When I migrated to Wisconsin from Laos along with fellow Hmong refugees, I had to adapt to many cultural differences. The language, the food, the clothing — everything was different. Over time I observed that the Hmong community here had lost its connection to the earth. While in Laos everyone participated in the growing of food; in America we no longer farmed.
This was one of the reasons I decided to try to make a living as a farmer in my new country: to re-establish a connection to the land and an ability to grow food, a skill which I could pass on to my children and other members of the next generation. But I realized I would again have to adapt — this time to the difference in growing conditions between here and Southeast Asia.
Fortunately, I was able to access farm bill-funded training and technical assistance programs from the Farley Center in Verona. Because of my concern over the chemicals used in modern agriculture, I wanted to farm organically. The Farley Center, and through them the Spring Rose Growers Cooperative, helped me through the process of organic certification. Now I am in my first year of certified organic produce production with a good base of customers for my fruits and vegetables.
Yet the farm bill expired at the end of September. Our leaders in Congress assure us they will be developing a new bill after the election. When they do, I hope they vote to preserve funding for the Outreach and Technical Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers program (also known as the 2501 Program). This program serves as the only farm program dedicated to addressing the needs of minority farmers and ranchers, and provides critical resources, outreach, and technical assistance to groups that have been historically underserved by federal programs.
One of my biggest concerns is that not enough young people are interested in farming. The average Wisconsin farmer is 55. While I am doing what I can to teach my children how to grow food, too few of their peers are interested in becoming farmers. As the older generation passes away, who will grow the food?
This makes another farm bill initiative — the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program — very important as well. This highly successful program helps future farmers succeed, through training, mentoring and help securing land. The program has always dedicated one quarter of the funds to programs and services that address the needs of socially disadvantaged farmers with limited resources.
These programs received $75 million each in the last farm bill, funding that expired on Sept. 30. Current drafts of the farm bill in both houses call for funding cuts in both programs — cuts that would hurt young and minority farmers. As Congress debates a new farm bill, or an extension of the current bill, it should at the very least maintain the level of investment for these programs made in the last farm bill.
Often cultural barriers stand in the way of Hmong and other minority farmers accessing farm support programs. Now that I have benefited from 2501, I plan to start an apprenticeship program to teach others how to farm. And the only way I will be able to do so is through support for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers in the new farm bill.
We must recognize the important part beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers play in the future of our food system. We must continue funding and strengthening programs that have successfully helped these groups maintain and strengthen their family farms, as well as start successful farming livelihoods.
Cheu Vang lives and farms in Jefferson.