Why Hmong-Grown Produce is Different?
Custardy cucumbers. Fat and happy collard greens. Hmong farmers grow things in different ways.
Hmong farmers. You see them at just about every farmers market in the Wisconsin. They smile and sell piles and piles of low-priced, gorgeous produce, yet the language barrier keeps many people from getting to know them better. They have been part of this city’s community — and farmers markets — for decades now. Yet myths about Hmong farmers abound — some benign, some downright harmful.
When I arrived in Milwaukee in 2003 to run the Fondy Food Center, they were a mystery to me as well. My family is from Korea – a country with a rugged landscape and climate that more closely resembles Idaho than the humid forests and hills of Southeast Asia that the Hmong call home. I tell people that in European terms, the Koreans are Irish and the Hmong are Sicilian. Irish and Sicilians are similar in that both groups bake bread, and that’s about it. I’d heard stories about the Hmong when they began arriving in the US in the late 1970s, about how they’d been recruited by the CIA to fight its Secret War in Laos, an outgrowth of the Vietnam War. More than 100,000 Hmong died by the time the US pulled out of Vietnam.
Until 2003 my only real exposure to farms was what I saw on TV or in the car on summer vacations: shiny tractors, red barns tall grain silos and acres and acres of identical-looking plants standing in laser-straight rows.
When my staff began visiting and inspecting the growing operations of the Hmong farmers that supplied our market, I tagged along. And it’s taken me nine years of working with Hmong farmers to understand the seemingly weird things I saw that day.
The rows were anything but straight. Certain leafy vegetables like salad, collard, and mustard greens weren’t even planted in rows. Instead the seeds were “broadcast” by hand — like you would plant grass seed on your front lawn – into six-foot-wide patches. I didn’t see any tractors. The largest piece of equipment I saw was a sad looking rototiller, stored under an old plastic shower curtain to keep it from rusting further.
Where these Hmong farmers put their plants also made no sense to me. Six tomato plants were next to some zucchini vines, followed by some watermelons, then cabbages, peppers, cantaloupes, then maybe another six tomato plants. I remember thinking, “Wouldn’t it be more efficient if they put all their tomato plants in one spot?”
I saw a gigantic cucumber, 18 inches long and about five inches thick, that had been on the vine for so long it had started to go to seed and turn yellow. In my eyes the farmer had waited too long to pick it. In my mind I decided that this farmer was lazy.
But as I’ve watched these Hmong farmers plant, harvest, and haul in the half million pounds of fruits and vegetables that get sold at Fondy each year, I came to realize these folks are anything but lazy. I’ve now come around to thinking the Hmong have some things to teach Wisconsin farmers.
Traditional American farmers use techniques handed down from their European ancestors, where planting in rows made sense if you had a team of horses or, later, a tractor. But if you don’t have a tractor, who needs rows?
Hmong farmers have discovered that leafy plants such as collard greens don’t like to be confined into orderly rows. They do better when they’re broadcast seeded into a random pattern that mimics nature. There’s less competition for sunlight that way, and instead of growing long, narrow leaves that try to reach for the sun, the leaves become happy, fat, and wide – a sought-after quality in the African American community that our market serves.
Hmong farmers have also figured out that pests are easier to control if you mix your tomato plants in with other vegetables all over your farm instead of confining all of them into just one section. Pests are like people in that they’re drawn to the all-you-can-eat buffets. Tomato pinworms are looking for acres and acres of what they like to eat. But six lonely tomato plants surrounded by cabbages, zucchini, peppers, and watermelon? That’s slim pickings. Yes, harvesting is less efficient that way, but then you don’t have to rely so much on pesticides or suffer from catastrophic crop losses.
And that huge cucumber I saw? I’ve learned that, while Americans and Europeans pick their cucumbers when they’re young and immature, Hmong and other Asian cultures like cucumbers that are close to going to seed. A ripened cucumber is a completely different vegetable. The crisp, still-green texture is replaced by a velvety, custard-like mouth feel.
Despite all of their agricultural talents, Hmong farmers in Wisconsin still face many challenges. They tend to lack access to financial institutions, can’t afford to buy farmland, and rent their land with handshake leases, sometimes at rates three times higher than their mainstream counterparts. They also have to contend with many myths and outright stereotypes from suspicious Wisconsinites who simply don’t know better.
For example, once a month I get a call from a Fondy Farmers Market customer who has heard the Hmong use fresh human waste for fertilizer. I don’t know how this idea came about. But I do know that most of my Hmong farmers live in Milwaukee and I have a hard time imagining any of them storing and then transporting sloshing buckets of feces all the way out to their fields in Germantown or Mequon. Over a hundred farm inspections have failed to turn up a single bucket of poop.
The Hmong are also known for igniting price wars at farmers markets, a reputation that does have some merit. Farmers market operators like myself aren’t allowed to use their influence to pressure farmers to raise or lower their prices thanks to the Sherman Antitrust Act. Our hands are tied. I used to think the Hmong kept their prices low because they didn’t use “modern” accounting methods to track their production costs. But after trying to teach basic accounting skills to Hmong farmers for the past two years, I’m not so sure. I think what we’re seeing in the Hmong is a different kind of farming – one that isn’t driven solely by dollars and cents and profit. Sure, money does play a role, but it’s mixed in with other drivers that make a person work for 80 hours a week in the hot Wisconsin summer sun – things like personal happiness, socializing with fellow farmers at a farmers market, feeding people, or keeping the Hmong farming tradition alive. These are things that defy monetization.
At the Fondy Market this summer I encountered an older Hmong farmer selling the most beautiful Jersualem artichokes, a North American root vegetable that’s not cultivated in Asia. Our language barrier prevented me from asking him how he discovered this plant. He was selling them for a song. I decided to skirt the Sherman Antitrust Act and pointed to the $2 price tag. “Too cheap,” I said. He nodded, smiled, then shook his head. No, that price tag wasn’t going down. He would continue to happily offer this freshly harvested bargain to his customers.