by Kamna Shastri
There are four main ingredients in Friendly Vang-Johnson’s upcoming CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) program: family, Hmong farmers, youth, and giving back to the community. Rooted in goodwill and mutual aid, Friendly Hmong Farms’ CSA is intergenerational and empowers youth and centers food justice while providing the Northwest’s Hmong farmers with a steady source of income. The boxes will be full to the brim with local staples as well as culturally relevant produce grown by Hmong farmers of the Puget Sound region. Signups began March 4 and boxes will be available throughout the greater Seattle area beginning the first week of April.
Friendly Hmong Farms’ CSA program was born out of 2020’s bittersweet mutual aid efforts to support Hmong farmers whose guaranteed sources of income were challenged during the pandemic as farmers markets closed and saw dwindling sales. It was also inspired by Vang-Johnson’s personal desire to have family close by, to have an inclusive space for her children and other BIPOC youth, and to give back to a network of frontline workers and BIPOC people who have kept the world turning even during a life-threatening pandemic.
Vang-Johnson had been trying to convince her mother, Xia Lor Vang, to move from Minnesota to Seattle for years. Every time her mother resisted, Vang-Johnson had an arsenal of rebuttals: “Mom,” she would say, “you are getting older, not younger. Minnesota is getting colder, not warmer.” Moreover, Vang-Johnson pointed out, it would be easier to coordinate caretaking for her mother if they lived together.
But Xia Lor, who owns farmland in Minnesota, always had the same response: “I want to keep farming, that is important to me.” She kept saying no – until this past November during a visit to Seattle.
Since last spring, Vang-Johnson had been heavily involved in coordinating mutual aid efforts for Hmong farmers who had been displaced from selling flowers and produce at farmers markets around the Puget Sound region. Throughout the experience of coordinating pick-up sites and volunteers, Vang-Johnson was inspired watching an organic network materialize. Through social media posts and word of mouth, a community was arranging itself, from the volunteers checking out orders to the loyal customers lining up to get weekly bouquets delivered from Hmong farms throughout the Puget Sound.
Then, as the market season came to a close in November, Vang-Johnson was putting together thank you baskets for volunteers when Xia Lor inquired what the baskets were for.
“I was explaining to my mom, there are a lot of people who have goodwill, they want to create community because they don’t have that sense of community anymore. They don’t know who their neighbors are, they don’t know where the food is coming from. They have seen and beheld these beautiful flowers for decades living in Seattle, but they never knew the story of Hmong people,” Vang-Johnson told her mother. “We have this network of people who are wanting to help.”
When Vang-Johnson suggested that Xia Lor could keep farming in Seattle if they were able to purchase land, Xia Lor was finally sold on the idea of relocating.
Vang-Johnson had been forming a vision throughout the year to create a CSA program that would include produce and flowers from Hmong farmers throughout the region. Bringing her mother in — a farmer herself with a wealth of knowledge — would make it possible to turn the idea into a multi-faceted, community and food justice initiative.
Hmong people first began migrating to the United States as refugees from Laos and Thailand in the late 1970s and early 1980s after the Vietnam War. Many came to the United States through sponsorship and aid programs which helped the refugees relocate and settle across the country, with the majority settling in California and Minnesota.
Vang-Johnson’s family rooted themselves in Minnesota where they became farmers. Like many other Hmong people, the family came from a legacy of farming and cultivating the land in the mountainous terrain of Laos. Vang-Johnson grew up working on her parents’ farm during the summers. When her friends asked her what she was doing for summer vacation, she was always hesitant to tell them about the back-breaking work she took part in every day.
But farming was an impetus for Vang-Johnson to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in policy. Eventually she found herself in Washington, D.C. working for the United States government. About 16 years ago, she moved to Seattle. In Seattle, Vang-Johnson noticed that seeing Hmong farmers at local markets was more of a novelty on the west coast compared to what she had seen in Minnesota, where a majority of famers who sold at local markets were Hmong.
Hmong farmers in Washington have a unique story, said Cynthia Yongvang, Executive Director of the Hmong Association of Washington, one of the organizations responsible for the efforts to organize flower farmers last year. Hmong came to the Seattle area in two waves. The first wave came in the 1970s and ‘80s and were better able to find support to set up agricultural operations through the Indochinese Farm Project, which received funding from King County and Pike Place Market. Many of the flower sellers you may have seen during a casual stroll through the market pre-COVID are Hmong farmers.
Yongvang says that back in Laos, Hmong farmers specialized in produce. The focus on flowers in the U.S. came out of the need to withstand a competitive marketplace. Hmong farmers used organic methods of growing produce and their yield could not match up to those of commercial U.S. farmers who use fertilizers and pesticides. It was hard to make an income.
“They weren’t treating vegetables with chemicals, so it was harder to be competitive with farmers. Because of that Pike Place Market introduced them to flowers,” said Yongvang. Flower farming became lucrative and cost effective for Hmong farmers. They used whatever flowers they could grow on their land to craft beautiful bouquets sold for affordable prices.
