Hmong farmers co-op blossoms

By Rebekah Denn, photos by Meryl Schenker

Hmong Flowers
Kia Xiong, a member of the Washington Hmong Farmers Cooperative, creates a bouquet of tulips and daffodils.

 

Local Hmong farmers known for their glorious flower bouquets are getting a cooperative boost.

The new addition is the Hmong Farmers Co-operative, bringing together 15 farms to provide group opportunities and supports that individuals can’t achieve on their own. The co-op is stocking its signature bouquets at PCC stores, beginning soon with the Kirkland and Redmond PCC stores with plans to expand to other locations.

“They’re just gorgeous bouquets. Literally, this is the stuff that’s at Pike Place Market — they’re going to be stunning,” said Noah Smith, grocery merchandiser for PCC.

The Hmong farming community began coalescing here in the 1970s, when many Hmong farmers resettled in the Seattle area as refugees after the Vietnam War. In 1982 the nonprofit Indochinese Farm Project was founded in King County, connecting those farmers with land on the Eastside and a new emphasis on flowers.

Bryant Her, the co-op’s general manager, was born and raised in California but now farms seven acres in Snohomish County with his family. His parents were farmers, but he originally worked as a mechanic until meeting his future wife, a farmer in Washington state. “Just seeing those beautiful flowers out in the field” helped change his goals, he said. The couple has nine children, and “I want to pass on this heritage to them.”

Hmong Flowers, Sound Consumer use ONLY
Bryant Her walks with his children (left to right) Kayla 4, Cheyenne, 2, and Luna, 3, through his family’s leased farmland in Snohomish.

 

Their floriculture season typically begins with spring daffodils — an array that goes beyond the standard displays. “You go out in the fields, you get yellow, you get pink, white — all sorts of different varieties,” Her said.

Next come tulips, then peonias, dahlias, and Her’s favorite — all sorts of sunflowers. Depending on acreage and tastes, some farmers add lilies or gladioli or snapdragons or dainty godetias. Fall brings cabbage flowers, then a break for dried bouquets until the cycle begins again.

Even farmers who grow the same flowers have distinct styles, said Her. Their color themes might vary, or the way they compose bouquets.

And in some ways, growing the flowers is the most straightforward part of the farmers’ work.

“They’re doing so much with what they have, and some of what they have is very limited,” said Sara Johnson, the co-op’s sales manager.

Hmong Flowers, Sound Consumer use ONLY

Not all farmers speak fluent English or can access technology and equipment that could help increase sales. Farmland is hard to find and expensive. Many of the Hmong farmers in this area rent land rather than owning it, and are frequently displaced and disrupted. The individual small farmers don’t have the capacity or infrastructure to regularly stock a business like PCC.

“But with strength in numbers, we’re able to manage this and do it together,” Johnson said.

The co-op rents space in Carnation to sort and wash and assemble bouquets and store delivery vehicles. As orders come in, the first farmers in line confirm if they can fulfill the requests or whether they should go on to the next farmer on the list.

“We kind of came up with a round robin so it would be fair to all members,” Her said.

 

Meet the Washington Hmong Farmers Co-op

Hmong Flowers, Sound Consumer use ONLY
Bryant Her and wife Ze Lao work together and hope to leave a farming legacy for their nine children.

 

The co-op was originally founded in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Flowers and produce have a timespan on them,” Her said. When markets shut down in 2020 it was catastrophic.

But community organizations like the Hmong Association of Washington rallied around the farmers and said “We’re not going to let you guys slip…we’re banding together and we’re going to make this happen,” said Johnson. (See this article for one story of community support.)

Mother’s Day drives that year sold hundreds of bouquets, and the cooperation continued even as the pandemic eased. With support from organizations like the Northwest Agriculture Business Center, a founding group of six farms formed what they call America’s first Hmong farmers co-op in 2022. This year will be its first full year of sales, following roadblocks that included the death of an earlier manager.

Beyond grocery stores, early customers include restaurants, nonprofits and others holding gala events. Some farmers grow produce as well as flowers, and Johnson has focused recently on how they can supply food banks and other hunger relief networks.

The group is starting small, but Johnson sees untold possibilities. “We have agritourism in this state for flowers – people visit tulip fields. We don’t have that yet, but could we? We sure could…,” she said. “(It’s) humble beginnings, with our rented aggregation space and our one delivery vehicle, but there’s so much to look forward to.”

Hmong Flowers, Sound Consumer use ONLY

The Year of the Co-op

PCC is marking 2024 as The Year of the Co-op through education on co-op principles and celebrating our members. Interested in learning more? Start with these articles from the Sound Consumer archives:

Also in this issue

What’s next for regenerative agriculture?

A PCC symposium explored what regenerative agriculture means and how to plan for its future in the farming industry.

New PCC Purpose Report details progress in co-op goals

Learn how PCC recycled more cardboard, wasted less food, and found more ways to support communities in the 2023 PCC Purpose Report.

Tilth Alliance awards organic agriculture grants

Dozens of farms in Washington are getting much needed improvements through Tilth Alliance organic and regenerative grants.