The piled-high stands of perfect produce, grown by the Hmong community, are one of the first things that catch the eye at the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market, in Eau Claire, WI. Eau Claire has a relatively small Hmong community, but nearly all the families grow 4 to 6 acres of vegetables, using only hand labor and traditional intensive farming methods for maximum harvests through the season.
Paula, a college student in California with Hmong parents, traveled with her mother to visit and help her grandparents farming their small plot in Eau Claire. Her grandfather arrived in this country as a refugee in 1975 and they currently farm 4 acres, with succession crops quickly planted as soon as an earlier crop has been harvested.
“My Mom loves the farming,” said Paula, “My uncles and their wives help out. Some of them come from Milwaukee almost every weekend to help, one 9-year-old grandson particularly loves helping at the market.”
For the two weeks they visit and help out, Paula and her Mother worked hard. “We got up at 4:30, had breakfast and were in the field working by 5 a.m.” Paula helped pick every one of the crops that were in the garden; she washed, trimmed and picked out the blemished vegetables and fruits.
The only traditional Hmong items Paula’s grandparents grow are Hmong melons, which she says is more like a giant cucumber. ‘It’s more like a vegetable than a melon. They are served two different ways,’ she explained, ‘Usually they’re cut in half, the flesh is scooped out using a spoon, then water and sugar are added.” The mixture can be used on rice or for drinking. The Hmong melons are also chopped and added to rice, like a cucumber.
Deidra Barrickman, the manager at the Market, added some more details about the hard work involved in growing those big piles of perfect produce. “I’ve done visits to their gardens. It’s hard to believe how hard they work until you’ve seen it. I saw one lady, maybe 4’9’’ tall, carrying a huge armload of green onions from the garden to a table, where she added it to another even larger pile. The onions would all need to be peeled, a time-consuming job.”
The Hmong don’t have irrigation water, unless they have plots beside their homes. They depend on Mother Nature. Sometimes Mother Nature overdoes a good thing. “Hard rains washed out seeds and small plants two different times last year. It’s not usual for that to happen, but it does happen every so many years,” said Barrickman. The losses can be heartbreaking to growers working with a relatively short season to begin with.
The Hmong see their produce as a business that depends on top quality. Prices are often very similar among the Hmong vendors. To differentiate themselves, they have to have a better product. Quite a few of them are related to each other.
There is competition, but if one vendor is sold out of a given item, he or she will refer customers to another vendor who still has product. “When one vendor shows up at the market with a new item,” Barrickman continued, “it isn’t long until the rest of the community is growing it too. For example, years back, one vendor began growing raspberries. Within 5 years, all the Hmong vendors were growing raspberries.”
The same things happened with asparagus. “For a long time, we hardly had any asparagus in the market. This year, though, on the second Saturday market, when the weather had been a little warmer than usual, we had 32 vendors, and just about everyone had asparagus for sale.
“We normally have around 64 vendors at a time. There are a total of 80 potential vendors, but some only have seasonal products like apples or berries, and when they don’t have product, I try to plug someone else in the stall.
“I don’t plan to add any more vegetable vendors until someone retires,” Barrickman continued. “Just over half of my stands are vegetable vendors right now, and I want them to be able to make money. I also think it makes a better market overall to have more diversity of products.”
Gradually a few innovations are creeping into the traditional ways of doing things. Some of the Hmong growers now have coolers, or use large refrigerators.
“Families spend all day Friday picking and washing for the Saturday market, and having the ability to cool their produce, particularly berries, helps them to be sure their products will be top quality.”
Last year, two Hmong families applied for and received government grants to help them to purchase greenhouses. “They’re both good-sized greenhouses,” explained Barrickman, “The grants covered half the cost.”
One family, who put up their greenhouse a bit later, planted potted perennials and bulbs for forcing. The other family grew greenhouse dahlias. “Dahlias are very popular at the market as cut flowers, and the greenhouse made it possible for the family to continue to supply their customers with dahlias later in the season.
“Also, about mid-summer, I started hearing talk of greenhouse-grown lettuce,” Barrickman added. “One of the new greenhouse owners has 6 acres, and she’s doing it all herself. Her children have gone to college and gotten other jobs. That’s happening to a lot of our Hmong vendors. Education for their children is important to them. The face of the market here in Eau Claire is eventually going to change because of it.”
The Hmong Community in Eau Claire is celebrating its 40th anniversary of arriving in Wisconsin this year. This group settled in Wisconsin soon after arriving in the U.S. as refugees to escape persecution for helping the U.S., at great personal cost, in Laos and Vietnam during the “Secret War.” First the actual combat soldiers were allowed to come here after the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam in 1975. Five long years later legislation was finally passed allowing their families to join them. They have known much hardship, and are grateful for the freedom from persecution and the opportunities they have found in America.