Hmong farmers are helped by one of their own
Sept./Oct. 2005 California Country magazine
By Tracy Sellers
Michael Yang helps fellow Hmong refugees by offering assistance as a farm advisor at the University of California Cooperative Extension in Fresno.
Since its founding in the mid-1800s, Fresno County has attracted countless numbers of people looking for a place to settle and call home. The influx of families from places around the world has made the area a melting pot of different cultural and ethnic groups, one of which is its Hmong contingent.
More than 25,000 Hmong have laid stakes in Fresno after fleeing Laos at the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s. That's something Michael Yang knows a lot about. When he was 7 years old, Yang and his family escaped the only home they had ever known with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Running through the jungles of Vietnam, young Yang was bitten by a snake and barely escaped with his life. It's a memory that still haunts him today.
"My father had already been killed in the conflict, so I was the oldest male in my family at the time, which meant a lot of responsibility," Yang said. "When I was bitten, I told my mom to leave me, let me die. But she refused and put me on her back and she carried me for three days. After that I was finally able to walk on my own. It's something I will never forget. It's an experience of a lifetime."
Now, more than 30 years later, Yang has found a way to help his fellow Hmong refugees by offering assistance as a farm advisor at the University of California Cooperative Extension in Fresno. One of the co-op's main goals is to bring accurate, research-based information from the universities out to the fields. And since farming was a native practice in their homeland, many Hmong families have chosen to continue farming here in their adopted home.
Today there are more than 750 Asian-owned farms in Fresno and of those, 93 percent are recent additions to that agricultural community. This means these farmers arrived in the United States within the last 20 years to face a new culture, new language and new lifestyle--not to mention a new way to farm. That's where Yang and his co-worker Richard Molinar come in. Their jobs are to make the transition to a new land an easier one.
"These farmers are very susceptible to snake oil salesmen and if we weren't around, I don't know what they would do. We are really their only source of unbiased, research-driven information, which is what Michael and I do," Molinar said.
"I speak Hmong and so I have an immediate connection with the farmers," Yang said. "And if you're always around, like I am, you kind of build a trust with them. They know you and trust you."
"When I have a problem out at my farm, I just call Michael or Richard and they jump in and help me right away. I love it!" Fresno farmer and fellow Hmong Kevin Yang said.
In addition to answering questions at their office, Michael Yang and Molinar also make house calls to local farms to provide assistance in person. They have found that the best way to educate the masses is through a popular monthly radio show, which is broadcast in Hmong.
Looking for new ways to help fellow countrymen has become a busier endeavor for the last couple of years for Michael Yang, thanks to a new demand for Asian ingredients and a renewed interest in Eastern-style cooking. And Fresno's large population of Asian farmers have made it into the epicenter of a culinary revolution that is seeing growth in restaurants and markets all across California.
"As more Hmong settle in the area, they look for the things they remember from their homeland. Farmers try a little bit here and there. They'll grow a couple of rows and if it goes well, they'll save the seeds and eventually plant a couple of acres. Then that goes from farm to farm and before you know, it's all over the county," Yang said.
From farmers' markets to supermarkets, there's an incredible range of Asian vegetables available all across Fresno. From the familiar to the exotic, Hmong farmers pride themselves on the diversity of produce they are able to grow each season. Some of the better-known crops are bok choy, long bean, oriental eggplant, and lemon grass. Some of the lesser known, but popular items include bitter melon, which is a cucumber-looking squash, gai lan, which is a stalky, mild broccoli similar in appearance to "brocolini" and moqua, or fuzzy melon, which has a deliciously sweet flavor and looks like a cross between a cucumber and a summer squash.
Hmong farmers Chia Lee and his wife Sia Yang, originally from Laos, lease property in Fresno County where they grow 10 acres of assorted vegetables. This bounty includes cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, cucumbers, cilantro, zucchini, green beans, long beans, butternut squash and 3 acres of daikon. Their goal is to purchase their own farming acreage in the next few years.
"I love farming. I want to know and experience what my parents did as farmers," Chia Lee said. "We do everything here--the processing and packaging into boxes, and we send all of the boxes to the packinghouse. We sell items such as cucumber, daikon and others to the farmers' market. Other Hmong people come from Los Angeles to buy our Asian vegetables."
Lee and Yang are satisfied with their skills as farmers, but they are most proud of their four children, who are ages 16, 13, 3 and 9 months. The two older children are straight "A" students.
"They (Chia and Sia) work hard with their family. They are good farmers and they work very hard," Michael Yang said. "Hmong farmers want to start something and have a foundation and then they can go from there. If you don't have that then they may not be here long.
"Fresno is unique because a lot of Southeast Asians are here and we grow all kinds of crops. You might see them at the store and you don't know what they are, but here they are common," Michael Yang said.
The crops grown in Fresno are reaching Vietnamese and Thai restaurants up and down the state including many in Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
"The produce they grow increases what we can do in the kitchen and that translates into what's on our menu and what we can give customers. Without their produce, we do not have a restaurant," Le Colonial Executive Chef Michael Yakura said.
Le Colonial restaurant specializes in a French-Vietnamese fusion of food and is consistently ranked as one of the top restaurants in San Francisco. Yakura says he's only as good as the ingredients he gets, and for that he credits the Hmong farmers of California.
Yakura said he is able to raise the bar, so to speak, because of the many different kinds of specialty Asian produce the farmers are able to grow. He can add dishes to his menu that not all diners may be used to eating. Once they do, Yakura said, they find they like the food, and will often ask for the dishes again. That's good news to the Hmong farmers of Fresno.
"One of my and Michael's main goals is to introduce a lot of these Southeast Asian vegetables to American consumers and increase the consumption of them. That will help the farmers but it will also help the American consumer to have a more diverse palate," Molinar said.
While expanding California's menus is an important part of Michael Yang's job, it's not the only one he truly savors. From the beginning, his main goal has been to be not only a mentor to his fellow Hmong, but to be a friend as well. After all, no one knows their struggles quite like Michael Yang; he's been there, and now he wants to be there for them.
"I like what I do. I love my work and I truly enjoy what I do for a living. I like helping my people," Yang said.
(Tracy Sellers is a reporter with the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at (800) 698-FARM or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)