Hmong Growers in Massachusetts Gain an Edge
|Hmong and Cambodian farmers in Massachusetts grow ethnic produce and sell it at farmers markets and Boston restaurants thanks to a community-based organization that helps them access land. |
- Photo by Gus Schumacher Jr.
After Maria Moreira befriended a group of immigrant Hmong farmers in nearby Fitchburg, Mass., one of them asked to start a small garden on an unused corner of her dairy farm. The Hmong woman virtually transformed what had been an unsightly weedy patch, working early in the morning and late at night to grow cucumbers, squash and zucchini. Her yield astonished Moreira and encouraged her to start renting other parcels to Hmong growers who were aching to get their hands dirty.
They love the land, said Moreira, who feels a special kinship to the Hmong because she, too, immigrated to the United States (from Portugal) in the 1960s. She and her husband, Manny, rent the land to the Hmong group partly for the income, but mainly to help them gain a foothold in their new land. In what other country in the world can someone come in, not speak a word of English, and realize his dreams? she asked. Here, it can be done.
Moreira now teaches the Hmong group about environmentally benign pest management strategies in a project partially funded by SARE to discourage prolific use of agri-chemicals. When they use chemicals, it can be harmful, said Moreira, who has enlisted experts from the University of Massachusetts to work with the Hmong farmers in the field. Once they get the education, the farmers do it right.
Her efforts became the impetus for a coalition of agricultural advocates to form the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project. Since 1998, the project has helped beginning farmers, primarily Hmong and Cambodian immigrants, to access land and obtain the skills necessary to grow and market vegetables. Many of the crops are native to their homelands and, as exotic Asian produce, can command impressive prices at Boston and New York markets. These profits remain with the farmers.
The New Entry project places Asian immigrants with mentor farmers who lease land to them. Sharing machinery, irrigation and chores like plowing and tilling means farmers can minimize operating costs and time needed on the farm, particularly because many also hold full-time jobs.
The Massachusetts project faces impressive challenges, from the language barrier many of the immigrants speak only Hmong or Khmer to locating farmland in one of the most developed, expensive areas of the country.
Its challenging to find farmland, said Hugh Joseph, director of The New Entry project at Tufts Universitys Agriculture, Food and Environment Program. Were under enormous development pressure, and housing prices are booming. In fact, it takes the group up to three years to find land and negotiate long-term leases for the Hmong and Cambodian farmers.
Yet, with local generosity, the program is growing. John Ogonowski, a former commercial airline pilot who was captain of one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, had leased 12 acres, or one-fifth of his land, to the program. He also worked alongside the families as a true mentor, advising about production, harvest and marketing, and building them a greenhouse and irrigation pond. His efforts invigorated the project.
The concentration of Asians in the Boston area, particularly the Vietnamese community in Lowell and residents in the citys Chinatown, creates markets for locally produced Asian crops. For example, gardeners raising pea tendrils have found a lucrative market, with added nitrogen-building and soil-enhancing benefits from growing legumes. They cut the plant tops every few days, handle them carefully and deliver them promptly to high-end stores such as Bread and Circus, Asian grocery stores and other specialty wholesalers. Chefs are finding that the unusual-looking leafy vegetable makes an attractive addition to upscale plates, Joseph said.
The farmers also find a receptive audience at the Lowell Farmers Market and other venues. Joseph, who founded the market two decades ago, said Asian immigrants have trolled the area looking for fresh greens like they used to see in their homeland.
People were flooding the market, looking for greens, but no farmers grew them, he recalled. Here is an opportunity to put some of these folks on the land. A high percentage of them were small-scale farmers in their homelands, and farming is in their blood.
Part of the New Entry project dovetails with Moreiras efforts to better inform immigrant groups about pesticide use and to lessen their reliance on chemicals. Workshops on sustainable vegetable management often involve both Laotian and Hmong translators, punctuated by pauses for comprehension in their native languages. The project has developed videotapes that growers can watch in their homes to provide visual lessons, and the farmers seem an appreciative audience.
Joseph intends to increase the programs reach. In 2002, he hired Moreira and, with other new staff, wants to graduate the group of about 20 farmers to larger plots. Meanwhile, he juggles a waiting list of interested growers.
Were trying to get the formula worked out so farmers can make a reasonable summer income from their limited production plots, he said.
Hmong and Cambodian farmers in northeast Massachusetts
|Educating Team |
The New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, Lowell, Massachusetts
|Challenges Addressed |
Providing farmland with low-cost leases
Securing mentors from the ag community
|Connection Strategies |
Training and supporting program assistants from within the community
Long-term commitment from educating team
|Teaching Methods |
Dual translation teams