Plight of WA’s Hmong farmers highlights disparities in US agriculture

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Hmong flower growers were hit hard when farmers’ markets in Puget Sound closed at the start of the pandemic, leaving farmers with a wealth of tulips, dahlias and daffodils – and nowhere to sell them.

One farmer, May Yang, saw a 70% drop in sales that year, barely keeping her family business afloat. But she pulled through with the help of a Hmong cultural organization that pooled its resources to support farmers and found ways to put their flowers in front of customers.

Now, two years later, Yang’s livelihood is turned upside down again: after miscommunication between her landlord and a fellow farmer, she found out in June that she had to leave her rented Snohomish farmland here march. Time is short for her, as her business depends on the annual planting seasons of over 25 varieties of flowers, she grows on approximately 3 acres of farmland.

“It’s very devastating,” Yang said. “Eighty percent of my income depends on the farm.”

For supporters, Yang’s situation is indicative of an annual trend: Hmong farmers are displaced for one reason or another, jostling for farmland so they can come next spring with flowers to sell. Yang’s fate also speaks to the power dynamics between landowners and their farmland tenants, who rarely negotiate formal lease agreements, as well as the long-standing disparity over who owns farmland in the first place.

The Washington Hmong Association, which helped Yang and other farmers keep their businesses alive at the start of the pandemic, now trying to help him and a handful of peers find stable, fertile land where they can transplant their flowers, avoiding the nightmare scenario of losing an entire year of sales.

“Many of them have no other income. They have to rely on earning money from March to October,” said Cynthia Yongvang, the organization’s executive director. “They really need to get the land at the right time.”

Land laws and handshake agreements

The federal government distributed over 240 million acres of land to American citizens after the Civil War. But whites got almost all of that land because Jim Crow laws discriminated against blacks and most other non-white people were barred from U.S. citizenship.

These racist land redistribution laws still have an impact today: Between 2012 and 2014, whites owned 98% of farmland and operated 94% of all US farmland, according to a 2018 study by the University of Portland State. study.

Portland State the researchers also concluded that farmers of color — particularly Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and Hawaiians — “were more likely to be tenants than owners, owned less land, and generated less agricultural wealth per person than their white counterparts.

This finding rings true for Hmong farmers in Washington. Not only are they more likely to rent farmland rather than own it, but they depend almost entirely on farm income to support their families. Many live below the poverty line, earning less than $50,000 a year, according to a 2010 study from Washington State University.

Keeping their horticulture holdings afloat is like having an accommodating landlord, said Yongvang, who is looking to help seven farmers who will soon lose their farmland, including Yang and four others on the Snohomish property.

This spring, Yongvang launched the Washington Hmong Farmers Cooperative, a nonprofit that helps members looking to buy farmland and secure their long-term business prospects instead of having to rely on leases that could end. on short notice.

She learned how indebted farmers can be to their landlords. If a farmer wants to install a greenhouse or a shed, for example, the owner’s approval is paramount. And building structures to expand their businesses can prove difficult for those who might need to move their operations months or years down the road.

“Can you imagine building a greenhouse and now you have to tear it down after all the investment you put into building it?” Yongvang said.

Yang said it wouldn’t be difficult to move her tractor to new farmland – if she finds any – but she knows there’s no moving her greenhouse and shed once she finds it. took them apart.

“I just feel sad because I spent a lot of time building this greenhouse,” Yang said. “It will take time to dismantle it again. I feel like my money is going to be wasted. »

Yang’s Owner told an official from her group of five farmers in the summer of 2020 that they had to leave by March 2023. Yang, however, said that this information never reached her and she found out in June, nearly two years later.

Yang doesn’t think her landlord, Fred Zylstra, has wronged her, and she hopes he’ll let her stay longer. Zylstra said he might be able to offer a few more weeks, but he needed the farmland to grow feed for his livestock next spring.

“I felt like I did my part,” Zylstra said. “I informed the person who I think would spread the word to the whole family. Now this creates a bad situation for them. I hate to see this for anyone.

