From A Refuge Camp to Supplying Fresh Produce for the Masses
The Spooner Farmer's Market can thank all the Hmong families that come week after week with their produce. Because of them, the market is thriving. They also attend markets in Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire.
Sou and Chow Vang have been coming to Spooner since 2002. They were invited to come, and at first, they were unwelcome. Some people only wanted local people to be vendors. But you can't beat their produce. Since they garden in zone 4, their crops can go in earlier and be ready for market sooner than any local growers.
Sou was a victim of the war in Vietnam. From 1969 to 1975, Hmong people living in Thailand were often put in refugee camps and eventually they were given the opportunity to choose which country they would like to pick for their new home. Out of Germany, Japan, France and China, Sou chose the United States.
He has been here for the past 40 years, putting in 30 years with the 3-M company in Menomonie, where he learned to speak English.
He and his wife live in a lovely home which they share with one of their son's, his wife and their two children.
While Sou was working at 3-M, he took a second job picking cucumbers that were heading for the pickle market. The only jobs he could have gotten in Thailand was either working for the military or farming on government-owned land. He loved the United States and all it offered and still views it as the land of opportunity.
Fifteen years ago, before he retired, he bought land in Wheaton and earmarked it for a truck garden. Soon he had two more plots, one in Eau Claire and one in Colfax. That was the good news. The bad news is that they are all far away from his house. Several times a day he and his wife get in their van, she drives, and they visit their immaculate plots to work or harvest.
The first garden is twenty-five minutes away from their home in Chippewa Falls. The second one is an additional twenty minutes away, and the last one is fifteen more minutes farther. They roughly estimate that they drive a minimum of 200 miles each week between their plots and their three markets.
Everything they sell they raise in these gardens.
On one plot they have over 500 carrots planted, which cost $100 for the seeds. If they fail for some reason, they buy more seeds and start again. On other plots, they raise radishes, green onions, peppers, potatoes, squash, leeks, tomatoes, green beans, bean sprouts, cabbage, and garlic. They also raise lilies and other flowers along with kale flowers. These are the flowers that go into the beautiful bouquets the Chou makes. Often on the morning of the market.
The favorite lilies are sort of a perennial because they have to be wholly replanted every three years. The cost of their seeds is remarkable and being on sand with no way to water their large plots, they take a chance each year that their crop does not burn up or freeze. Some things they have to replant due to unforeseen circumstances, some vegetables like peas and beans they plant again later in the season for a fall crop.
They have several coolers in their garage, and they usually pick the night before for the next day's market. Even so, they often end up composting almost forty percent of the salable crop.
Sou is the one responsible for tilling the ground and remembering where each crop was on each plot so he can rotate the plants yearly. He never writes a plot plan but remembers it year after year.
Many of the Hmong gardeners are related, and they all dot the land with large gardens flourishing in the hot summer sun, some complete with small buildings for tools and a place to get out of the sun. Everyone carries cases of bottled water in their vehicles to keep hydrated.
Some families use part of the small Colfax plot land to raise a few chickens for their own use, and the next generation of Hmong have large plots of their own for vegetables, but they use the produce for themselves and have little interest in marketing it.
Sou is age 68, and he and his wife are looking at retiring. They would like to take a trip to China. But until they decide to call it quits, they will still be planting sunflowers, and peonies, and all the vegetables anyone could want. Fresh, local and a product of a great deal of back-breaking work.
The Spooner Farmer's Market happens every Saturday until October, and they run from 8a to 1p. They are located on Highway 63 across from Economart.
About the Author: Diane Dryden is a features writer for DrydenWire.com. She started her fifteen-year career as a features writer for the Washburn County Register and has written for assorted newspapers and national magazines. She has also just released the third novel in her Chicago series of books – Scott Free in Chinatown. You can visit Diane's website at www.dianedryden.com or her facebook page at facebook.com/authordianedryden.