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Profits Frozen for Hmong Farmers

New America Media, News Report, Viji Sundaram Posted: Jan 26, 2007

Editor's Note: The recent cold snap in the Central Valley has cut deep into the profits of citrus growers. But many small-time farmers in the Hmong community are hurt even more with their entire harvest wiped out.

FRESNO, Calif. Buoyed by the modest success of his four years as a farmer in this Central Valley town renowned for its abundant harvests of fruits, vegetables and nuts, 57-year-old Hmong farmer Zia Xiong boldly planted Chinese broccoli, mustard green, okra, lettuce, lemon grass and chayote in his 40-acre farmland here last November.

Now, instead of preparing to harvest those vegetables, Xiong and his family have just finished plowing over much of the planted area, with nary a vegetable to show for the weeks of backbreaking work they had endured.

In the last few days, every day, we have come here to look at the field, and every day it seems like the plants were going down, not up, lamented Xiongs 25-year-old daughter, Jee, as she gazed at the rain-starved, frost-burnt farmland in the south-eastern part of Fresno.

crop trays

From Kern County to Sacramento County, small-time farmers like Xiong are hurting from this years cold snap that has destroyed thousands of citrus and vegetable crops, threatening to spike the prices of oranges, lemon, winter lettuce and a wide range of other fruits and vegetables.

They are calling it the billion dollar freeze, observed Guri S. Bhangoo, marketing manager of the Fresno branch of Rain and Hail Insurance Services, Inc., the second largest crop insurance company in the U.S. Bhangoo himself has been farming raisins and grapes in Fresno county for the last 30 years, a business he inherited from his father.

But the Central Valleys Hmong farmers have been hit especially hard, due to their small farms, unique farming practices and lack of crop insurance.
They have been impacted very substantially, their losses have been severe, acknowledged Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of Fresno County Farm Bureau, a private agency which works closely with the farmers.

greenhouse guy

Through the parched fields of Xiongs farm, a few stunted shoots of Chinese broccoli that had managed to survive the weeklong freezing temperatures that earlier this month had gripped the central and southern San Joaquin Valley counties poked through the soil, standing at no more than 2 inches high. The plows will soon get them.

They should have been fully grown by now, and we should have begun harvesting them. They should have been this high, said Jee, holding her hand face down about 18 inches above the ground.

In another part of the field, a patch of mustard green and lettuce had turned yellow and had curled from frost burn.

Bhangoo said that even though Rain and Hail offers a variety of insurance plans to protect the farmer, and even though the United States Department of Agriculture is open to helping minority farmers, Hmong farmers, unlike their Indian counterparts in the Central Valley, opt not to buy insurance. And this is especially true of small-time farmers, a term defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as those whose gross income is less than $250,000 a year. According to Michael Yang, a program representative with the agriculture department at UC Extension in Davis, the majority of Hmong farmers are small-time farmers. In fact, nearly 80 percent of the countys 6,281 farms are small farms, with the majority owned by Hmong people.

The average small farmer in Fresno grosses between $35,000 and $50,000, said Dr. LoXing Kiatoukaysi, executive director of the Fresno-based Hmong American Communitys Affordable Housing, Agribusiness Training and Marketing, adding: We have some Hmong and other South East Asian farmers who gross as little as $10,000 to $15,000.

One of the requirements to buy insurance for the kind of volatile crops small time farmers like Xiong grow is being able to produce five years of recent income-tax records, Bhangoo said. Few Hmong farmers maintain those records, he said.

They dont take the insurance because they dont want to deal with the paper work, which is not easy, asserted Kiatoukaysi, pointing out that most of the farmers had little or no education back home, and know very little English.
Even though Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency for 18 California counties, including Fresno county, Yang is not very optimistic that small-time farmers will receive any relief even if the United States Department of Agriculture backs the declaration.

They grow specialty crops that are so different from mainstream crops, so Im not sure theyll get any aid, said Yang, a Laos native, whose parents are themselves small-time farmers in the Central Valley.

But Carol Singleton, a spokeswoman in the Governors Office of Emergency Services, asserted that the type of crops a farmer grows would not exclude him or her from the low-interest loans given when disaster strikes, provided the farmer is able to show documentation of the loss the farm has suffered. For Hmong farmers, this could be a problem.

Xiong, a native of Laos, migrated to the United States from Thailand in 1989 with his wife and six children, the eldest of them being Jee. They had lived in Thailand as refugees for a while, following the end of the Vietnam war. Four more children were born to the Xiongs in the United States.

For almost 14 years, Xiong worked as a dishwasher and later as a cook in a restaurant in Fresno, before he decided to invest his life savings in the farmland he now owns. After all, his forebears had all worked as farmers in Laos, and before he became a soldier there, Xiong too had worked on his family farm.

(Farming) was easier there and farmers could live off the land because we didnt have this kind of bad weather, Jee said.

According to Kiatoukaysi, like Xiong, many Hmong people turn to farming, scraping whatever they can from the land they proudly own in their adoptive country. A few strike it big mostly because of consolidation, but most never get to own more than a few acres of farmland.

So for them, farming is just (supplemental) income, which is why most small farmers have to do a second job, Kiatoukasysi said.

Aside from being at the mercy of the vagaries of nature, Californias Hmong farmers frequently find themselves at odds with state laws, which clash with their unusual farming practices. Hmong farmers rarely hire outside help, a carryover of their homeland custom, Kiatoukaysi said. A typical Hmong farmer relies solely on his immediate and extended familys help to run the farm, with no wages involved in the arrangement. In exchange for their help, family members share the profits from the sale of the harvest with the farm owner.

But by law, farm workers have to be paid wages and given insurance coverage. Since Hmong farmers run their businesses like mom-and-pop operations, they generally dont bother to ensure that work conditions on their farm comply with the state labor department or OSHA standards, Kiatoukaysi said, pointing out that four Fresno-based Hmong farmers were recently fined a total of $53,000 by the labor department for not paying their relatives wages. It wiped them out, he said.

It doesnt make sense to pay your own brothers and sisters or children wages, Yang asserted, noting that he himself helps his parents on their farm on weekends, and he does it gratis.

woman in rows

On a nearby table under a makeshift shelter in Xiongs farm, Jee and her sister-in-law, Pix Yong Yang, have spread dozens of discolored chayote that the frost had shriveled on their stems to dry so they can salvage the seeds and sow them when the next planting season rolls around. It is the same with the frost-bitten okra.

Four years ago, Jee left North Carolina so she and her husband, both of whom had lost jobs as machine operators in Newton, N.C., could work on her fathers farm. Jee knew it would be hard for her husband, now 32, to land another job because he had never been to school and spoke English poorly. Besides, my father was working so hard and making so little money, I thought he could use extra help, Jee said.

But last years excessive rainfall, this years cold snap and the constant fear that state officials might suddenly pay them a visit, is making the mother of three now wonder if she made the right decision.

Ive told my husband well give it one more year, she said.

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