Hmong flower farmers took a big hit when Puget Sound farmers markets closed at the outset of the pandemic, leaving the farmers with a wealth of tulips, dahlias and daffodils — and nowhere to sell them.
One farmer, May Yang, took a 70% drop in sales that year, barely keeping her family business afloat. But she got by with help from a Hmong cultural organization that pooled resources to support farmers and found ways to put their flowers in front of customers.
Now, two years later, Yang’s livelihood is again being upended: After a miscommunication between her landlord and a fellow farmer, she found out in June that she has to vacate her rented Snohomish farmland by March. The timeline is short notice for her, as her business depends on the annual planting seasons of more than 25 flower varieties she grows on about 3 acres of farmland.
“It’s very devastating,” Yang said. “Eighty percent of my income depends on the farm.”
To advocates, Yang’s situation is indicative of an annual trend: Hmong farmers get displaced for one reason or another, hustling to find farmland so they can make it to next spring with flowers to sell. Yang’s plight also speaks to the power dynamic between landowners and their farmland tenants, who rarely negotiate formal lease contracts, as well as the longstanding disparity in who owns farmland in the first place.
The Hmong Association of Washington, which helped Yang and other farmers keep their businesses alive early in the pandemic, is now trying to help her and a handful of peers find stable, fertile land where they can transplant their flowers — avoiding the nightmare scenario of losing an entire year of sales.
“Many of them don’t have any other income. They have to depend on making money from March all the way to October,” said Cynthia Yongvang, the organization’s executive director. “They really need to have the land at the right time.”
Land laws and handshake agreements
The federal government distributed more than 240 million acres of land to American citizens after the Civil War. But white people got nearly all of that land, as Jim Crow laws discriminated against Black people and most other nonwhite people were barred from U.S. citizenship.
Those racist land redistribution laws still have an impact today: Between 2012 and 2014, white people owned 98% of farmland and operated 94% of all U.S. farmland, according to a 2018 Portland State University study.
Portland State researchers also concluded that farmers of color — specifically Black, Hispanic, Asian, Indigenous and Hawaiian people — “were more likely to be tenants rather than owners, owned less land, and generated less farm-related wealth per person than their White counterparts.”
That finding rings true for Hmong farmers in Washington. Not only are they more likely to rent farmland, rather than own it, but they rely almost entirely on farm income to support their families. Many live under the poverty line, making less than $50,000 a year, according to a 2010 Washington State University study.
Keeping their flower farm businesses afloat comes down to having an amenable landlord, said Yongvang, who’s seeking to help seven farmers who will soon lose their farmland, including Yang and four others on the Snohomish property.
This spring, Yongvang started the Washington Hmong Farmers Cooperative, a nonprofit helping members seeking to buy farmland and secure their long-term business prospects instead of having to rely on leases that could end on short notice.
She’s learned how beholden the farmers can be to their landlords. If a farmer wants to install a greenhouse or shed, for example, landlord approval comes first. And building structures to expand their businesses can prove difficult for those who may need to move their operations months or years later.
“Can you imagine building a greenhouse and then now you have to tear it down after all the investment you put into building it?” Yongvang said.
Yang said it won’t be difficult to move her tractor to new farmland — if she’s able to find any — but she knows there’s no moving her greenhouse and shed once she takes them down.
“I just feel sad because I put a lot of my time into building that greenhouse,” Yang said. “It’s going to take time to take it down again. I feel like my money is going to waste.”
Yang’s landlord told a head member of her group of five farmers in summer 2020 that they needed to leave by March 2023. Yang said that information never got to her, however, and she found out in June, nearly two years later.
Yang doesn’t think her landlord, Fred Zylstra, did her wrong, and she hopes he’ll let her stay longer. Zylstra said he may be able to offer a couple more weeks, but he needs the farmland to grow feed for his cattle next spring.
“I felt like I did my part,” Zylstra said. “I notified the person I thought would get the word out to the entire family. Now it’s creating a bad situation for them. I hate to see that for anyone.”
