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Hmong refugees adapt traditional Asian farming to Alaska realities

  • Author: Kathleen McCoy
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published March 3, 2012

Some 6,000 Hmong live in Anchorage. The mountain-dwelling villagers from Southeast Asia sided with the United States during the Vietnam War and many became refugees after America withdrew.

Raised in Wasilla, University of Alaska Anchorage student Margaret Brady wondered how they had managed to adapt and thrive in Alaska, of all places. She recently turned a study of Alaska Hmong refugees into her master's thesis in anthropology.

When she was ready to begin her field research, the question loomed about how to approach her subjects. Brady is no gardener. But because she likes vegetables, and she knew the Hmong like vegetables, she decided to use their gardens as a framework for her research.

In the late summer of 2010, just as the gardening season waned, she plastered Anchorage with her English/Hmong-language flier, inviting Hmong to talk with her about their gardens.

"I must have posted 100 fliers everywhere I thought Hmong people might see them -- gas stations, grocery stores, Laundromats, in the break room at the schools" where she worked as a substitute teacher.

She received a few calls, but not from Hmong.

She finally broke through by approaching Hmong people individually wherever she found them -- face-to-face at the store or in citizenship classes she helped teach. "I'd tell them I was a student and ask if they'd help me with my work."

To a one, she got favorable responses. She managed to meet and talk with more than 100 Hmong, and secured 15 formal interviews for her research.

The Asians told Brady how they had adapted their gardening to fit the realities of Alaska. In Laos, they were full-time subsistence farmers who used slash and burn techniques to carve out farmland. They owned no animals or machinery; everyone in the family was involved. It was an intense endeavor.

But in Alaska, with eight months of winter and a short growing season, agriculture was no longer their primary way of making a living. Instead, they aspired toward other success-making opportunities like wage jobs and more education. Gardening became relegated to a culture-connecting activity for those who could manage it.

Typical gardening locations now include backyards, rental plots in community gardens and rented land in the Mat-Su area. Brady noted that, even in its reduced capacity, the activity can be vigorous. In 2010, she said, 35 of the 50 plots at the McPhee Community Gardens in Mountain View were rented by Hmong.

Julie Riley, a horticulture agent with the UAF Cooperative Extension Service, has worked extensively with refugee gardeners to help them bring produce to local farmers markets. She tells one story from the Hmong's first foray into rental plots at a community garden. Once the plots had been measured and allocated, the gardeners realized they needed a fence to keep out moose and dogs.

"They went away and came back with tools -- machetes -- and went right into the woods and started cutting down saplings. In less than an hour, they had put up a fence using branches and the strings and stakes from the plots," said Riley. "That would have taken me days!"

Though many Hmong consider gardening to be "women's work," every Hmong Brady talked to seemed well-versed in horticulture, right down to the appropriate soil pH levels.

Still, Riley said, garden work is done by Hmong women.

"I remember when they were getting ready to garden 10 plots that first summer, and we found a master gardener who had a rototiller. The men stood in line to use that rototiller," Riley said, "but, really, it was the women who did all the work."

Riley first worked with refugee Hmong in Milwaukee in the 1980s and said she learned, "They grow salad." Coming to Alaska meant mostly giving up on corn, squash and beans.

Brady found that local Hmong grow lots of leafy green vegetables that they call "zaub." Multiple varieties of cilantro and mustards, as well as green onions, are popular. Produce out of the ground is considered much fresher than anything they can purchase at local grocery stores. They don't plant in rows, but typically scatter seeds to use every bit of land available to them.

Further signs of adaptability include freezing some of their summer-grown vegetables for wintertime eating and growing important medicinal plants indoors in winter so they still can have access to them.

Beyond gardening, some Hmong gather mushrooms, "wild lettuce" and some ferns for food.

Berry picking, however, is not common. Hunting is limited, mostly a "men's getaway."

The Hmong's penchant for pesticide-free fresh vegetables has resonated with Alaskans involved in the local food movement -- and that may encourage young Hmong to keep up the tradition.

Both in her interviews with younger Hmong in Anchorage and by scanning popular online forums used by Hmong around the nation, Brady detected widespread awareness that organic produce, vegetable freshness and natural remedies are highly valued among some Americans.

Sheng Vang, a 23-year-old Hmong woman studying early childhood education at UAA, started out helping Brady learn about Hmong culture, including gardening. Eventually, they became friends.

She and Brady talked often, including a discussion they shared about how quickly Hmong women seem to bounce back after childbirth. Some Hmong women choose to follow strict rules about diet, herbs and post-delivery activities passed along by their mothers.

This natural approach to "recovering" from pregnancy, Vang noted, strikes many Westerners as significant and interesting.

Even Hmong not fluent in English commonly described their produce as "natural" and "organic," Brady said, aware that those qualities are prized by many diet-conscious Americans.

Brady defended her 200-page master's thesis on Anchorage's Hmong gardeners before an audience of some 50 people in late October. The assembly included many Anchorage Hmong. One man raised his hand and thanked her for her accuracy.

"You should write a book," he said.

"I think she already has," quipped a thesis committee member.

Brady says the experience has enriched her. Besides affording her the opportunity to do original research in Anchorage, she says she greatly enjoyed the individual generosity, kindness and hospitality they showed her. She's been in Hmong gardens and eaten many Hmong dishes, quickly naming "papaya salad" as her absolute favorite -- a blend of shredded green papaya, chili and garlic.

For those Hmong renting plots in community gardens, March 31 looms as their next deadline. That's when they can secure their spot for this summer. Meanwhile, some with home gardens have already planted seeds this past fall and covered them with tarps against the snow, aiming for a head start on next spring's growing season.

Kathleen McCoy is an electronic media specialist with the University of Alaska Anchorage.


Daily News correspondent