Farmers look for land

WOODINVILLE – The land is good here. But looking north, Chamee Yang sees a much better future in Monroe for her family’s farm.

Like other Hmong families who are farming in the Sammamish Valley near Woodinville in King County, Yang is hoping to find more productive – and less costly – land to farm in Snohomish County.

As her mother, Xia Yang, cut huge handfuls of purple delphiniums from the family’s plot of poppies, cosmos and baby’s breath, Chamee Yang explained why they were ready to leave the land they have leased for almost 14 years.

“The soil is not very good anymore,” she said. “Over there, everything grows very well.”

Lease costs for the family’s 1 1/2 acres have been climbing. And though $600 a season may not sound like much, it’s significant when added to the costs of seeds, equipment and other supplies.

Yang would like to join the other Hmong families already growing crops in Snohomish County. And the search has started to find land for the Hmongs to farm.

It’s a critical time for the Hmongs, because many who had jobs outside agriculture have been out of work since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The state’s Hmong population is also continuing to grow. Another 15,282 are expected to arrive in the United States in July, and as many as 50 families will be moving to Washington, said Ellen Abellera, executive director for the state’s Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs.

Last week, she and Charlie Chang, executive director of the Hmong Community Association, met with Snohomish County’s agriculture board to see if there are any unused parcels of county-owned land that could be farmed by the Hmong.

Chang said the Hmong would like to use surplus public lands for growing crops, but are also looking for low-cost lands to lease.

John Roney, the county’s agriculture coordinator, said six county properties might be good candidates.

Most of those sites are near Arlington and Snohomish, and using part of those properties for farming would complement the use of the remaining land for parks.

Six other areas with publicly owned acreage, in more urban areas near Marysville and Everett, may also be potential sites for farming.

While more work needs to be done to determine if the land could indeed be used by the Hmong and other groups at little or no cost, county officials have been supportive of the idea.

“It’s a great way to keep agriculture land viable,” County Executive Aaron Reardon said.

Three Hmong families are currently farming in Monroe, Abellera said.

Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia have been coming here since the end of the Vietnam War. They helped American soldiers during the conflict, but fled to refugee camps in Thailand to escape persecution after the war ended.

Today, Hmong families in Washington state have largely settled in the Seattle area, on the east side of Lake Washington and in the Kent Valley. Farming is a traditional livelihood for the Hmong, and it’s estimated that one out of every two flower and produce farmers at Pike Place Market are Hmong.

Finding low-cost land to farm is only one of the hurdles that the families face.

Language barriers have isolated the families, Abellera said, and roughly half of the state’s Hmong live in poverty. Those that are farming need technical assistance and more seven-day-a-week markets such as Seattle’s Pike Place to sell their crops.

“The best way for them to subside is to go back to farming,” Abellera said.

Reporter Brian Kelly: 425-339-3422 or kelly@heraldnet.com.

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