from sky to seed

On assignment: Hmong immigrant farmers

Whenever I go out on assignment for a freelance story, I end up with dozens of great photos. Unfortunately, only a small handful ever make it into print. I’m going to start sharing some of those here.

One wonderful story that I’ve been working on for the past few weeks focuses on Hmong immigrant farmers in the Ozarks. During the Vietnam War, Hmong exchanged loyalties with American forces for stateside amnesty, and more than 200,000 resettled in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California during the 80s. Now we’re seeing a second wave of migration away from those areas and into the rocky farms of the Ozarks. According to the Missouri branch of the Hmong National Development organization, Hmong families are attracted to the Ozarks because this region offers a landscape and a lifestyle similar to the lives they left behind in Southeast Asia.

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I met the Her family when they submitted a vendor application to our local farmers market and I, as a volunteer member of the staff, was sent out to do a farm visit. Mao, with her sunny disposition (and her adorable little hat!), made quite an impression on me. At the time, I vowed to find a way to write a story about her and her family.

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As the saying goes, the harder you work, the luckier you get. Just two weeks later, I was tapped by a representative from GateHouse Media who runs a small ad-driven publication called The Big Nickel. Twice a year, they release a farm edition that covers that four states area, and they wanted a piece on Hmong farmers.

Rejoice!

Since then, I’ve seen the Hers twice for additional photos and interviews. It’s been a blast. The last time I visited their farm, they were so excited that have a real “reporter” doing a story on them that they insisted I pose in photographs with them so that they could share the pictures with relatives. Adorable!

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When I first went to school for journalism, I had conflicting dreams. As a small town girl, a part of me remained loyal to the urge to honor small town lives. But my ambition also sent me down a more vain path–one that pursued big media outlets. I got a big break when I went to work for Oregon Public Broadcasting while I was in grad school, and I’m so grateful for that opportunity. The other intern working with me immediately hopped on with NBC news in New York City. I, on the other hand, started freelancing in the rural Ozarks.

I still struggle with this choice, especially when I start feeling like a failure after seeing fellow colleagues publishing “important” work about race and politics, etc., in places like the WSJ or NYT, etc. But then another part of me remembers the small town girl in me that always wanted to do exactly what I do now–highlight the important and yet often overlooked roles of hard-working people in small towns carving out a life for themselves, too. Of course, I’d love to get these stories into publications with larger readership, but I remain committed to the subjects I cover.

Something that I don’t get to say a whole lot about being a writer in a rural area is that you really see the impact that your work makes. It feels so good when story sources contact me to tell me how grateful they are to have their stories told. It means a lot to them. I understand this completely. It is so comforting to be heard.

My piece, Hmong immigrants realize the American dream in the Ozarks, is slated for publication in September.

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