At the heart of Yang’s situation is the fact that there was never any formal lease contract between her, the other farmers and Zylstra. That’s common for Hmong farmers, said Bee Cha, who for 16 years has connected farmers with resources and helped them find land.
Every year, Cha helps Hmong farmers relocate, either because landlords don’t want to renew their leases or because of land issues like improper irrigation, bad soil or flooding.
In the worst cases, Cha said, landlords negotiate one- or two-year handshake deals with the farmers. And without formal paperwork, Cha said landlords, who are almost always white, can simply remove tenants if they want to repurpose their land.
“The tenants always get the short end of the stick because you have a lot to lose,” Cha said.
The language barrier between Hmong farmers and white landowners also doesn’t help, and farmers feel pressure to simply agree with whatever their landlord wants, especially when their main source of income depends on everything going well on the farm, Cha said.
“You don’t speak the language and you don’t know how contractual things work,” he said. “The landlords are mostly white and are perceived as powerful landowners, and they have legal and political connections.”
In other words: If a landlord doesn’t bring up a formal lease, Hmong farmers aren’t going to ask about obtaining one.
A narrow path to farmland ownership
The best way to overcome the challenges with renting farmland is to simply buy your own plot.
But for many Hmong farmers, it’s not that easy.
Chayeng Xiong, a Hmong farmer renting two acres in Carnation, considers himself lucky: His landlord is friendly, and he hasn’t had any recent problems renting land. But since taking over his parents’ flower business more than five years ago, he said he wants the autonomy to make his own decisions without needing landlord approval.
Xiong knows state or federal help is out there, but he said he isn’t sure where to turn for information and resources — and isn’t familiar with how to navigate the required paperwork.
The prospect of having to move one day, yanking out his flower bulbs and replanting them somewhere else, adds pressure for Xiong.
“I would hate to dig every one of those up and move to another place,” Xiong said.
But cracking into the staggeringly white sphere of farmland ownership has proved difficult for farmers of color, especially Hmong farmers like Xiong who are unfamiliar with federal assistance and have little knowledge of the bureaucratic process and its obstacles.
Friendly Vang-Johnson, a community organizer and daughter of Hmong farmers, learned that firsthand when she tried to buy farmland in 2021. She, like most other people of color, needed a loan to buy 5 acres of land in Redmond, but she hit a roadblock while trying to get federal support.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency offers loans at lower interest rates than banks but requires dense paperwork before beginning an approval process that could take up to two months.
To get approved, loan applicants also need to show the USDA a signed purchase agreement with a landowner committing to sell to them and no one else — a big commitment when a buyer’s loan application is weeks or months from approval.
Vang-Johnson said it’s hard to see why a white landowner would go through that lengthy and uncertain process with someone they don’t already know well, like a family member, close friend or rural community member — all of whom are also likely to be white.
She said it would also be unlikely for a white landowner to enter that process with a Hmong farmer if other interested parties are willing to make more attractive offers, such as paying in cash.
“They have to basically crack into a system that’s based on whiteness,” Vang-Johnson said. “It requires the benevolence of a white person.”
She proposed a simple first step toward fixing the problem: The USDA should preapprove loan applications.
“If the USDA could preapprove people, that would just put us on better footing so that when we approach a seller, we can say we’ve already gone through the USDA programs, we are vetted, we are serious buyers,” Vang-Johnson said.
Yang, the farmer in Snohomish, would ideally like to buy her own land. But right now, she’s focused on making it to next spring with flowers to sell.
To do that, Yang would need to transplant her flowers into new farmland before the end of October, putting some of her varieties, like her tulips, on track to bloom as expected in the spring.
The same can’t be said for her peonies, whose three-year growing cycle would be disrupted by a move this month or in the spring. Either way, Yang said she’ll suffer a significant loss in sales.
“I just don’t want to think too much,” Yang said. “It’s too stressful for me right now.”