Fresno’s Hmong farmers suffer in drought as wells on rented land go dry

Hmong farmers struggle in drought

Hmong farmers talk about the challenges they are facing in the Valley, especially with the drought, and how it is affecting their crops.
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Hmong farmers talk about the challenges they are facing in the Valley, especially with the drought, and how it is affecting their crops.

Chongyee Xiong has been sleeping in a tent on his Sanger farm since the commercial well went dry in April, when he hooked up the irrigation system to a shallower residential well. At night, he wakes up every three hours to turn the water pump on for different rows of crops because the pressure is too low to water them all at once.

Xiong, 51, isn’t a full-time farmer; his day job is as a groundskeeper for Clovis Unified School District. But farming is more than a hobby. For many Hmong, the skill is part of their identity.

Like Xiong, most Hmong farmers here lease small plots of land just outside Fresno or Clovis, many less than 10 acres. Now five years into the state’s historic drought, some are struggling to save their farms as wells go dry on land they don’t own.

Xiong’s effort to save his vegetables only sort of worked. Some didn’t get enough water to grow to full size and were unsellable. He lost half his squash crop. Increased competition with Mexican farms meant he didn’t sell all of his green beans, either.

“Farming is just like gambling,” he said. “You never know if you’re going to hit the jackpot.”

Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, small farms and specialty crops adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Fresno, is part of a team that has been researching the plight of Hmong and other immigrant farmers amid the drought.

900Estimated number of Hmong farmers in Fresno County

An estimated 1,500 small farms are operated by southeast Asian farmers in Fresno County, according to a 2007 survey done by the cooperative extension (the most recent data available), and about 900 of those are Hmong. These farmers bring in a limited gross income of up to $50,000 annually.

Dahlquist-Willard and her team surveyed Hmong farmers late last year. Fifty-two said the drought has affected their farm. Most of those – 43 farmers – said their well had either dried up or the flow of water had decreased. And 39 farmers said their electric bills increased because lowered water levels require running the pump longer.

These numbers aren’t huge. But Dahlquist-Willard said they provide some evidence of the Hmong farmer experience, a population that first came to the Valley 40 years ago as refugees after the collapse of the kingdom of Laos.

More farms will end up at risk if groundwater levels continue to drop.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” Dahlquist-Willard said. “Their farms – most of them are on land that used to be either grapes or some kind of orchard and has an older pump with a shallower well. They are the first to go in the drought.”

Drilling a new well usually costs up to $50,000, and small farmers on rented land can’t do anything without the owner’s permission. That alone leaves some out of luck, Dahlquist-Willard said, particularly if the owner is absentee or looking to sell soon.

But that’s not where the problem stops. As refugees, many Hmong farmers face barriers of language and education, which can keep them from accessing available resources. Plus, many Hmong farmers make transactions in cash and lack the required records and documentation for federal loans, such as through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Laos, you’re either a farmer or a soldier.

Michael Yang, Hmong agricultural assistant for UC Cooperative Extension

If the drought doesn’t get to these small farmers first, dwindling available land might. Dahlquist-Willard said landowners used to call her office looking for farmers to lease their property. Now they only get calls from farmers looking for land to lease.

In some places that used to be Hmong farms, there are now housing developments, she said. In others, Hmong farms were replaced with higher-value citrus or almond trees. Many remaining farms are now given shorter leases of two years or less, which makes it not worth paying for a new or deeper well.

That’s exactly what happened to Xiong. Last year, he farmed 18 acres. Then the landowner kicked him out to plant almonds.

His new farm is 9 acres with a 5-year lease, which he signed just last month. But Xiong only farmed 6 acres because there isn’t enough water to irrigate it all.

Last year, his farm earned a $10,000 profit. This year, between competition with Mexico, labor and production costs and the drought, he’ll be lucky to break even.

“If you calculate it, I’m not even making 1 cent,” he said. “It’s just terrible.”

Dahlquist-Willard started her job in July 2014. Two weeks in, she was pulled into an emergency meeting with the nonprofit National Hmong-American Farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture because some Hmong farmers had called suicide hotlines after their wells went dry.

“It was a very bleak meeting because everyone went around the table and said, ‘Well, I have this program but they don’t qualify for it for this reason,’ ” she said.

That meeting drove Dahlquist-Willard’s team to action. They researched ways to help Hmong farmers and came up with the survey to figure out how many people were suffering in the drought.

Their farms – most of them are on land that used to be either grapes or some kind of orchard and has an older pump with a shallower well. They are the first to go in the drought.

Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, University of California Cooperative Extension

Michael Yang, Hmong agricultural assistant for the cooperative extension, hosts a Hmong agriculture radio show every Tuesday at 2 p.m. on KBIF (900 AM). He has used the show to let farmers know about the resources available.

Dahlquist-Willard found two nonprofits that give loans to farmers in tough situations: California Farm Link and Feed the Hunger. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. also helps farmers with decreased water levels lower their electric bills through an energy-efficiency program and offers rebates for water pump repairs. A state program provides grants for farmers who switch to water-saving drip irrigation systems.

Maria Waters, California program and loan officer for Feed the Hunger, said her organization gives credit to people who don’t have access to the traditional banking system. Banks won’t lend to some farmers because they lack credit history. Others don’t want to participate in that system for cultural reasons.

A few weeks ago, Xiong received a loan through Feed the Hunger. He’s one of the lucky farmers; his landowner agreed to pay half of the $36,000 cost to drill a new well. It should be ready for use later this month.

Xiong and his wife have eight children. He farms for them – for extra income as well as to show them the meaning of hard work. He jokes that he gave his kids the option of higher education or the manual labor of farm work. Now all are either at Fresno State or are college graduates except two who became Fresno police officers.

Xiong thought about investing in a different type of business, but farming is all he’s ever known. Though it’s a gamble, he feels his lifelong experience makes for a better chance at success.

So for now, despite the drought, Xiong will continue to place his bets on the farm.

“Hopefully,” he said, “some good year I’ll make it.”

Andrea Castillo: 559-441-6279, @andreamcastillo