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Tuesday, January 23, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Floods took a toll on Hmong farmers' prized flowers

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

THE FLOODWATERS hit fast and hard where Chadoua Lor's family grows flowers for Pike Place and other farmers markets.

Like dozens of his fellow Hmong farmers in the Snoqualmie Valley, Lor and his family were devastated when November floods damaged their equipment and washed away tens of thousands of valuable flower tubers and bulbs spread over 433 acres.

Now, the damage — estimated at more than $1 million — threatens the future of at least 37 Hmong farmers near Carnation and Duvall, and about 10 who farm in Snohomish County. All of them make their living selling flowers and vegetables.

"When the flood came, it was very bad," said Lor, 53. "Everything in the ground rotted and died."

Neighbors in the valley community have rallied to help, raising about $10,000 so far, enough to buy about 3,000 bulbs. But with the average farmer needing at least 10,000 bulbs to make a living, the road ahead looks bleak to many.

Earlier this month dozens of Hmong farmers gathered at farms throughout Carnation and Duvall to learn how to fix their damaged equipment. Two mechanics from Eastern Washington, Grant Gibbs and David Eadie, crawled under tractors, drained gas tanks full of water, and fixed starters, all in frigid temperatures.

Hmong immigrants


ABOUT 1,200 HMONG live in Washington, primarily in the Seattle area and in rural communities around Carnation, according to census figures.

During the 1960s, the United States fought a secret war in Laos to sever the North Vietnamese supply line known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Hmong, a native hill tribe, sided with the U.S. and were trained by the CIA as a guerrilla force.

When the communist regime took power over Laos in 1975, it began an extermination campaign against the Hmong. From 1975 to 1996, the U.S. resettled some 250,000 Lao refugees from Thailand, including 130,000 Hmong, according to U.S. State Department reports.

Source: HistoryLink.org

Lor, who stood in mud as snow flurries whipped around his face, watched intently as months-old floodwater drained out of his tractor's fuel line.

The tractor was submerged when the rains hit, and the Snoqualmie River covered the patch of land near Carnation where he helps his brother grow dahlias and irises.

The workshops were organized by Bee Cha, 32, a Hmong immigrant himself. Cha said he saw the need for help firsthand as coordinator of the Hmong program operated through Washington State University's Small Farms Program.

He also saw the need within his own family.

Blong Cha, 42, Bee Cha's uncle, sometimes spends 16 hours a day during the summer cultivating his flowers and vegetables.

Like many of the Hmong, he immigrated here as a refugee from Laos in the 1980s.

His family had farmed for generations in their homeland, so it seemed only natural that he would do the same, he said. But he hopes for better for his three young children.

"We do it because we have a heart to like it," Blong Cha said. "You have to have a backbone to do it. But we've farmed for many generations, it's OK for us. It's something we have experience with and can earn a living with."

Because flooding is common in East King County, most Hmong farmers dig up some or all of their tubers and the bulbs in early December, before heavy rains set in, said Bee Cha, who works at WSU's King County Extension in Renton. The tubers and bulbs ride out the winter carefully packed in a warm, dry place, and are replanted in the spring.

How to help


Donations may be made to:

Hmong Farmers Relief Fund

C/O: Bee Cha

WSU King County Extension

919 S.W. Grady Way, Suite 120

Renton, WA 98055-2980

For more information, call Bee Cha: 206-491-9004

But this season the flooding came early and water stayed on the fields for days.

Some farmers tried to paddle out to their fields in boats and pull up the bulbs. Others hurried into the muddy farms as soon as the water retreated and tried to salvage what they could, Cha said.

But within a few days, the bulbs and tubers began to smell, a sign of rotting, and nearly everything had to be thrown away.

Fewer flowers this year?

"I don't think this year there will be as many flowers for sale," said Fue Vue, 47, of Renton, his nose red from cold, as he watched Gibbs fix a tractor.

Not only will there be fewer flowers, but the colors and varieties available will be limited to whatever survived, or whatever farmers can afford to buy.

Vue, whose own farm equipment was damaged in the flooding, says it may take several years before he can afford to replace what the floods took from him.

Some local gardeners have offered to donate tubers and bulbs, but the problem is getting volunteers to help dig up the large, globular buds, which can weigh up to 30 or 40 pounds. It can take two people to load just one into a truck, Bee Cha said. Tubers and bulbs grown on a Hmong farm weigh about five to 10 pounds because they're dug up and replanted so frequently, he said.

"I recently got four volunteers to help me, and it took us 12 hours and we dug up 200 plants," Cha said. "People just don't see any incentive. They spend all day, and they don't get much in return."

Of the 78 Hmong farmers in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, 47 have reported flood damage, Cha said.

The average damage report totaled about $23,000 per farm, but some had up to $80,000 in losses. Altogether, reports total about $1.07 million in damages, he said. On average, Hmong farmers earn about $40,000 annually, per family, Cha said.

While some farmers in Skagit and Pierce counties may have seen flooding, it wasn't as widespread or devastating as what Hmong farmers reported in East King County, said agriculture and emergency-management officials in those counties.

Main cash crop

For most Hmong farmers, flowers are the main cash crop, accounting for about 75 percent of their profits, with vegetables a distant second, Cha said.

Most Hmong lease the land they work, and few, if any, have flood insurance, Cha said.

Because the damage wasn't to houses or buildings, and because they don't own the land, most of the Hmong don't qualify for federal aid, Cha said.

Part of his goal in working with the Hmong community is also to teach better record-keeping techniques, help them learn how to get business loans and improve their marketing skills.

Some Hmong farmers have talked about quitting farming and looking for other jobs to get back on their feet, said Chuck Tcha Lo, 39, who lives in Duvall.

Lo, who works as a mechanic when he's not farming his seven acres of flowers, said his farm may be limited to growing black dahlias, because all of his red dahlias either rotted or washed away.

Bee Cha was 15 when he and his parents immigrated from Laos in 1989. His parents have a farm near Ames Lake in the Carnation area, and they, too, face tens of thousands of dollars in losses, he said.

And yet, he hopes that some of the tubers and bulbs will survive, and will bloom again, once warmer weather comes.

"Now we are just waiting to see what comes out of the ground," he said. "We'll have to wait until spring to see."

Rachel Tuinstra: 206-515-5637 or rtuinstra@seattletimes.com

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