Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Remarkable Farmer

The Institute for Social and Economic Development recently featured Mor Xiong, one of our growers, on their web site. We are sad that Mor has moved back to Minnesota. Her husband, who speaks very little English, has health problems. The Hmong population in Minnesota is so large that all hospitals have Hmong translators which is necessary for Mor's husband to understand his treatment. We will miss her.


Mor Xiong. a farmer near Ritchie, MO sells at the Webb City Farmers Market above.

Farmer Mor Xiong grows produce for market in two gardens, and also raises chickens and cattle for her family’s consumption. She grows traditional Asian vegetables such as bitter melon, as well as a broad range of locally popular vegetables like tomatoes, onions, peppers, cabbage, carrots, and lettuce. Born in Laos, Mor and her family fled to a refugee camp in Thailand in 1983. On October 29, 1986 (she remembers the date instantly) she and her family moved to the United States: first to Colorado, then to Wisconsin due to the large Hmong population there, before settling near Ritchie, Missouri in 2006 to be near family and to move away from the cold.

It was then she met Eileen Nichols, Director of the Webb City Farmers Market, where Mor is now a regular vendor from May through October. Eileen calls Mor “highly motivated, not only working hard in her gardens but taking advantage of learning opportunities as well.”

Since arriving in Missouri she has participated in workshops and mentoring provided by the Webb City Farmers Market and has incorporated many of the best practices she has learned. One of her greatest leaps of faith, at the suggestion of her market mentors, was her decision to install a new farmhouse garden. Originally, Mor worked one river garden near Shoal Creek, which has deep, fertile soil, but flooded the banks five times in 2008 alone, causing her to lose many plants. Mor’s market mentors urged her to consider adding garden space away from the river as insurance, but Mor was skeptical because the new garden site near her house has rocky soil. After the mentors described methods for improving soil, she began to believe the new site could be successful. As of the 2009 season, Mor is significantly expanding her farmhouse garden and moving her Shoal Creek garden further from the water.

Mor reflects on both the benefits and challenges of farming and selling at the Webb City Farmers Market. First, she is grateful for the tangible benefits: money to provide for her family. When asked what she likes about her work, she first responds, “Everything!” She then says she likes days selling at the market the best because it is easy work compared to farming (which is largely done by hand in very hot weather). Secondly, Mor likes the market because she gets to see everyone, and there is “lots of laughing.”

Getting to know her fellow farmers and customers has been a tangible benefit of joining the farmers market, particularly the family of one of her mentors, Tim Green. Happy to help a fellow farmer, Tim has made several trips to Mor’s farm (an eighty-mile round trip) to discuss farming techniques. As Eileen says, “The Greens have, in some ways, adopted Mor, providing change, making signs, and generally watching out for her.” Tim, who owns a greenhouse, even grew some of her Asian produce and saved seed for Mor, knowing the risk she took with the river garden. When the river flooded and Mor lost all of her plants, she had seeds from Tim to try again.

Flooding is a big challenge Mor faces, and, ironically, so is drought. Although her farmhouse garden is irrigated, her river garden has no access to power so she must haul water from the creek to keep plants alive in August (there is often no rain from mid-July through September.) With this limited method, she can only keep a small fraction of the garden producing. Another challenge for Mor is language barriers and math literacy. While in the past her daughters helped her to overcome language barriers, they no longer live nearby. Asked who helps her now, she tells Eileen, “you, only you.” Eileen explains, “As market manager, and as her friend, I help her with her sales tax records and forms, as I do with most of our Hmong farmers and several of our native-born farmers.” The Webb City Farmers Market is planning to offer English as a Second Language instruction to immigrant farmers.

“I am a huge fan of Mor’s,” says Eileen. “When she first came to the market, she made a terrible impression on us volunteer managers. She seemed bitter and demanding. But then the true Mor emerged. I think we got the first inkling when she came up to the information table holding a flower bouquet for each manager and shyly said ‘Will you marry me?’ Mor has a wonderful sense of humor, works incredibly hard and is always dependable. We are very glad she is one of our market’s growers.”