Sparse May flowers threaten livelihood of Hmong farmers
A long, cold, wet winter left Hmong farmers with few flowers to sell at local farmers markets. Donations have helped, but most flower growers will still struggle through the spring until the new plants grow.
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
Mai Lo Cha sees hope in the tiny, green sprouts of cosmos and aster poking through the soil of her rented Duvall farmland.
She turned from the flower shoots to the adjacent freshly tilled plot where she planted dahlias last week, willing the tubers in the earth to grow faster.
The tubers were donated to her through community efforts to help Hmong flower growers recover from last year's floods.
Mai Cha is among dozens of area Hmong farmers who grow and sell flowers at local farmers markets throughout Puget Sound and who were left devastated after the long, cold, wet winter.
As the markets reopen this month, many Hmong growers say that for a while their flower supplies may be sparse.
A community outpouring of donated money and flower bulbs and tubers has bolstered them, but what the farmers really need now is good weather and a strong flower season, said Bee Cha, coordinator of the Hmong program operated through Washington State University's Small Farms Program.
More than 56 Hmong farmers in the Snoqualmie Valley and neighboring Snohomish County areas reported flood damage, said Bee Cha, who is himself a Hmong immigrant, and whose family is among those affected by the floods. Mai Cha is his cousin.
Many Hmong farmers rent small plots and grow flowers and vegetables in the farmlands surrounding the Snoqualmie and Tolt rivers.
These areas were the hardest hit during the record floods in November that washed away soil and lingered over farmlands for weeks, turning flower bulbs and tubers into mush.
The Eastside Hmong Association, in conjunction with Washington State University, began soliciting donations in November to help the flower farmers buy new bulbs and tubers. The efforts raised about $38,900, and local gardeners donated 42,000 tubers to the Hmong.
The money was distributed on April 11, and the tubers were divided among the farmers in March and April. But many farmers waited several more weeks to plant them because the ground was still too soggy.
The farmers say it will take months for these new tubers to grow into dahlias ready for sale.
"This year is terrible, too cold and lot of ice," said Pao Chia, 40, as she bundled irises and other flowers to make bouquets during the Kirkland Wednesday Market, which opened this week.
While Chia had buckets of flowers at her booth on Wednesday, she said her supply is limited until dahlias and other flowers begin to come in. She and other growers say they worry there will be market days when they don't have enough flowers to turn into vibrant bouquets to sell.
"I lost a lot of my May flowers," Chia said. "I have some now. But next week, I don't think I have much flowers."
Mai Cha and others have put aside their best tulips in coolers and will spend Mother's Day, May 13, selling the flowers on a Bellevue street corner near Crossroads shopping center.
Surviving the next few months until the flowers come in will be difficult, the farmers say.
Chia said she'll use her savings, and she'll scrimp as much as she can.
"Now I wait for summer," she said.
Pike Place Market raised $26,600 for the Hmong, said Julie Haakenson, the market's program manager. Hmong flower vendors make up about 40 to 45 of the 100 farmers who sell their produce at the Seattle market, she said.
Pike Place encouraged the farmers to raise their prices, but unless everyone does so, it won't work, Haakenson said. Some farmers worry that if they raise prices, they lose customers.
Other Hmong vendors and farmers-market managers said prices so far have remained about the same as last year.
The donated money and tubers have helped, said Sia Cha Thao, 35, who was selling flowers at Pike Place earlier in the week.
Thao, who works with his parents, said his family received about $1,000 and about three rows of dahlia tubers. But the flooding cost them more than $30,000 in damage and about 3 acres of dahlia tubers, Thao said.
Thao held up a purple iris stem, lamenting how short these flowers grew this year. Normally they are 3 or 4 inches taller. Frost has damaged some of the basil, romaine and cilantro they grow, he said.
"I never had a chance to sell any of my daffodils," he said. "They all died."
For many Hmong farmers, selling flowers is their main livelihood and all that they know.
Mai Cha began working in the fields when she was 8, living in Laos with her parents. Now a 30-year-old mother of two, she and her husband, Chuck Lo, work the land together.
Lo also works a night job at a lumber company to supplement their income, but Mai Cha thinks she has few other options for work.
Her two children also work in the fields, helping to harvest flowers with a "vuv," a simple hand-held Hmong tool which they use expertly to slice flower stems from the ground.
Ultimately, Mai Cha hopes for better for her children.
"I think it's good for them not to do this," Mai Cha said. "They should go to school and be a doctor or a lawyer."
Rachel Tuinstra: 206-515-5637 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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