Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine Seattle’s Pike Place Market without flowers: tulips in spring, dahlias in summer, dried bouquets in winter. But three decades ago, that future was not assured. The market drew only a few dozen farmers selling produce there on busy Saturdays.
Around that time, Seattle became home to a growing number of Hmong refugees, former farmers who faced reprisals in their home countries for providing support to United States troops during the Vietnam War. Steve Evans, who became the market’s farm specialist in 1981, saw in these refugees an opportunity to cultivate the next generation of Pike Place farmers.
Today, nearly 40 percent of Pike Place Market farm vendors are of Hmong descent. But the transformation didn’t happen naturally. It took money, land and sustained efforts to help those original families learn skills such as operating mechanized equipment and handling American money.
Agricultural experts are looking to minority and immigrant groups — from Latino farmworkers to new refugees — as the Northwest’s next generation of farmers, helping fill the void as today’s aging and overwhelmingly white farm owners retire. But establishing a profitable farm isn’t easy for someone who’s not comfortable with English or has never opened a bank account.
The Hmong farming experience in this country, now 30 years in the making, offers three important lessons:
It is possible for an immigrant population to find a successful niche in the Puget Sound farming ecosystem.
It won’t happen without a lot of support.
The challenges never disappear.
Much of the Hmong farmers’ success can be traced to the nonprofit Indochinese Farm Project, which helped train Hmong refugees and operated as a farm “incubator” on county-owned land in Woodinville. Evans remembers the extensive skill building, like teaching refugees how to keep tractors running and plant in rows. New farmers had to learn basic vocabulary, how to price items and what American consumers demanded.
“One of the big things was to teach them what our money looked like, the difference between a $1 and a $5 [bill],” Evans said. “We had to teach them rudimentary English phrases. We did role playing exercises where we were the buyer and they were the vendor.”
The marginal land that the Hmong could afford to rent was a blessing and a curse. It lacked water rights, and one of the thirstiest crops was flowers. Those pioneering farmers inadvertently stumbled onto an untapped market, growing lush bouquets that tourists and downtown office workers loved.
Although the incubator disbanded in the late 1980s, nearly 100 Hmong families still operate local farm enterprises. But they now face the same problems that bedevil many farmers: finding affordable and decent land, divining what consumers want and distinguishing themselves in a crowded marketplace.
Hmong farmers survived because they found a viable cash crop: flowers. But that success will be hard to replicate for newer immigrant farmers. They face competition from existing businesses and other aspiring farmers, particularly if all they’re growing is beets, carrots and vegetables that you can buy at a half dozen other farmers market booths.
So we’re faced with a vexing Catch-22. We know we’re going to need new farmers to replace the ones poised to retire. The people who already work hard at growing our food deserve a chance to take their place, alongside young, unencumbered hipsters and white-collar professionals snapping up farmland with stock options. But it remains as hard as ever for immigrants and non-native English speakers to compete with experienced businesspeople and new growers who don’t have to bridge vast cultural gaps just to chat with customers or chefs.
The Hmong experience shows that it’s possible for minority and socially disadvantaged farmers to succeed, but it takes active support from the broader community. So the question for people working in food and farm circles today — and, really, anyone who eats — is this: How much does it matter to you?