For the second wave of Hmong, who arrived in the ‘90s after the Indochinese Farm Project had already been established and absorbed into Pike Place Market, getting access to land and support to set up farming operations has been much more difficult. When the COVID-19 crisis hit, farmers who had been able to rely on Pike Place Market to sell their bouquets had nowhere to go and for those who were renting farmland, still trying to get established, the future looked bleak. That is when the mutual aid efforts began. Now, the Hmong Association of Washington has a website dedicated to online flower orders and pickup. In addition, the Association is creating a Hmong Flower Farmer co-op to support farmers with marketing, outreach, and infrastructure so their flowers can reach beyond the Puget Sound region, since interest to support the farmers has begun to pour in from across the country.
“As members of the co-op we can provide the quantities of flowers required [and] we can invest in the infrastructure. [The] cost will be lower than individual farmers investing in shipping outside of Washington State,” said Yongvang.
Vang-Johnson’s CSA program is also a way to make sure that Hmong farmers’ mutual aid efforts have longevity and do not dry up post-pandemic. The Friendly Hmong Farms’ CSA will include the option to order flowers throughout the season from April – October, bolstering demand and stability for Hmong flower farmers who have a special place in the Puget Sound Area.
Part of the work of Friendly Hmong Farms, and the farm’s CSA, will be to instill youth with an appreciation for where their food comes from and the ecology of the land. Vang-Johnson saw a need to educate youth on food and racial justice as she observed the way her son and his friends were helping out during weekly neighborhood pick-ups. The youth, in their early adolescent years, were excited and full of energy, often motivated by tips and pizza lunches. Vang-Johnson could see they wanted to be involved, but she was keen they understand the real reason behind their summer fun: an effort for social justice, to support Hmong farmers and the broader community during a time of crisis.
“What is really interesting to me is to grow the next generation of farmers, community leaders, who are able to spot racism … to experience in a way that you are not a victim to it and it is not a theoretical concept, but that you have lived it, you’ve processed it, you’ve healed it to a point where now you can combat it and advocate against it,” she said.
Vang-Johnson is currently in the process of crafting a 10-week curriculum that incorporates principles of food justice, sustainability, and racial justice to realize this mission. She plans to take youth to Lee’s Fresh Produce in Kent to pick strawberries; walk through the entrepreneurial aspects of labor, pricing, and selling that can better connect young people to their local food systems; and understand the work that goes behind the fully stocked grocery store shelves we all take for granted. She also wants her own children to know that this connection to the soil is in their blood. “I want my children growing up knowing agriculture is their roots. Agriculture is what sustained us for millennia.”
Giving Back To the Community
The final key ingredient of Friendly Hmong Farm’s CSA is the symbiotic relationships of community, such as those between Hmong farmers and frontline workers, or other BIPOC community members who have stepped up throughout the pandemic and beyond.
In her interview with the Emerald, Vang-Johnson starts to say that “community is about pulling together” but then stops short to point out how cliché this has come to sound despite its truth. “It is about seeing that your experience, your fate, is wrapped up with another’s,” she said instead.
When farmers first rolled up their vans to unload flowers and veggies for neighborhood pick-up last year, they didn’t realize that Vang-Johnson herself was Hmong.
“They didn’t know what to make of that. They were like ‘Why would you help us? You aren’t our sister-in-law, why would you help us?’ I am not directly related to any of the Hmong who are here, so they don’t really know me,” Vang-Johnson explained.
As a cultural community, Hmong people tend to keep a low profile and stick to themselves, said Yongvang of the Hmong Association of Washington. The mutual aid efforts, flower pick-ups, and CSA boxes were a surprise to farmers; they were in disbelief that there was a larger community that wanted to rally around them and support their livelihoods.
“They didn’t think that people would help,” said Yongvang. “So having everyone coming out and supporting them brought that kind of hope in them that at the end of the day… people will show up and help us through this pandemic together.”
In many ways, Vang-Johnson’s work last year was aimed at honoring people during the pandemic in any way possible. Whether raising money for Black Lives Matter or the Hmong Association’s Youth Program, or by giving frontline workers bouquets in appreciation for their service, the spirit of reciprocity is baked into the CSA’s model on all fronts.
“Part of that is making sure the veggies we grow are culturally relevant,” said Vang-Johnson.
For instance, in an open poll set up by the farm to help gauge interest in Friendly Hmong Farms’ CSA box, customers can choose from greens like Bok choy, Chinese mustard and Malabar spinach; from collard greens and turnip greens; Italian herbs; stable root veggies and salad greens; and bitter melon, among others.
“We have the resources, the farmers have the knowledge, but we can’t grow it unless we have the customers. And we want to grow it because we want to give back to our BIPOC communities.”
Vang-Johnson is in the process of securing a couple acres of farmable land in Redmond, a process that is tedious and riddled with paperwork, but she hopes everything will pan out smoothly soon. She hopes to create a space where her mother can grow vegetables and where young BIPOC youth can come to learn about farming ecology and principles of racial justice, food justice, and the enduring reciprocity between people and the land.
Kamna Shastri is a Seattle-based writer and media creative with a love for place-based community storytelling and journalism that centers personal narrative, identity, and social justice. Her print work has appeared in The Seattle Globalist, Real Change, The International Examiner and her audio work on KUOW, KEXP, and KBCS. More of her stuff at www.kamnashastri.wordpress.com. Twitter: @KShastri2, IG: ms_kamna.
Featured Image: Vang-Johnson’s daughters Ella and Phoebe help pack veggie boxes in the yard. Photo courtesy of Friendly Hmong Farms.
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