“They flew from the East, and put down roots in the West”: Seeds, identity and Hmong cultural (dis)continuity in Wisconsin and Minnesota
Xao Cha steps back from her line of beans to adjust her sunhat and take a quick pause from the work. She is tending a one-eighth acre plot in the Lifting Hearts Therapy Garden a little north of Madison, Wisconsin. Xao has farmed and gardened all her life, but when she was young, back in Laos, “the fields were much bigger then.” Here she is content to plant the foods that remind her of home, the beans and squashes, eggplant, cabbage, bitter melon, pea greens, chilis, lemongrass, sticky corn and the special Hmong cucumber with white skin and orange flesh. Xao picks a few cucumbers that are already ripe and lays them in a line at the edge of her plot. Later she will take them home to share with her family and make cucumber water, dib kaus, the perfect refreshing beverage after a day’s work in the sun.
Like most of the Hmong refugees who arrived in the U.S. in the 1970s and 80s, Xao was born in a highland village in Laos. Hmong communities at that time cultivated swiddens, often on ridgetop land, mainly to provide for their own consumption. Forest plots were cut and burned, cultivated for a few years, and then abandoned to regenerate into new forest. Villages were often temporary, and whole communities would sometimes uproot and relocate in search of better land. This mobility and the inaccessibility of the highlands allowed the Hmong to maintain a certain autonomy from political powers based in the lowlands. But starting in the late 19th century, Hmong groups became increasingly caught up in the politics of colonialism, state-building and revolution that swept through Southeast Asia.
A long history of resistance to Han expansion forced Hmong ancestors on a series of southwestern migrations out of central China. In the mid-19th century, large groups of Hmong crossed into the highlands of what are now northern Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar and settled there. In French Indochina, several Hmong rebellions obliged the French to collaborate more closely with them. After the dissolution of the French colony, Hmong groups forged alliances on both sides of the developing conflicts between nationalist, communist, monarchist and international forces struggling for control of the emerging states of Vietnam and Laos. One Hmong group led by General Vang Pao became key US allies during the Secret War in Laos and were financed directly by the CIA. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, these soldiers, their families and other displaced communities fled into Thailand. There they were placed in refugee camps along the Thai-Lao border, and slowly resettled into a global diaspora including the United States, France, French Guiana, Australia, Canada, Germany and Argentina.
Hmong communities in the American Midwest
Many Hmong refugees were brought to the American Midwest and given factory jobs in what was once a thriving manufacturing region. As family groups sought each other out and relocated to be closer together, the Hmong community concentrated in Wisconsin and southern Minnesota. The refugees faced numerous challenges as they struggled to preserve their culture while adapting to new economic and cultural realities. As manufacturing jobs moved overseas to China and elsewhere, many Hmong people turned back to the land. Most had grown up farming in Laos, and as soon as they arrived in the United States, they began seeking out land for home gardens. Families cultivated at various scales, from small home plots to large commercial farms, and for a wide range of reasons, from filling the kitchen to an occasional income source or a full time job. Within a few decades of the Hmong community’s arrival in the region, they had become significant providers of fruits and vegetables in the market garden economy.
But the transition was not easy. Hmong farmers had to completely abandon rotational agriculture and adapt to land practices in the United States. They quickly learned the machinery and techniques, including pesticide application, but the long, harsh winters made growing many tropical plants difficult or impossible. Some people constructed greenhouses and were able to improve the survival of tropical plants. Others learned to grow crops like lemongrass as annuals. Land was prohibitively expensive, so renting small plots was the only way to access it. Limited abilities in English sometimes made negotiating rental agreements difficult or led to misunderstandings. When a good connection with a farmer landlord was established, people often grouped together to form ‘collective grow spaces’ with many plots on the same piece of land.
Hmong people and plants as voyaging companions
In the Hmong language, the word for these plots is teb, which means land. On the teb people have created spaces to carry on ways of working with plants that connect their past with their present. Many Southeast Asian vegetables are grown in Hmong food gardens, including a diversity of leafy greens and squashes, bitter eggplants, long beans and Thai basil. Some of these plants were barely cultivated in the region before the Hmong arrived, so finding seeds could be difficult. But some of the first refugees, when gathering their belongings in the camps in Thailand, carefully prepared seeds to carry with them. Mrs. Lee, one of Xao’s friends at the Lifting Hearts Therapy Garden, brought little packets of mustard, cilantro, green onion, cucumber, squash and corn seeds when she first arrived from Thailand.
Other people thought to bring different plants, like flowers, bamboo, or the tshuaj ntsuab, ‘green medicine plants’, which are so important to Hmong healthcare. Each person may have only brought a few seeds, or pieces of root or cuttings wrapped carefully in moist soil and fabric. But people quickly exchanged those they had, and when it became possible to travel again to Thailand and Laos, some would bring a few plants back to the U.S. from trips abroad. Over time, however, customs regulations have gotten stricter. When Xao tried bringing some ornamental flower seeds back from her long-awaited return trip to Thailand, the customs officials threw them away and told her that if she tried again, she would be fined.
