Wet year washes out local flower farms
A sunny start to April led the Hmong flower growers of King and Snohomish counties to an early planting of asters, sunflowers, zinnias and their best cash crop, dahlias. Then the cold rains of May and June came, saturating 720 acres of fields and rotting many bulbs and tubers.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The acre of dahlias was waist high but patterned with bare spots. Dust rose easily from under Kou Lor's feet as she deftly cut the strong-stemmed flowers with a handheld razor.
"These are my favorite," she said.
Each dahlia plant produced about 20 flowers last year, Lor said. Her family could come out to the farm on the outskirts of Auburn and collect 20 buckets of flowers every day. But each bush now only has a couple of flowers. She filled two buckets before moving on.
"This year is the worst year ever," Lor said. "Everything's not going well."
An uncharacteristically sunny start to April led the Hmong flower growers of King and Snohomish counties to an early planting of asters, sunflowers, zinnias and their best cash crop, dahlias.
Then came the cold rains of May and June, saturating 720 acres of fields and rotting many bulbs and tubers.
The roughly 90 Hmong farm families scattered throughout the two counties suffered major losses from the unexpectedly heavy rains — worse than from the flooding of November 2006. And poor sales at farmers markets and Seattle's Pike Place Market have compounded the losses.
Hmong farms in King County lost up to half their crops, said Bee Cha, coordinator of the Hmong program operated through Washington State University's Small Farms Program and a farmer himself.
Eighty percent of his roughly 40,000 dahlia tubers drowned in the spring rains, a loss he valued at around $120,000. Only enough bulbs, seeds and tubers of his various crops are left to plant 10 of the 17 acres on his Carnation farm next year.
Washington is home to more than 1,300 Hmong, according to census figures. Many emigrated as refugees from Laos in the 1980s.
Lor, 40, came in 1984 from a small mountain village that was a 24-hour drive from the Laotian capital of Vientiane. Her husband, Doua Xiong, 47, is from the same village but came here earlier, in 1979.
Life here is hard, Lor said, but it was hard in Laos, too. No one there had a car or shoes, but there were no bills, either. They were subsistence farmers and didn't have to deal with the vagaries of the marketplace, only with the weather.
The weather here has been equally difficult this year. The Seattle area received a combined 5.3 inches of rainfall during May and June, compared with a historical average of 3.2, and daytime highs were nearly 4 degrees cooler than usual, said Dennis D'Amico, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle. It was the 12th-wettest May and eighth-wettest June in the past 65 years.
Nearly all of Lor's lilies and one-third of her dahlias died in the rains.
The loss of the dahlias was especially costly. They grow back two or three times after being cut. The tubers can be broken apart and propagated, allowing farmers to grow more every year.
And Lor said profits from dahlias make up the largest single portion — about 30 percent — of income from the family farm.
Replacing just one row of dahlia tubers will cost $1,000 or more, she estimated. But the one acre she has dedicated to dahlias has room for about 20 rows.
Ordinarily, dahlia sales carry Lor's family through the fall frosts and the winter. Frost usually comes in October, but lately the morning freeze shows up earlier and earlier. She expects it will come in mid-September this year.
If summer sales don't end strong, Lor and her husband will have to find jobs off the farm this winter — something they've never had to do in 15 years — to pay for new lily bulbs and dahlia tubers.
"If we don't make enough for winter," she said, "that's a really hard struggle."
Lor grows the dahlias on land rented from her friend Anita Vilog, who also rents small slices of her 10-acre Auburn spread to three other families.
Rose Vilog, Anita's daughter, said her 4-acre part of the farm drains well and no bulbs or tubers were lost.
But a bad freeze at the end of November and another in mid-December killed most of the Vilogs' iris crop. They have sold only 500 of the $1 stems this summer, instead of the usual 3,000, Rose said.
Lor said business at Pike Place Market is half of what it's been the past few years. She sells only there because other markets are full and it takes all her family's time and effort to work the historic downtown market.
Prices are the same as 10 years ago, despite fewer flowers, Bee Cha said. A few farmers tried going down to $7 a bouquet, but others discouraged undercutting.
"Everybody's trying to hold a steady price," said Cha, who makes about $350 a day at Pike Place.
The heavy rain hasn't affected produce farmers or sellers as much as the Hmong flower farmers. Fruit and vegetable crops are a month behind their usual pace at Alvarez Farms, said José Granados, nephew of owner Larry Alvarez. Their sales at Pike Place are down about 15 percent as a result, but he said he expects to make up the difference as late crops come in.
Half the blueberry crop and 75 percent of strawberries were lost at Sidhu Farm, said Sukhy Sidhu, whose father and uncle own the business. Sidhu's sales at Pike Place are a little behind last year's, but business at other farmers markets has more or less made up for it.
At their plot beside Highway 167, Lor, her husband and their daughter finished picking asters as the sun started to set. Lor said she loves the farm; her four children grew up here. But she doesn't want any of them to take over the family business.
"Farming's not easy," Lor said. "It goes by weather, like this year."
Jason Bacaj: 206-464-3320 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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