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Laotian farmers produce for farmers markets, reinvent river valley

DATELINE: CARNATION, Wash. - October 6, 2000, Friday

Hmong farmers, growing flowers and produce for sale at the region's markets, are bring new color to the Snoqualmie River Valley.

A generation ago, this was dairy country, with milk barns and hay fields. Then came development, as the region's population burgeoned in response to high-tech prosperity.

But over the past five years, more than 60 Hmong families have leased plots - a few acres here, a few there - to raise flowers and produce, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported in Thursday editions.

"They have played a major role in revitalizing the market and agriculture in eastern King County," said Mark Musick, farmer liaison for the Pike Place Market. "These people are returning agriculture to places where it has been abandoned."

While the total acreage is small, the Laotian farmers have become a mainstay at local fresh-produce markets.

Half the producers at the Pike Place Market are Hmong, and Musick credits them with the market's strongest growth spurt since World War II.

They're also stocking markets in Seattle's Fremont and University District neighborhoods - and in Everett, Edmonds and Snohomish.

Last year, 17 Hmong families sold crops in Edmonds - and there were so many wanting to sell flowers that market manager Marie Brayman had to limit the number of newcomers.

The Hmong, an agrarian mountain people, were recruited by the CIA to fight the North Vietnamese along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War. When Laos fell to communism in 1975, thousands fled.

Since then, more than 150,000 Hmong refugees have settled in the United States. With limited English, many flocked to agricultural communities in Minnesota, California and North and South Carolina. An estimated 60,000 Hmong live in California's San Joaquin Valley - the largest concentration outside Asia.

It's unclear how many Hmong live in Washington, but there are an estimated 10,000 Laotian immigrants in the state.

In Carnation, about a dozen Hmong flower farms have popped up along a one mile stretch of West Snoqualmie River Road, transforming once-fallow pasture into brilliant bursts of flowers.

At Jubilee Farm, a dairy until the 1980s, Kao Lee Cha, 44, is among seven Hmong families leasing plots of 3 to 5 acres. Down the road, five other families lease almost two-thirds of Bob Seana's 31-acre property.

"I walk out my door now and it's like living with God," said Seana, a civil engineer who bought the century-old dairy eight years ago. "It's flowers all over and it could not be more beautiful."

Seana once produced hay, but the farmer who bought his crop sold his cows. Six years ago, he agreed to lease land to a Hmong farmer. Now he leases to that farmer's brother-in-law, his father and another relative.

Friday nights are busy as the tight-knit Hmong community prepares for weekend markets.

A cell phone hooked to her back pocket, Cha plucks dahlias and eucalyptus branches to fill a dozen white buckets in her blue minivan.

The work is "easy to me. I didn't learn, I just know how to do it," said Cha, who farmed in Laos and has been farming here for six years.

Her eighth-grade daughter finds the work "OK some days. It's boring some days. It's kind of hard. It takes forever, the weeding."

Some worry the Hmong efforts will flood the market and drive prices down.

"The American people know how to market their produce to other people," said farmer Fong Cha, 45, who is not related to Kao Lee Cha.

"We only go to markets. We cram into one area and it drives the prices down. They're not used to making money so a few dollars is a lot."

Musick says a few farmers have sold their produce to subscription programs and grocery stores. Some have become certified in organic farming, which most already practice.

Fong Cha and his wife have bought their own land but cannot afford machinery, so they spent a year digging tree stumps to clear their 28 acres in Fall City. He estimates that working 14 hours a day, seven days a week, brings in about $ 60,000 for two people - before spending $15,000 on seeds and equipment.

Some younger Hmong generation hope for jobs in the high-tech field.

"It's not my thing," said one 17-year-old, whose parents farm a 4-acre plot in Woodinville. "I'd rather stay out of it."