A Tradition of Farming Being Abandoned
There was a time when Fong Tching’s four children worked the fields and accompanied him to the market to help sell their strawberries, eggplants, sugar cane and 60 other crop varieties.
But one by one, the kids are leaving the family business, going to college to pursue more lucrative professions in pharmaceuticals and engineering.
“It’s just me and my wife working 30 acres by ourselves,” said Tching as he surveyed a field of ripened berries.
Tching, 45, is an ethnic Hmong, a tribe from the hills of Southeast Asia with a long history in agriculture. His children are among the first generation of Hmong in the U.S. that are not farming.
Although no one is tallying how many younger ethnic Hmong are abandoning tradition, leaders in the immigrant community and agriculture industry observers say the trend is striking.
It is a familiar pattern among immigrant farmers: The number of Japanese American farm laborers who first came to the state in the early 1900s dwindled after World War II.
“They grew up and saw the toughness of farming, their parents working year-round, and they saw that hard labor doesn’t necessarily pay off,” said Manuel Cunha, president of Nisei Farmers League of Fresno. His group was founded in 1971 by second-generation Japanese American farmers, but most of its 1,000 current members have no Japanese ancestry, Cunha said.
For the Hmong, the same kind of shift means a loss of tradition that dates back centuries. The ethnic group subsisted on farming across generations of migration, until many of the men were recruited by the U.S. to fight communists during the war in Vietnam.
After the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, about 44,000 Laotians, mostly Hmong, fled to camps in Thailand, according to an analysis by the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.
Many Hmong in Southeast Asia continue farming. Those who came to the United States have settled primarily in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The 2000 census counted 102,773 Hmong in the U.S., with about 30,000 of them in the Fresno area.
Tching said he immediately rented farmland when he came to Fresno in 1988. The work allows freedom -- “You’re your own boss” -- but requires long hours.
On Fridays, he and his wife often work into the night packing vegetables, sleep for three hours, then make a three-hour drive to a farmers’ market in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“When I came here, I didn’t have a chance to go to school. What I knew was farming, so that’s what I did to raise my family,” Tching said. “I don’t blame them for not wanting this hard life.”
Even one of the most successful Hmong farmers in the area says his children don’t plan to inherit the business. The kids don’t want to deal with the challenges of farming in California, including the high costs of insurance, water and labor, along with rising competition from imported crops.
“I work from 6 a.m. to midnight everyday. If I divide my salary, I’m making $3.50 an hour,” said Tzexa Lee, co-owner of Cherta Farms, which grows Asian vegetables. “My children tell me, ‘You’re poorer now than when we were born.’ ”
Michael Yang is an example of a Hmong who came of age in the United States and didn’t follow his parents into the fields. Instead, Yang, who immigrated at age 9, went to college in Northern California, then returned to Fresno as a farm advisor.
The Hmong have struggled to learn new farming techniques and to adhere to state regulations, said Yang, whose job at the University of California Cooperative Extension Service is to reach out to the roughly 1,000 Asian-owned family farms in Fresno County and help them better manage and market their crops. He also runs a radio show on which Hmong callers exchange farming news and advice.
The majority of Hmong who came to California’s Central Valley are farming on a small scale, Yang said, growing exotic crops such as bok choy, daikon, bitter melon and Chinese string beans.
There is a growing demand for such vegetables. In 2004, “Oriental vegetables” accounted for $15.7 million in sales, according to the Fresno County agricultural commissioner’s office, up from $10.3 million the year before.
Community leaders say they’re glad to see young Hmong pursuing higher-paying jobs, but they say they’re troubled by the notion that the next generation doesn’t consider farming a professional option.
“They don’t realize that they can expand their parents’ business and operate it like a real company,” said LoXing Kiatoykaysi, director of Hmong American Community, a community support organization in Fresno.
Kiatoykaysi plans to develop programs to encourage young Hmong to enter the field.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers five scholarships annually to Asian students who plan to study agriculture sciences in college. The scholarships cover full tuition, room and board, and summer jobs, yet each year few students apply, said Sharon Nance, a rural sociologist for the department.
Despite such efforts to recruit new farmers, Cherta Farms co-owner Lee said he believed that few Hmong would follow his footsteps.
“It’s sad we’ll lose our traditions,” he said. “But our kids will be better off.”