The Moua family—they tend their fields by hand
July 2, 2012
Story & Photos by Sheila Julson
The sunny rays of Wisconsin’s unusually warm June sun cut through the tree canopy in Walker Square, 9th and Washington streets, on a recent Sunday afternoon. Teng Moua strolled the shady paths of this green retreat in a predominantly urban south side neighborhood as he chatted and laughed with his fellow Hmong farmers at the Walker Square Farmers Market. Moua, along with Jason Cleereman, a Milwaukee attorney and head of the Walker Square Neighborhood Association, were instrumental in reviving the market since 2011.
The Moua family had a bounty produce early in the season, including flowers, lettuces, spinach, sugar snap peas, cilantro, and garlic. Moua said that the garlic is a new item he decided to try selling this season. They also sells bell pepper plants.
Moua said he has farmed for approximately 20 years, and also farmed back in Laos, his homeland. He and his family live in South Milwaukee, and he rents 10 acres of land on two plots in Caledonia.
Anna Moua, 27, and her brother, Tony, 28, are two of Moua’s five children. Both help their parents with farm and market operations whenever they can. Tony is currently laid off, and Anna works at an assembly job in Germantown. Mai, their mother, works full-time, but also helps at the market and tends to the farm.
In addition to selling their produce at Walker Square, Anna said they sell at the East Side Green Market located in the Beans & Barley parking lot.
Different items are popular at the different markets, Anna said. With the Walker Square market located in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, the cilantro sells well, along with green onions. She said beets and radishes sell well at the East Side market. The family tries to supply the demands of the different markets. They also offer Asian produce like Kai Lan (Brassica alboglabra), alternately known as Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale.
The siblings said the family has experimented with different options, including potatoes, which they no longer grow. They used to devote a whole acre to flowers.
According to Anna, cucumbers are low maintenance to grow and nurture, and really move at the markets. She said customers were puzzled by the Asian sugar cane the family offered at one time.
“It is small and green, like lucky bamboo,” Tony added. “People asked ‘what is that?’ ”
Now the family is not experimenting with many new things. “We just grow what people like,” Tony said.
Moua said he uses organic methods whenever possible, and almost all the work is done by hand—weeding, tilling, even watering. He doesn’t have an irrigation system. Farm machinery is expensive to own and maintain, Moua said, and his small fields do not necessitate much equipment.
So what happens when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate by providing the needed showers?
“My parents carry gallons of water into the fields,” said Anna. “We often pray for rain.”
But there can be too much of a good thing.
“The flooding three years ago washed out all of the tomato plants,” Tony said. Both siblings agreed that Wisconsin’s unpredictable climate can be one of the biggest challenges to small farmers.
Anna has seen increased interest in healthy food. She said the pedestrian traffic in the Walker Square neighborhood is conducive to a farmers market, and makes fresh, healthy food easily accessible. “It’s convenient for people around the neighborhood.”
But again, there can be too much of a good thing. Anna said that market organizers strive for varied offerings and that they will add new vendors contingent on what the farmer has to offer. They want the market to be profitable for all the vendors.
Moua clearly enjoyed mingling with the people of the market, whom he described as friendly. He said the rewards of farming and running a market stand outweigh the hard work, which can exceed 10 hours a day.
“My parents have a passion for farming,” Anna said, adding that she will help her parents “as long as Dad wants to keep it going.”
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