On an early morning in April, Xai Cha, 59, and her daughter Mary Thao, 38, harvested some of the first flower crops of the year at their farm near the Pilchuck River in Snohomish County.

As they collected dark pink tulips and yellow daffodils, Thao worried about their steadily blooming fields. Most of the non-food-related businesses at Pike Place Market — including their daystall — had closed in mid-March due to Washington state’s stay-home order. Their storage cooler was nearly full.

“Our only outlet for selling flowers is Pike Place Market,” said Thao.

Xai Cha, 59, harvests tulips on a recent morning at Xai C. Farm in Snohomish. Cha and her husband fled Laos after the Vietnam War. After living in Thai refugee camps for several years, they moved to the United States in 1979 with the help of the International Rescue Committee. The couple started out farming vegetables, but found that selling flowers at Pike Place Market and other farmers markets to be more profitable. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Xai Cha, left, and her daughter Mary Thao harvest tulips on at Xai C. Farm. Many Hmong flower farmers have been quickly adapting their business models after Washington state’s coronavirus-related restrictions closed local farmers markets during flower farmers’ busiest time of the year. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Kher Thao, 66, works in the greenhouse at Xai C. Farm in Snohomish. Thao and his wife have been concerned about their health during the coronavirus outbreak, and have been relying on their children to help with the front end of the business. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

With Mother’s Day approaching, it’s a critical time for Washington’s Hmong flower farmers. “For most of us, it’s our first income for the year,” Thao said.

The farmers — whose colorful bouquets have become a staple at Pike Place — quickly modified their business models after the novel coronavirus outbreak closed their daystalls at the market. History has taught them resilience.

“My parents have been through worse,” Thao said. “We’ll get through this.”


“The strongest lady I know”

Sheltered from afternoon rain showers under a tarp, Scott Chang, 35, and his mother Cheu Chang, 74, of See Lee Farm, chatted about their family history while arranging bouquets in their backyard in Burien.

Scott Chang of See Lee Farm makes bouquets at his home in Burien. “Every time you’re buying a bouquet, it’s 100% us,” he says. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Born into a family of farmers in Laos, Cheu Chang recalled leaving her childhood home and fleeing into the jungle for safety. During the Vietnam War, the CIA enlisted many Hmong families to gather military intelligence and fight communists in Laos as part of a covert operation, hidden from Americans for years. With the communist takeover in the mid-1970s, tens of thousands of Hmong people in Laos escaped to refugee camps in Thailand.

Since 1975, around 200,000 Hmong refugees fled Laos. According to the 2010 census, about 2,000 live in Washington state.

“A lot of people, they cannot cross the Mekong River, they just died,” Cheu Chang said of the thousands of Hmong who tried to reach Thai refugee camps. “Remembering back to our country – that’s really, really hard for us.”

After living in Thai refugee camps for three years, Cheu Chang arrived in the United States in 1980. She found work as a fish cleaner and seamstress. In 1983, she started farming with the Indochinese Farm Project, a co-op for Hmong and Mien refugee farmers in Woodinville. King County, Washington State University and the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority supported the program, designed to empower refugees through business support and arranging for farmers to sell their products at Pike Place Market.

Mary Thao’s family is photographed at a refugee camp in Thailand in 1979. Her father, Kher Thao, is on the far left. Her mother, Xai Cha, is on the far right. Thao said the photo was taken before her mother and father rode the bus to Bangkok to fly to Seattle. They arrived Dec 20, 1979. (Photo courtesy of Mary Thao)

Cheu Chang holds her son, Scott Chang, when he was a child at the family’s farm in Woodinville. Cheu Chang says baby Scott napped in wooden lettuce crates under their stall at Pike Place Market.
(Courtesy of Scott Chang)

Cheu Chang, 74, of See Lee Farm arranges bouquets at her home in Burien. Chang’s son, Scott Chang, believes she is the oldest flower vendor at Pike Place Market. The family started farming in 1983 through a land co-op for Hmong and and Mien refugee farmers called the Indochinese Farm Project. “She’s technically retired but, out of everybody in the family, she’s the hardest worker,” Scott says. “Wakes up before everyone, sleeps after everyone.” (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Scott Chang learned to walk at that Eastside farm. He remembers being strapped to his mother’s back as she worked in the fields. As a baby, he napped in wooden lettuce crates under their table at Pike Place Market.

He says his family is a part of each bouquet, from start to finish: “We’re the ones who put into the ground; we’re the ones who weed it. We’re the ones who make sure it grows up straight and we’re the ones who arrange everything and cut everything. So there really is no middleman. So every time you’re buying a bouquet, it’s 100 percent us.” 

Scott Chang believes his mother is now the oldest Hmong farmer at Pike Place Market.

“She is the strongest lady I know,” he said. “She’s technically retired, but out of everybody in the family, she’s the hardest worker. Wakes up before everyone, sleeps after everyone.”

