AS SURE AS the sun shines in August, dahlias crown summer with dazzling blooms. This year’s display is glorious and familiar when so much is still off-kilter.
For more than 30 years, from early August to frost, Hmong flower farmers have filled Pike Place Market stands with buckets of dahlias. Few people know that the Hmong grow and harvest the floral bounty they sell in their daystalls. During a typical growing season, visiting tourists, cruise passengers and locals willing to navigate the crowds snap pictures of the lavish display as they shop from a rainbow of blossoms.
But there’s nothing typical about the 2020 growing season.
Xee Yang-Schell was born in Laos and came to Seattle with her family in 1980. Tara Clark calls herself a Human Connectivity Conservationist. As a professional photographer and social entrepreneur, the former Peace Corps volunteer believes in people, preserving stories and supporting community. Action and heart are her currency.
Clark and Yang-Schell became friends through Clark’s initiative to collect stories from global citizens who call Seattle home. Last year, they began visiting farms throughout the Puget Sound area, collecting stories of Hmong flower farmers, with Yang-Schell recording experiences and Clark capturing images.
Then a global pandemic arrived. When the market shut down in March, Clark reached out to Yang-Schell, whose parents are longtime Pike Place flower vendors, to see how the family was faring.
“The Hmong community is independent and resilient, and as farmers, they are no strangers to hard work,” Clark tells me. “But for many, the market is their only revenue stream.” Recognizing a need, Clark decided to create a “makeshift marketplace,” basically a no-contact streetside pop-up where she could sell flowers that she purchased from Hmong farmers.
To source flowers, Yang-Shell connected Clark with Vikki Cha, the daughter of flower farmers who, along with her two brothers, help work Chue Neng Cha’s Garden, a family farm in the Snoqualmie Valley in operation since 1995.
Clark began by ordering 50 bunches of tulips, posting availability via personal text and on social media accompanied by farm photos she’d taken previously. Within 15 minutes, the bunches were committed, and by the time Cha delivered the first blooms, the two made plans to do it again the next day — the second order was for 200 bunches.
As tulip season shifted to peony season, stay-at-home orders persisted. The next several weeks were a blur of shipping and delivery. “My primary goal was to get revenue to the Hmong farmers,” Clark says. At the peak of spring, more than 50 Hmong family farms were involved, a remarkable achievement that Clark attributes to Cha’s ability to contact farmers and gain their trust to participate in this unconventional project. “Vikki and I have been on an unimaginable roller-coaster ride filled with love and hard work,” she says.
From Cha’s perspective, the marketplace provided an opportunity to see the powerful impact that flowers were making during a dark and scary time. “By breaking down barriers and creating connections, I learned so much,” she says. “And I got to meet the people who were purchasing our flowers and hear their stories.” #FlowerPowerofLove was spreading.
The project continues on the new Hmong Farmers of Western Washington website (hmongfarmersofwesternwa.com), a hub of connection; stories; and an online marketplace offering flowers, food and wine — a contagion of good, and proof of the power of community.