August 2014: National Hmong American Farmers

By Alexa Kaczmarski, Communications and Development Intern

This month, CFJC would like to highlight an organization that has made an incredible, positive impact on its community over the years, but due to uncontrollable environmental conditions, is seeing that community struggle. We’re talking about Hmong farmers in the Central Valley suffering loss of their livelihoods because of the drought. The National Hmong American Farmers (NHAF), founded in 2003 by Chukou Thao, is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Hmong American farm culture and promoting economic and social self-sufficiency to independent farmers. The Hmong are an ethnic group of people, originating in central Siberia, who have spread across northern China and now inhabit the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, primarily. Hmong farmers grow numerous culturally unique crops, including bokchoy, lemongrass, daikon, and Thai eggplant.

NHAF provides technical assistance to over 500 individual farmers per year in areas such as marketing, business workshops, tax preparation, farm and labor laws, and practical skills for managing diseases and pests on the farm site. The nonprofit provides a culturally appropriate and sensitive mechanism for California Hmong to hone business skills and interact productively with local government offices. A resource training center for small farmers located in the Central Valley and videos and further information listed on the NHAF website walk independent farmers through the process of interacting with local USDA chapters and educates them about loans, crop insurance and other valuable local programs. Through all that it does—student tours of farms, community garden creation, national conferences, and providing resources, NHAF aims to bridge cultural barriers and help Hmong farmers access the resources they need.

I recently talked with Executive Director Chukou Thao about his experience coming to California, growing up in a farming family, and his understanding of how deeply this drought is affecting local Hmong farmers. Chukou came to America when he was six years old, after growing up a refugee in war-torn Laos. When he arrived in America, the Hmong people were scattered around the country, but soon, many began gathering in Fresno to farm. Farming became a viable and fairly lucrative prospect for Hmong immigrants—they were some of the first people to grow strawberries in the Central Valley region, and the first few families that arrived in Fresno made a lot of money. Though often more successful monetarily than in their previous jobs, Hmong farmers and families still faced significant discrimination and prejudice in Fresno. Chukou recounts being bullied and beat up in school for not understanding the culture, and seeing business owners taking advantage of Hmong farmers because they didn’t understand the language. Fresno was yet another battle ground for Hmong refugees, though one of discrimination and dishonesty instead of bullets and explosions.

For Chukou, starting NHAF just made sense. Hmong culture values family, sticking together, and gathering with other Hmong to help each other out. Knowing this and seeing the discrimination that his people were still facing, Chukou left his government job to start the nonprofit organization and has been met with great success. He believes it is important for each and every one of us to tell our own stories and not rely on larger institutions to tell them for us, because “nobody can tell the story better than you who lived it.”

Chukou explains that starting the nonprofit was not so much a career choice—“this isn’t a job, it’s more of a life calling,” he says. “When you find your passion in life, you’ll know it. People want you to fail, and you want to prove them wrong. You can’t sleep, you’ll just want to get up and do it. We all feed into the food system, it’s bigger than just one person and the work I do. That’s why it’s so important.” Safe to say, this work is Chukou’s passion.

This is the driest year on record for California. And while that may simply mean water rations and brown lawns for some families, for others it means failed crops and no income. Chukou estimated that over 60 Hmong families have lost their farms this season, as the drought makes growing food impossible and business is unsustainable after a few years. Coverage of crop failure is present in the media, but Chukou implores us to talk about this drought from the human angle.

“We’re talking about human livelihoods, human lives, not a plant that we can say ‘oh, we’ll just plant a new one next season.’” He reminds us that it can get easy to expect your paycheck in a government or otherwise ensured job, but farmers must rely on the land to produce enough food to give them a steady income. As we have seen this growing season, that is not always the case. “Some farmers are taking this really hard, sometimes you almost take it as a personal failure—could I have done more, could I have tried harder? People are saying ‘this is the end of my life.’” He described the sense of hopelessness, depression, and fear felt when a family’s entire savings has been put into a land, and lost to environmental conditions outside of their control.

There are no easy solutions to the hardships the Fresno Hmong are feeling. Chukou has some ideas, though, for where to start. “Whether it’s local or over in Washington, D.C., we need a safe place for people to have a voice, where they’re not going to be attacked for what they have to say.” He wants the conversation tailored so it’s culturally sensitive for different groups of people, and most importantly, he wants everything people say to be taken seriously. “We need food banks, but also mental health for Hmong farmers in Fresno,” resources that nobody else is talking about providing. Knowing that the drought and water shortages are so severe that people are falling into serious depressions and unsure if their lives will go on should motivate all of us to not waste a drop, and keep the conversation going. The information is shocking and heartbreaking, but needs to be shared.

Despite the grim implications of the drought, at the end of our talk, Chukou remained hopeful. “We don’t do this for the money, it’s about the quality of life that people have. And it’s working; we’re changing the landscape of this country.” My only hope is that we can change it in time to make a difference for all farmers struggling to produce enough food to survive.

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