Flower Growers In Full Gloom -- Hmong Farmers Beset By Capricious Weather - Shortened Season, Devastating Hailstorm


Soa Yang walks around her Woodinville flower farm, the brush tickling her face. Perspiration drips down her forehead. Her Thai-style sun hat keeps the sun from burning her already brown skin.

When Yang talks about her gardens, she weeps. Monday's hailstorm, which destroyed most of the flowers she sells at Pike Place Market, was only the latest in a string of disappointments this year.

This summer has been a nightmare for other local farmers, too. They say they are making less than half what they did last year at this time. The season started late because of cold weather, and the Hmong flower growers have had only a month of selling time as opposed to the usual four. Some flowers were almost ready to be picked - until the hail fell out of the sky like marbles.

Yang's black rubber boots help her plod through the muddy paths between her rows of asters. These she typically would dry to sell in the winter. But the ones already drying in their tarp-like greenhouse were ruined when the hail broke through early Monday evening.

The Hmong - Southeast Asian refugees who sell flowers and vegetables at markets throughout the Puget Sound area - are used to hardship.

Amazingly, they discuss the devastation to their crops while smiling. Their lives in Laos were a lot worse.

"This year was such a bad season already, we were prepared," said Xee Yang-Schell, whose family farms on three parcels in the Woodinville area. "We're used to it, and know what it's like to have something bad happen. You cry a lot, but what else can you do, right?"

The Hmong were hired by the U.S. government in the 1970s to help fight the Vietnam War in Laos. When the United States pulled out of Southeast Asia, the new Communist government went after the Hmong. Some escaped to Thailand as their villages were bombed. In 1980, many came to the Pacific Northwest.

To assist them, King County soon began the Indochinese Farm Project, and many farmers rent this land around Woodinville.

Most have never known, or wanted, a life other than farming.

"It's in our blood to farm," said Yang-Schell, Yang's daughter. "We love the country."

Yang-Schell wakes every day about 5:30 a.m. to get the flowers ready. She takes them to Pike Place Market and comes home by 8 p.m.

The 27-year-old is married to an American, a Boeing worker. She helps with the family business, but this year she's barely bringing in any money for her parents. Her mother's tears are proof of that. Her father works for their local church. Since her mother hurt her finger in a car accident, her father has helped in the fields more often.

"After we pay all our bills, we only have $50 left for groceries," Yang-Schell said, speaking of her parents.

And so it goes.

Yesterday, she said, she would make only about $100, because business was slow. And that was the gross. A typical summer month selling flowers brings in about $5,000, she said. A good month's take can be up to $10,000. This month, they are averaging $1,000.

Monday's freakish hailstorm stripped their crops completely. Dahlias were wilted. The asters' blooms were ripped off. Other flowers were simply pummeled into the dirt.

"It is like someone took a bat and just hit them," Yang-Schell said. "It was really devastating,"

Next to the Yangs, Cheng Chio's calloused feet have worn out her flip flops. She cuts the flowers that haven't fallen off their stems.

"Everything gone," she said. "I have nothing to pay (for) my house."

There are several Hmong flower fields in eastern Snohomish and King counties. Major enclaves include Jubilee Farm on West Snoqualmie River Road outside Duvall, where about 10 Hmong families live, and an area south of Monroe.

"They are revitalizing the local agriculture," says Mark Musick, farmer coordinator at Pike Place Market.

Musick is working with the Pike Place Market Farm Committee to record damage suffered by half the 35 Hmong farmers who sell at the market. It may assist them in purchasing seeds for next year.

But for this year, the Hmong farmers are left with broken flowers and tears.

"(For) lots of farmers here, it is their whole life," said Prai Xiong, another grower who lost her dahlia crop to the hail. "Maybe they have to go back to welfare."