From Laos to America: an organic farmer's tale

On a small plot of land in a rural community east of Seattle, Kao Lee Cha considers her labor as an organic farmer to be an extension of her life.

Ms. Cha once lived high in the picturesque mountains of Laos, where her traditional Hmong hill tribe centered its existence around subsistence farming and family.

"In Laos, I grew vegetables, rice, corn for animals, bananas, and pineapples," Cha says in halting English.

Organic farming, she says, is not "work." Instead, it's a labor of love that has allowed Cha to turn her heritage into a one-woman business. Every weekend, she sells her brilliantly colored flowers and abundantly sized vegetables at Puget Sound farmers' markets.

"I like the different kinds of fruit and vegetables here. The cucumbers are so big here, not like [in] Laos," she says.

A diminutive, reserved woman, Cha has the wizened face of someone whose experience far surpasses her years. She says she and her family had to escape from Laos in the mid-1980s because her husband had been fighting for the "other side" - in all likelihood, for CIA-trained and recruited anti-Communist forces - during the Vietnam War.

"All the Vietnamese soldiers wanted to catch my husband and kill him," she says.

After a harrowing 10-day trek to Thailand, Cha and her family spent three years hiding out. During that time, both her husband and eldest daughter died.

Cha was left with a young daughter and the address of a Hmong man who had settled in Carnation, Wash. With his assistance and sponsorship, Cha ended up in nearby Bellevue, Wash., in 1989, a world away from her Southeast Asian origins. Cha, who didn't speak a word of English then, says simply: "It was hard to adjust."

But six years ago, she began to assist a farmer in Carnation and learned to apply her simple farming skills from Laos - involving tools like hoes and sticks, and no chemicals - to farming intended to produce enough for local markets.

Cha learned to start plants in a greenhouse and then plant them outdoors, as well as to grow and sell flowers, something she had never done before.

Finally, about two years ago, Cha began to farm on her own, and hers became the state's first Hmong farm to be certified organic. Despite the fact that she works her land rent-free - thanks to the generosity of a fellow organic farmer - Cha does not earn enough money to live from farming alone. "I work too hard, and not much money," she says.

Cha now works five days a week and 10 hours a day stir-frying and packaging shrimp at a factory in Redmond.

After her shift ends in the late afternoon, she heads straight over to her plot of land. She tends to the soil and the plants until well past sundown, all in preparation for selling at farmer's markets on Saturday and Sunday.

Cha is tired. "Too tired," she stresses. But organic farming is a constant in her life, giving Cha a strong feeling of accomplishment to be able to run her own business and to work alongside fellow organic farmers, who respect her and treat her kindly.

"I like the people," she says simply. "They are the best thing."

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