Even so, the first generation of Hmong refugees in the U.S. has managed to slowly reconstitute their pharmacopoeia and reassemble the key elements of their food system. From seeds found or brought, or sent from afar by relatives, Hmong gardens and farms have prospered. Almost every Hmong family grows plants, for themselves or to sell at farmer’s markets, as a full time job or just to get some exercise. Most families rent several plots ranging from less than half an acre to dozens of acres, since few have managed to buy land. A change of heart or a change of price can rapidly end a handshake agreement, and having several plots protects people from being left without land. It also protects against pests by spreading the plants around and allows taking advantage of differences in soil and microclimate to grow different plants in different places. As the land tires out, many first-generation farmers prefer to abandon the plot and find more fertile land elsewhere.
Changes among the younger generation
Young members of the community have also gotten involved in farming and growing, although fewer than those of the first generation. Many young Hmong people continue to grow up visiting the garden and helping family members at farmer’s markets. But other currents are sweeping through the community, and farming is less interesting to most young Hmong than the opportunities offered by education. Inspired by the businessmen, professors, politicians and Olympic athletes that have emerged from the Hmong community in Wisconsin and Minnesota, many of the second generation have different aspirations. Others come back to farming because they are unsatisfied with 9-to-5 jobs, enjoy the freedom and hard work of farming, or want to continue the tradition. But the concerns of the youngest generation of Hmong farmers are different from those of their parents.
There is a growing consciousness about soil fertility, encouraging farmers and farm organizers to experiment with cover cropping and other techniques to ensure sustainable long-term use of the land. The fight for land access and tenure is increasingly being taken up by non-profits like Groundswell Conservancy in Wisconsin, which runs the Lifting Hearts Therapy Garden, or the Hmong American Farmer’s Association (HAFA) in Minnesota, which is developing a collective farming model including a production cooperative and a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program.
At the same time, there is a movement toward intensive, commercial techniques, as young growers more familiar with American production models try to increase their efficiency and minimize hard manual labor. As Mr. Vang, a first-generation gardener at a collective grow space near La Crosse, Wisconsin puts it, “In Laos we worked harder than this; all day in the fields, belly to the dirt and back to the sun.” Mechanization, fertilizer, pesticides and greenhouses are all techniques increasingly favored by younger growers to avoid the back-breaking work of the soil.
Home medicine gardens
Growing a small home garden with food and medicine plants is another way that both generations continue Hmong traditions. Since farm plots are usually plowed at the beginning and end of each season, home gardens are havens for the perennial tshuaj or medicine plants that have long protected family health. Many older people still prefer Hmong traditional medicine to Western medicine and continue to regularly use the tshuaj plants. Because few are winter adapted, they are often kept in pots that can be moved indoors. Other folks will plant them in the soil outside, only to uproot and repot them again each year in the fall. Several Hmong medicine plant nurseries with heated greenhouses operate at the Hmongtown Market in St. Paul, Minnesota, and sell tshuaj starter plants in the spring to grow as annuals.
The tshuaj tsaws qaib, or herbs cooked with chicken as a tonic meal, are one group of plants often purchased as starters. At the end of the season, the herbs may be frozen for winter use, especially for the one-month post-partum diet that most Hmong women follow after giving birth. This tradition continues among the second generation, even though few young people use tshuaj plants like their parents and grandparents. Younger Hmong people continue to grow some of these plants, but more often it is their mothers and grandmothers who provide them with these plants when needed. In the gardens of the second generation, the emphasis seems to be moving toward ornamental plants, and even when tshuaj plants are grown, they may not be used but rather valued for their beauty.
Maybe Hmong people continue to grow traditional plants because in a mysterious way, these plants have become linked to the collective Hmong identity, carrying memories of older ways of growing food, caring for each other and caring for the earth. Will farming continue to be an important activity for the midwestern Hmong in generations to come? Will home medicine gardens survive in the midst of the onslaught of Western medicine? Whatever the future holds, it is clear that the deep and dynamic relationship between Hmong people and plants continues.
Though the customers at Wisconsin farmer’s markets may not know it, the seeds of the red sticky corn and Hmong cucumbers they buy have passed across the world from hand to hand, in a dynamic line of transmission that has traversed mountains and wars with tenacity and hope. In an ancient epic of the Hmu, a Hmongic people of southern China, the first people seeds or seed people of the world are created, and the singer asks, “In those ancient ages, from which direction did the Seeds fly? And in which direction did they put down roots?” The response, which resonates as clearly today for the Hmong in Wisconsin as for the Hmu in Guizhou, is that “they flew from the East, and put down roots in the West”[I].
 Xao has agreed to the use of her name, photo and story in this piece
 The majority Chinese ethnic group, often colloquially called ‘Chinese’
[I] Bender, Mark, 2006. Butterfly Mother: Miao (Hmong) Creation Epics from Guizhou, China. Hackett: Indianapolis.
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