There are around 80 Hmong flower farms in Western Washington, employing between 300 and 400 people, according to the Hmong Association of Washington.

At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, some farmers had to throw away flowers or leave them in fields to rot. Others had no place to sell, even though other vendors frantically tried to help them find new outlets.

The Changs’ revenue dropped 70% in early April.

Scott Chang carries flowers to sell at Sosio’s Fruit & Produce at Pike Place Market. Sosio’s is still operating and is offering local farmers a place to sell their blooms. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Signs and cones now close off sections of Pike Place Market, including the areas where flower farmers had been selling their bouquets. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Scott Chang of See Lee Farm carries flowers to sell at Sosio’s Fruit & Produce at Pike Place Market. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

In an effort to support local flower farmers, Sosio’s Fruit & Produce in Pike Place Market is selling their bouquets. Proceeds go to the farmers as well as to Pike Place Market’s Community Safety Net. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Cynthia Yongvang, board president of the Hmong Association of Washington, said like many small businesses, many Hmong family farms had difficulty accessing the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), created to help small businesses keep employees on payroll.

Additionally, many Hmong flower farmers struggled for weeks trying to determine if Washington state’s stay-home order allowed them to keep working in the fields, as well as harvest, deliver and sell bouquets.

“The complexity of these guidelines — what is essential and what is not — can ultimately have some unintended consequences and inequitable impacts for Hmong flower farmers, even though this wasn’t the intention,” said Jennifer Antos, executive director of Neighborhood Farmers Markets.

Antos said some Hmong flower farmers have been left without income to plant summer vegetables.

“Spring flowers are the only thing growing January though May, and those profits build the foundation for the rest of the growing season,” she said. “Normally, that income would support buying seeds, paying the lease on the land for the season.”

In response to the confusion, Gov. Jay Inslee’s Office and the Washington State Department of Agriculture announced in late April that floriculture does indeed fall within the agricultural sector identified as essential in the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order. Antos said cut flowers will soon be allowed for sale at Seattle and King County farmers markets.


Neighbors helping neighbors

While preparing bouquets for Mother’s Day, Scott Chang said “sales are catching up” to pre-coronavirus times. He said community members’ word of mouth and fundraising efforts by the Hmong Association of Washington and the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority have helped support Hmong farmers.

For the first time, many Hmong flower farmers have created websites, Instagram accounts, pre-ordering opportunities and drop-off services. With the majority of Pike Place Market still closed, many farmers have established new partnerships selling bouquets at essential businesses like restaurants, food stalls, grocery markets and plant nurseries.


Chris Xiong arranges flowers to sell at Seattle Fish Guys in Seattle’s Central District. The owners of Woodinville Valley Farms are working through multiple restaurants to sell their flowers. “Our farm is working hand in hand with King County and Pike Place Market to educate our neighbors, coworkers and friends that we need local farmers,” says LeAnn Yang,  Xiong’s wife. “We have to support local farmers and ensure their livelihood for many generations to come, not just for us millennials, but for our children and their children.” (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

A sunbeam illuminates flowers from Woodinville Valley Farms at Seattle Fish Guys. Farmer LeAnn Yang says Woodinville Valley Farms is now selling at more locations in Western Washington and “serving areas that normally don’t head into the city for flowers.” (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Vikki Cha of Chue Neng Cha’s Garden waters plants inside a greenhouse in Carnation. “I think that the Hmong people are very resilient, very strong willed, they work hard,” she says. Cha and social entrepreneur Tara Clark have created 20 volunteer-led flower drop-off locations throughout the Seattle area. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

SongGer Cha works in the daffodil farms at Chue Neng Cha’s Garden in Carnation. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Vikki Cha, with Chue Neng Cha’s Garden, partnered with social entrepreneur Tara Clark to sell bouquets from Clark’s Capitol Hill home this spring. Together, Clark and Cha created 20 volunteer-led flower drop-off locations throughout the Seattle-area. Clark says by this weekend, they will likely have sold more than $300,000 worth of bouquets, with all proceeds going to 46 local Hmong farmers.

“Every farmer is very appreciative and thankful to have the community and local support,” said Cha. “Now, it’s not tourists buying flowers and taking pictures. It’s neighbors helping each other.”

Thao said the coronavirus outbreak has accelerated plans to try delivery services and expand their farm’s online presence. Her parents built up Xai C. Farm for decades and now will pass it to their children.

“They were able to come to America with the help of few and limited resources — they were able to persevere,” Thao said. “To me, it’s definitely an honor to take it on and take over.”

Mary Thao, right, harvests daffodils with her mother, Xai Cha, at Xai C. Farm in Snohomish. Their family has sold flowers at Pike Place Market since 1995. Due to the stay-home order that shut down almost all business at the Market, Thao has changed the farm’s business model to fulfill online orders and deliveries. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)