Hmong presence growing at Farmer's Market

2010-07-24T18:30:00Z Hmong presence growing at Farmer's MarketBy SAMARA KALK DERBY | skalk@madison.com | 608-252-6439 madison.com

Yeng Yang credits much of his family's success in a new country to the Dane County Farmers' Market and other area farmers' markets.

"If it weren't for this, I don't know where our family would be," said Yang during some rare downtime between markets.

Yang's parents, like many other Hmong immigrants, came to the United States after the Vietnam War with agricultural skills but little else. Farmers' markets gave them a way to earn money and build a better life for themselves and their children.

The family is part of a growing Hmong presence at the Dane County market, where 40 or so Hmong farmers - about 12 percent to 15 percent of the market's membership - set up stalls each week.

Farmers markets are especially important for recent immigrants, said Alfonso Morales, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at UW-Madison and an expert on public markets. A market, such as the Dane County Farmers' Market, where shoppers pay a premium, gives the Hmong a better outlet than a roadside stand or another farmers' market because of its great reputation and its large, affluent customer base.

The income they make frequently gets plowed back into their operations and paid forward through investment in their children, he said.

The Yang family has been very successful. Yang, 25, is a graduate of East High School and attends college in Minnesota. His oldest brother teaches at the college level. One of his sisters is a pharmacist. Each of his four brothers and three sisters are successful in their own right, Yang said.

The family's business, Yang's Fresh Produce, has a stand at the Saturday market on the Square, then it's off to sell at other markets: Park Street on Tuesdays, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on Wednesdays, Middleton and Fitchburg on Thursdays, Lodi on Fridays and Beloit on Sundays.

Selling everything from beans and peas to herbs and berries, they can make between $8,000 and $20,000 a month, when Yang combines revenue from all the markets they work each week. Yang's Fresh Produce also sells to the Regent Market Co-op, the Willy Street Co-op, and the restaurants L'Etoile and the Old Fashioned.

Larry Johnson, Dane County Farmers' Market manager, said the success of a Hmong farmer hinges on the products sold.

"They sometimes will bring their cultural vegetables, but customers don't always know what to do with them," he said.

Hmong farmers often rent their land, Johnson said, but now more are beginning to buy their land.

The family rents garden space in two-acre parcels in Fitchburg, town of Dunn and Deerfield.

Both Yang and his sister, Christina, emphasize that farming is hard work. In the future, Christina Yang said, she doesn't want her mother to work so hard. One thing that motivates the children in the family to be successful is the desire to support their mother in her old age, she said.

"Look at how much she works, how hard she works. We don't want to live our lives that way," she said.

Phil Yang, who teaches at Edgewood College in the school of education, said the market has been a vehicle to help his family economically and educationally.

It has also given his younger siblings, many of whom grew up in the United States, a chance to learn about farming and, in turn, about traditional Hmong culture, since the Hmong are an agricultural society, said Phil Yang, who was born in Laos and came to the U.S. at age 13.

Selling at the market also helps the family give back to the community, he said. "To be able to do something like this is something we can really feel proud of, being part of the American Society."

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