Hidden behind a house, a huge grassy yard, and tall bushes is Maika’s Garden. From the road, one would never guess that just beyond the two unused silos, a Hmong family grows their beautiful signature flower: dahlias. Over thirty rows of them, all reaching for the sun. It’s a peaceful setting surrounded by trees with the Snoqualmie River flowing just beyond the hedge of blackberry bushes.
Tong Xiong’s family has been farming since 1983 when his mother joined a co-op called the Indochinese Farm Project which was started to help newly arrived Hmong refugees earn a living working the land. She grew only vegetables then, and Tong remembers helping her sell the produce outside Bellevue’s Uwajimaya grocery store during the summer breaks.
“Each day I would make $40 to $50 because each bunch of vegetables was only 50 cents,” he recalls.
When he started working at the Snoqualmie Mill, he continued to help his mother sell whenever he could. In 1995 when she could no longer farm due to health issues, Tong and his wife, Maika, took over the business and have worked the farm ever since.
“I didn’t think I would farm all my life, but it looks like that is going to be the case,” Tong says with a hearty laugh. Now in his late fifties, Tong is resigned to the fact farming will be the only career he will have in this lifetime. It has been the perfect choice for him because the flexible schedule allowed him to care for his ailing parents before their deaths, and it gave him and his wife the opportunity to bond with their four children as the family worked together on the farm.
He doesn’t regret staying in this business, not only because he gets to be the boss (at least that’s what his wife lets him think), and because he has time for his family, but because he truly enjoys the work. “Farming is fun for me,” he says. “I can decide that I want to grow a new flower this year. I plant it and I get excited waiting for it to grow and watching for what it will look like when it is in bloom.”
Although each season when the long days have worn him out, he will say it is his last year farming, his family knows that as long as his health allows him to, he will continue to grow for market. His children are grown and only one is left to help on the farm. But perhaps soon she too will go make her own life. Then with only his wife by his side, they will continue to grow their beautiful tulips, dahlias, sunflowers, asters, and kale flowers. As they work the rows, they will hear echoing from the past, the happy voices of their young children calling to each other during harvest time.
Written April 2020 by Xee Yang-Schell, farmers Sua and Joua Pa Yang’s daughter. Xee was born in a village in northern Laos. Her family fled the village in 1974, she lived in a Thai refugee camp for five years before arriving in Shoreline, WA at the age of eight. She is a graduate of Shorecrest High School and Seattle University, mother of two and Bothell resident. Photographs by Tara Clark