Working the Soil, from Laos to Wisconsin

I remember back in ’62 we had to leave our village because the Communists came. You hear they are coming and you have to leave.

Photo courtesy of The Lands We Share project

Cheu Vang | Jefferson, WI

“My family lived far away from the city, in the highlands of Laos. We had to work very hard doing slash and burn agriculture, clearing trees to get the land ready to plant rice paddies.

Where I grew up in Laos, the understanding was that there’s almost, like, free land that anybody can use. If you’re the first person to go there, then you put some sort of wooden marker up and no one else should farm on your land. Each growing season you move to a new place. When there was a dispute, my father was the local village chief who would resolve the problems.

During the Vietnam War, I knew a little English so I worked for the United States government. Many Hmong were fighting on the side of the Americans or working for them. I directed planes that carried the food supply and helped refugees when they were sick. Because of the war, we could not really farm anymore, so we were lucky that the United States was helping us by airdropping food, pots, pans, and utensils. At this time, you have no idea of who you will become, no visions, you are just surviving the war.

When the United States pulled out of Saigon, we had to leave Laos. We escaped to Thailand and were staying in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, waiting for any sponsor to help us come to America. It was just the three of us, my wife Chia, my daughter She Vang, and me. A Southern Baptist church sponsored us, and when we came to Connecticut in March, 1976, there were no leaves on the trees. So our impression is, ‘Why are there no leaves?’ We were not happy at first, and we cried. We had a lot of family back in Thailand and felt alone in America. Hmong people really want to be close together, so we moved to Milwaukee to be closer to family and friends in Wisconsin.

We borrowed money from a relative and opened an Asian grocery store in Milwaukee. Working in the grocery store seven days a week you have not much time to go outside and enjoy your life. So we asked ourselves, ‘What are we doing right now? All of our kids are growing up and I get older, older for what?’ We missed farming and wanted to work hard on the land, not in a store. So that’s why we headed off to farming. We know it is very hard work, but we like it.

We got a farm in Jefferson, Wisconsin. When we first started here we had about seven acres. As farmers, we are the ones first exposed to chemicals and pesticides, and we did not want that, so we decided not to do it. Even if you have your own protection against pesticides according to regulation, you can make mistakes too, so that’s why we got rid of them.

Some years after we started, I talked to a co-worker at our co-op and he said, ‘Oh yeah, if your land has been there for three years with no chemical and no fertilizer you can qualify for organic certification.’ So we filled out the application. Then they came to inspect and we showed them what we grow here. I said that we farm the natural way, no treatment, everything is like back in our country. So we became the first certified organic Hmong farm in the state of Wisconsin.

Organic farming is not just about food. You have to take care of the weeds and so many insects.

If you want to plant cabbage you have to know the variety and what insect will be attracted to this food. If I go to the store, I choose the apple that has a little insect bite on it. That’s the one that will make you healthy. We produce vegetables for our own family consumption, and we also care about people who come to our food stand to buy our mustard greens and eggplant. When people want to buy our organic eggplant for their family, they are caring for their health.

There are some crops we cannot grow here that we could grow in Laos. The seasons and the weather are different, but farming here in Wisconsin reminds me of the life I had back in Laos. Recently, I have been back to Laos and I got to witness that the slash and burn farming techniques haven’t changed much. Based on the experiences I’ve had farming here in America, I’d like to go back and teach them more sustainable ways to grow food.”

-Cheu Vang | Jefferson, WI

Cheu’s story is part of Love Wisconsin’s collaboration with The Lands We Share, a project that focuses on the intersection of farming, land, ethnic culture, and history in Wisconsin. To hear a snippet of Cheu’s interview, click this link and scroll down to ‘Vang’ and listen to audio 01.

Share This Post