Hmong farmer Chongyee Xiong stands in front of rows of dead crops that had to go unharvested due to Covid-19. Photo by Donald A. Promnitz
Written by Donald A. Promnitz
On the 18 acres of land he leased in Sanger, Hmong American farmer Chongyee Xiong has been forced to watch as his crops wither and die.
“Since the pandemic, everything I’ve planted is just wasted,” he said. “You don’t get anything. It hit big time.”
He pointed to what was once a row of cilantro — one of his best selling crops. But this year, the dried leaves are disintegrating between his fingers. And while much of his farm is still green right now, Xiong says it’s only a matter of time before the rest of his farm is the same way — a total loss.
Making matters worse, Xiong paid for the lease, the seeds and all the materials to farm using the savings he made at his job as groundskeeper at Clovis Unified School District.
“I would say it’s a 100% loss,” he said. “I can’t sell anything — I didn’t get any penny back.”
According to the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension (UCCE) in Fresno, there were nearly 2,000 Asian farms in the San Joaquin Valley area in 2015. Roughly 70% of these were run by Hmong growers. They typically grow the crops their tenants previously cultivated back in Laos — including Thai peppers, bok choy, snow peas and lemongrass — and are some of the most prominent growers of strawberries in the Valley.
But when Covid-19 hit and shelter-in-place measures were implemented, Asian markets and restaurants that readily bought their produce either shut down or saw their business rapidly drop.
According to Blong Xiong, executive director of the Asian Business Institute and Resource Center (ABIRC), the Hmong business community in Fresno has been hit particularly hard by the economic consequences of the pandemic.
A recent assessment was done by Blong Xiong and ABIRC epidemiologist Carmen T. Mendoza to get an idea of the damage. The assessment found that 85.7% saw a decline in customer attendance and revenue from sales, while 81% of them experienced a lack of income and difficulty paying their bills. Another problem outlined was the inability to harvest due to lack of labor — a problem experienced by 80% of those who responded.
And while the ABIRC noted that the sample size was small (only 21 respondents), it painted a bleak picture for some of the most agriculturally diverse farms in Central California.
“If you’re a small farmer, you’re living month-to-month,” Blong Xiong said. “A lot of our farmers said that they were either close to being closed off or losing their jobs, losing their farms, couldn’t pay their rent — and it was hard.”
During the shelter-in-place order, Blong Xiong says growers lost crucial access to markets, restaurants, wholesale distributors and retailers. These small growers, or “micro farmers,” have found their crops expiring in their fields instead. They’re losses that the Hmong can’t afford. It means the inability for many to pay the leases for the land they tend, or even to feed their families.
Federal aid has been offered to farms at this time, but Blong Xiong says that the Hmong often do not qualify. Barriers also exist in the lengthy process of application.
“Technically, there’s nothing directly from the feds or the state right now that’s going to address their needs,” he said.
Farmer Chue Lee applied for loans through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but found out he didn’t have enough employees to qualify for aid. With a loss of about 70%, Lee may not be able to afford the lease for the two portions of land he has in Fresno County, which together amount to roughly 12 acres. Meanwhile, his own ability to access customers has been made more difficult by his wife’s heart condition — which would make a Covid-19 infection devastating for her.
“Everything that we make, all that we’re saving now is just like already out there and there’s no help for us at all,” Lee said. “We tried to apply for all the releases, but there’s nothing that fits into our category.”
Michael Yang, an ag assistant with UCCE, said there are also issues with technical literacy with the farmers. And without training with a computer, accessing aid online becomes nearly impossible. It increases the odds of losing everything —something he already did once in fleeing to the U.S.
“It’s pretty tough when you come to a country where you have to relearn everything and the first thing you know is just farming,” Yang said. “And just bringing the clothes on your back is pretty much what you have.”
However, Hmong and other Asian American farmers have not been on their own on the local level. Organizations like the ABIRC have been promoting farms, restaurants and businesses and helping them through initiatives like the Micro Farmer Crop Buyback Program, which was launched at the end of May. The program allows specialty crop farmers to sell their crops to local volunteer partners like HandsOn Central California and to local churches to feed families in the Valley dealing with food insecurity.
However, local aid can only go so far and without a good year in 2021 or outside help, the Hmong run the risk of losing everything all over again.