At the heart of Yang’s situation is the fact that there was never a formal lease agreement between her, the other farmers and Zylstra. It’s common for Hmong farmers, said Bee Cha, who for 16 years connected farmers with resources and helped them find land.

Every year, Cha helps Hmong farmers relocate, either because landlords don’t want to renew their leases or because of land issues like poor irrigation, poor soil or flooding.

In the worst-case scenario, Cha said, landlords negotiate one- or two-year handshake deals with farmers. And without official papers, Cha said landlords, who are almost always white, can simply remove tenants if they want to reallocate their land.

“Tenants always have the short end of the stick because you have a lot to lose,” Cha said.

The language barrier between Hmong farmers and white landowners doesn’t help either, and farmers feel compelled to simply go along with what their landlord wants, especially when their main source of income depends on the proper functioning of the firm, said Cha.

“You don’t speak the language and you don’t know how contractual things work,” he said. “The owners are mostly white and are seen as powerful landowners, and they have legal and political ties.”

In other words: if a landlord doesn’t offer a formal lease, Hmong farmers aren’t going to ask for one.

A narrow path to farmland ownership

The best way to overcome the challenges of renting farmland is to simply purchase your own land.

But for many Hmong farmers, it’s not so easy.

Chayeng Xiong, a Hmong farmer who rents two acres in Carnation, considers himself lucky: his landlord is friendly and he hasn’t had any recent problems renting land. But since took over the flower business from her parents more than five years ago, he said he wanted the autonomy to make his own decisions without needing the owner’s approval.

Xiong knows state or federal help is out there, but he said he doesn’t know where to turn for information and resources — and he doesn’t know how to navigate the documents required.

The prospect of having to move one day, uproot her flower bulbs and replant them elsewhere, adds pressure for Xiong.

“I would hate to dig every single one of them and move somewhere else,” Xiong said.

But crisp in the surprisingly white The sphere of farmland ownership has proven difficult for farmers of color, especially Hmong farmers like Xiong who are unfamiliar with federal aid and have little knowledge of the bureaucratic process and its obstacles.

Friendly Vang-Johnson, a community organizer and daughter of Hmong farmers, learned this firsthand when she tried to buy farmland in 2021. She, like most other people of color, needed help. a loan to buy 5 acres of land in Redmond, but hit a roadblock while trying to get federal support.

The US Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency offers loans at lower interest rates than banks, but requires extensive paperwork before beginning an approval process that could take up to two months..

To be approved, loan applicants must also show the USDA a signed purchase agreement with an owner agreeing to sell to them and no one else – an important commitment when a buyer’s loan application is weeks or months away from approval.

Vang-Johnson said it’s hard to see why a white landowner would go through this long and uncertain process with someone they don’t already know well, such as a family member, close friend or member. from the rural community – who are also likely to be white.

She added that a white landowner would also be unlikely to enter into this process with a Hmong farmer if other interested parties are willing to make more attractive offers, such as payment in cash.

“They basically have to get into a whiteness-based system,” Vang-Johnson said. “It requires the benevolence of a white person.”

She offered a simple first step towards solving the problem: The USDA should pre-approve loan applications.

“If the USDA could pre-approve people, it would just put us on a better footing so that when we approach a seller, we can say we’ve already gone through the USDA programs, we’re vetted, we’re serious buyers,” Vang-Johnson said.

Yang, the farmer from Snohomish, would ideally like to buy her own land. But right now, she’s focused on arriving next spring with flowers to sell.

To do that, Yang would have to transplant his flowers to new farmland before the end of October, putting some of his varieties, like his tulips, on track to bloom as expected in the spring.

The same cannot be said for its peonies, whose three-year growth cycle would be disrupted by a move this month or in the spring. Either way, Yang said she would suffer a significant loss in sales.

“I don’t want to think too much,” Yang said. “It’s too stressful for me right now.”