Who’s your farmer?

July 31, 2011

By Sheila Julson

Photos by Joel Jaecks & Katherine Keller

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Chia Xiong gives photographer Joel Jaecks a bag of snow peas.

On a sunny July morning at the South Shore Farmers Market, Hmong farmer Chia Xiong (she-AWNG) sliced through a tiny dark potato, exposing the vibrant purple meat for a curious onlooker not familiar with the spud variety.

Xiong’s children were also under the canopy, and stood behind the long tables that displayed carefully arranged produce such as peas, potatoes, onions, and lettuce.

The children greeted customers, and held the tops of the plastic bags open for one another as they packaged their vegetables for the shoppers to take home.

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Youa Xiong adds more beets to the Xiongs’ produce display at the South Shore Farmers Market.

Behind the scenes, Xiong’s wife, Youa (YOO-ah), sat among large storage totes of assorted produce as she shelled sugar snap peas.

Xiong, one of several Hmong farmers at the South Shore Farmers Market, has been farming in the United States for 10 years, and is in his eighth year at the popular lakefront market.

“What I like is that there are lots of people,” he said. “The market also focuses on organic produce. That’s what I do.”

Xiong said he does not use any pesticides on his produce. He also sells at the West Allis market.

A first-generation immigrant from Laos, Xiong brings a rich agricultural heritage from his homeland. His family had farmed for generations in the mountainous countryside of the Southeast Asian country, where crops such as rice and corn are common. Upon arriving in the United States, Xiong worked in manufacturing for nine years as a machine operator in Menomonee Falls, and then began farming again because he wanted to include his family in his work and leave something for his children.

In addition to the traditional offerings at most market stands such as cilantro, lettuce, basil, onion, beets, spinach, sugar snap peas, and colorful floral offerings, Xiong grows and sells Asian produce. Chinese broccoli, a deep green leafy vegetable with very small flower heads; bok choy, also known as Chinese white cabbage, a nutrient-dense vegetable with white stems and dark green leaves; and squash leaves. The choy sum, Xiong said, wasn’t ready to harvest until mid-July.

A typical day on his farm is eight to 10 hours, six days a week, but Xiong said he enjoys the job.

He explained how his agricultural techniques are unique. “In the U.S., whole fields are plowed and tilled, but I farm by sections, and set a deadline for each section,” he said, forming his hands into loose squares as he spoke, “the produce is not too young, and not too old, and is always fresh for the customers.”

Xiong leases 44 total acres of farmland on two separate plots in Oak Creek. Much work is done by hand, but he also uses a tractor. He lives in Milwaukee with his family on a slim profit margin of $8,000-$10,000 dollars a year. “During the summer, I save for the winter months. I save money for heat, electric, and the mortgage. During winter, I help people in my community.” He has also traveled to Laos and Thailand for missionary work.

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Seven-year-old Kabbou (Kab-BOO) is the youngest of Xiong’s children, and wearing a red jacket and a shy expression, stood alongside her siblings as they bagged produce for their customers and made change. The camaraderie of close-knit family helping one another is common among the Hmong culture, and Xiong said he wants to keep the kids involved. “My goal in summertime is to not have the kids wander, and get into the farming business so they all can help.”

While the children laughed and joked around during a rare moment of downtime, Xiong explained that it takes about 10 hours to pick, pack, and prepare for the market.

Will Hmong youth remain interested and continue the farming traditions? “I don’t know if they will like it or not,” Xiong said, “but I want to train them so they know how to operate.”

Zongcheng Moua (MOO-ah) of Moua Consulting Group, LLC served as the translator for Sheila Julson and Chia Xiong. Moua, along with his wife, Mayhoua Moua, own and operate the firm and provide cross-cultural training, interpretation, and translation services in Hmong and Lao languages.

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One Comment on "Who’s your farmer?"

  1. jdoe@hotmail.com on Mon, 1st Aug 2011 7:33 pm 

    mr chia xiong, i admire you work ethic. may your family prosper.

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