Seven years ago I hosted 70 Sudanese women and children for a tour of our farm. These folks were refugees who had resettled in Iowa. Jumping out of the cars that brought them, they immediately headed out our driveway and across the road to a cornfield. "How do you do this?" they asked in broken English. I'm sure my eyes were like saucers as I thought, "How do I do what?"
These women had been farmers in Sudan and they wanted to know how we grew such long, straight rows of corn. They used to grow their corn in hills with several seeds planted per hill. I explained that here it was done by machine. They seemed satisfied with the answer and eagerly went on to see more farm sights. But I was left with a thought imprinted on my mind that has never left: Why are families with such strong rural roots living in Des Moines' inner city?
This summer I have been privileged to rent 2.5 acres of land to three families of Hmong farmers. They were farmers in Laos before they found political asylum in the United States during the mid-1970s. During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited the Hmong to fight Communists. Like my Sudanese guests, it is mostly women in the Hmong culture who work in the gardens.
As summer wears on I'm getting to know more and more about each Hmong family. They are all related. Youa Vang is a tiny woman about my age. She invests more time on her portion of the garden than her cousins because she has no job outside the home. She lives in Des Moines and travels about 30 miles round trip to her garden. She has 12 children. Third-grade daughter, Ioung, always accompanies her mother when she isn't in school. She often serves as the interpreter. I have never met Youa's husband. Youa learned to farm in Laos with her parents and is teaching her daughter in the same manner. She uses all the produce for her family and doesn't sell at the farmers' market. Even though Youa is the hardest to understand she remains my favorite because she is the one who immigration has changed the least.
Maichou Lee is Youa's sister-in-law. An outgoing, bubbly woman, she markets much of her produce, along with egg rolls and pastries at the farmers' market. She cleans at a local hospital and doesn't spend as much time at the garden as Youa. Unlike Youa, Maichou's husband and three children often help her tend the vegetables and flowers. I have been a guest at the Lees' home. Maichou was playing a video of a movie filmed in her homeland. She pointed out the type of house she had in Laos and the different features of the land to me. She had a respectable stack of similar videos and I felt that this may be a method to explain the culture to her children.
Both women buy chickens from me. I used to sell them frozen chickens until they finally made me understand they wanted to butcher the chickens themselves. They prefer a selection of male and female chickens because they get different medicinal value from each gender. Roosters cured certain ailments and hens were better for others. From what I could gather, they make broth from the entire bird -- including the neck, the gizzard and the egg sack (all parts you'd be hard pressed to find in a standard grocery-store bird). They seem to prefer smaller birds, and weren't overly impressed with my big six-pound broilers.
The entire summer has been a pleasant learning experience for everyone involved. As I look at small Iowa towns suffering the effects of continued population loss, communities that don't understand the term "local food security" and a state that recently passed an Official English Bill, I must take pause. What happened to the Iowa hospitality that allowed Gov. Robert Ray to open the state's doors to Southeast Asian refugees in the 1970s? We should use that very successful model to locate our new immigrants in rural Iowa. As Gov. Ray demonstrated, through the support of small-town church communities, immigrants were successfully welcomed into Iowa's rural culture. Instead of locating immigrants in cities near the welfare office, where nothing is familiar and they are often left on their own to figure things out, it would be a better solution to introduce them to rural communities who commit to sponsor a family. Upon arriving in rural Iowa, immigrants find a support network in place to help them learn about living in a foreign culture and finding their niche in the community. They will be placed in a setting that more closely resembles the agrarian background they are accustomed to.
Iowans opened their hearts and their communities and made this approach to immigration work 30 years ago. It would serve the state well to remember our success and revive an old idea to bring new faces, willing hands and open hearts to rural communities.
LaVon Griffieon of Ankeny, Iowa, is a farmwife and co-founder and president of 1000 Friends of Iowa, a group that promotes responsible land use. She is also a Food and Society Policy Fellow, funded through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.