among the Hmong: A new farming culture takes root in North Carolina

Thursday, July 29, 2010

HICKORY, N.C. -- Pahoua Xiong, wearing hip, black-framed Ray Ban glasses and girlish pink rain boots, is standing on the side of a rice paddy outside Hickory, N.C.

The rice paddy is built in four squares, tiered down the slope of a small hill on the Hmong-owned farm that Mai Kia Her runs with her extended family.

Water trickles from one square down to the next. Palm-size butterflies dart over the lush green stalks. You can't see the rice yet. The heads of grain are mostly still inside the stalks, waiting to emerge in August for harvest in September. But you can smell it, a light, warm scent like rice being toasted in a dry pan.

"Can you smell it?" Xiong calls. "It smells so good."

Yes, there is rice growing in North Carolina these days. And a lot more, a cornucopia from Southeast Asia: Bumpy bitter melons and football-sized red cucumbers, Chinese long beans and snake gourd, dark green clusters of yu choi and bok choy, lemon grass, amaranth and daikon radishes.

You can find a lot of it at local markets, where Hmong farmers stand behind tables piled with mint and Thai basil, neat stacks of green onions and piles of bright green vines, from sweet potato to Asian pumpkin.

For three years, Pahoua Xiong (pronounced pah-WHO-ah Zhong) has helped to distribute those vegetables. She translates for agricultural agents and drives visitors around on farm tours, explains American marketing to her Laotian clients, even puts Hickory's Hmong farm program on Facebook and Twitter.

Born in California to a Hmong family, she wanted to get away from farming as a kid. She went to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and got a psychology degree. But she got pulled back to the fields to run a program that has put Hmong refugees back onto farms and helped them spread out to farmers markets all over the Piedmont.

"Couldn't find a job," says Xiong, 26, bumping her aging van around country roads in Catawba County, N.C., last week. "Figured I'd come back and contribute to my community."

With an estimated 15,000, North Carolina is believed to have the fourth-largest Hmong population in the U.S. Most of the N.C. Hmong (pronounced "mong") live in Alexander, Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties, with a few in Lincoln, Stanly and Gaston counties.

Why there? It's the hills, say the agriculture agents who work with them. The rolling hills of the Piedmont look like the terrain the Hmong knew in Laos. The climate is similar, too, with hot, humid summers. And there's a price factor: Small farmers can't afford land in urban areas.

Starting in 2007, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Office of Refugee Resettlement spread 10 grants around the country to help Hmong refugees get back to the farming they knew in Laos and turn it into a way to support themselves.

Using a $395,000, three-year grant, North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro teamed up with Hickory's United Hmong Association to form HRAPP - Hmong Rural Agricultural Partnership Program. Starting with 12 families, it has grown to 34 farms. Lara Worden, an agriculture extension agent based in Gaston County, has taught growers schools for HRAPP, focusing on how to set up tables and sell at farmers markets.

"Before we started this program, most of them were not familiar with selling directly to consumers or using farmers markets," she says. "Everything they grew, they consumed on their own. Before we started with them three years ago, there were only one or two going to farmers markets. We're now up to 13 families. That's a big jump."

It's actually bigger than that, says Lincoln County Extension director Kevin Starr. Since so many Hmong farmers live in extended families, those 13 can account for even more farm stands.

"A vendor that has gone and taken hold at a farmers market, that means a lot. At times, we've had more markets than we've had vendors. So anything we can do to add to the pool of farmers is a good thing."

Selling at farmers markets is natural for entrepreneurs. It doesn't cost much to rent a $5 or $10 space. But for the Asian farmers, drawing customers has been harder.

know you," says Worden. "They don't like to speak directly to a stranger. And that can be a problem in selling at farmers markets, where establishing a relationship and regular customers is key." Worden has learned that even when Hmong understand English, they will use a translator if one is available, fearing they won't understand or will be misunderstood.

Walking through the fields on a Hmong farm is a different experience than walking around an American one. Most crops aren't planted in rows, and few fields have only one crop.

At Mai Kia Her's farm, one field has radishes among mustard greens among pepper plants. Melon vines snake around corn stalks, sugar cane rises above jicama, Brussels sprouts bump up against cabbages.

Keith Baldwin, an extension specialist and program leader at N.C. A&T, says there are advantages to growing that way. If you don't concentrate things together, it helps confuse insects. When one crop is blooming, it draws pests away from the other crops.

On several farms, a row of corn is planted in front of the rice. Back in Laos, people learned that wild animals, particularly boar, are attracted to the smell of rice. So they plant corn to mask the scent.

"They're very innovative in what they do," says Worden. "They're not as reliant on technology as we are. It just overwhelms me, what they come up with."

In Hickory, HRAPP has turned an acre of reclaimed land behind the Blackburn Landfill into a demonstration farm, where six families share space.

To help the farmers do better at markets, agriculture agents have encouraged them to grow traditional American foods along with Asian ones. So there's a section of plastic-covered rows where the families can try out American-style row farming. A high tunnel - an unheated greenhouse that can extend the growing season - got knocked down by snow last winter, but Baldwin hopes to rebuild it this fall.

Blia Vue, who lives between Hickory and Connolly Springs, is trying fingerling potatoes and purple corn on her plot, alongside her Asian-style red cucumbers and amaranth.

Za Xue Yang and his wife, Cho Yang, are growing rice in a dry field instead of a flooded paddy. Rice yields better in water, but it's cheaper to grow in dry fields, without the expense of water and electricity to run pumps.

The rice that is growing on almost all the Hmong farms is Worden's main frustration: American customers would love it, but Hmong families really don't want to sell it. It represents a lot of work. Paddies are dug by hand, rice is harvested and dehulled by hand.

"They save it for their own consumption," she says. "And when they sell it, they sell it for a pretty penny." Hmong sticky rice, used at holidays, usually sells for $25 a gallon.

"It is to die for," she says. "It is really wonderful rice. And traditional American culture would buy that, because it is familiar."

Farming replaces lost jobs

The grant that started HRAPP three years ago came at exactly the right time. Right after the program started, the economy crashed.

"In this culture, women stay home and do the farming and the husbands take jobs away from home, usually in factories," says Worden. "A lot of them lost their factory jobs and were back on the farm. They had to get another source of income."

Not only husbands lost jobs. Mai Kia Her lost her own job in a hosiery mill. So she and her four sons and two daughters, ranging in age from 14 to 32, cleared the trees from the fields and dug the rice paddies. Until recently, when the heat slowed down her green beans, she had been selling at the Denver farmers market.

Could she make enough at markets to replace what she made at the mill?

"Because this is her first year, she doesn't really know," Xiong says. "She could maybe make that much if she was to produce on a larger scale."

Before the HRAPP program ends in September, Xiong hopes to produce a booklet that Hmong farmers could use at markets to explain what things are and how to cook them.


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