In 1975, hundreds of thousands of Hmong fled from their home country, Laos, to neighboring Thailand to escape the wrath of the Communist party after the United States lost the Vietnam War. From 1975 to 2002, Hmong refugees immigrated to the United States to begin rebuilding their lives.
Der Xiong, a 23-year-old Hmong, said that for many Hmong, it has been a challenge to adapt to life here while also trying to preserve their culture.
The Hmong, a hill-tribe from Laos, are a family-oriented people with strong farming roots. Agriculture accounts for 51 percent of Laos’ gross domestic product and around 18.8 million people are involved in farming. The US is a little different. Only 960,000 people claim farming as their primary occupation in the US, so it isn’t hard to imagine why it would be a difficult transition for the Hmong.
But many Hmong immigrants in North Carolina have tapped into their deep farming roots and begun farming on a smaller scale. Xiong works at an Immigrant Agriculture Program Coordination for the NC Agricultural and Technical State University and helps Hmong farmers in Catawba County by teaching them sustainable farming practices.
“Most of the Hmong farmers are older, like 40 to 60 years old,” Xiong said. “The hardest part is that they say they already know how to farm so why should they listen to me tell them how to do it.”
Mor and Bliasa Yang, 59 and 64, bought land to farm on in 2005 and have since grown carrots, beans, winter squash, mustard green, bok choy, spinach, bitter melon tips, pumpkin vine tips and daikon. They sell their goods primarily at the flea market in Newton.
“What draws them to the flea market is the fact that there are more Hmong here,” Xiong translated for Bliasa Yang. “There are also a lot of Hispanics that come to the flea market, and they share the same food culture as we do. Every now and then you get someone who is white or black but that’s not as usual.”
“If you look at it from a husband and wife point of view, it brings them together because they are working along side one another,” Xiong said. “But if you look at it from a family perspective, the children are usually a bit distant.” Xiong said that the younger generation does not value farming as much as the older generation does, because they were not raised in agricultural ways of Laos. “I went to school for public health,” Xiong said. “But somehow, I don’t know why, I came back to farming.”
Xiong’s family owns a small-scale cut-flower farm in Newton. Her parents work full time on the farm plots, but Xiong’s brothers and sisters work the land as well. The five Xiong children help their parents cut the flowers to sell at Farmers Markets and also to florists around NC.
The Xiong farm has nine acres of land that they grow their flowers on, but they are not the only ones. Xiong’s uncle and aunt are one of many Hmong that have built personal rice patties. Rice is a staple in Asian diets, and fresh grown rice is important to the Hmong culture.
“Five pounds of rice can sell for $40 at the Farmers Market but most do not sell their rice,” Xiong said. Most families with rice patties split their crop yield between family members.
To meet the heavy water demands of growing rice, Xiong’s aunt and uncle put a dam in a creek by their house and redirected the water into their hand-made patties. In Laos, they used bamboo shoots to move water from one rice patty to another, but in the United States, the Hmong use plastic pipes.
“The Hmong have always farmed,” Xiong said. “I think it brings a nostalgic feeling back. It’s something they know how to do, something they like doing.”