Aging Hmong producers grapple with future concerns
MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - America’s farmers are aging.
For years, it’s worried industry leaders as newcomers and younger generations struggle to step onto the scene. But for many Hmong farmers in Wisconsin, the experience is more complex.
“He (was) getting old, so he needed a lot of help,” Peempheej Lee said, describing how he picked up the trade from his father-in-law.
At 57, Lee is uncertain about the future of farming in his family. His adult children aren’t in the business.
“When I die, they’re probably not [going to] do anything so far right now,” Lee said. “But I don’t know the future. Maybe a couple years in the road, maybe they change their mind, but right now they just do what they like to do.”
Lee’s story begins like many other farmers’ stories. The latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2017 show the average age of a Wisconsin producer is 56 years old, just one year younger than Lee. Meanwhile young farmers (less than 35 years old) made up less than 10 percent of all Wisconsin producers.
“Regardless of ethnicity, often that next generation is not wildly excited about returning to the farm. Farming is high risk. Not always high income. And it’s pretty stressful,” Diane Mayerfeld, the sustainable agriculture coordinator for University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension, said.
Mayerfeld is in a team of experts from the UW Extension and nonprofit Groundswell Conservancy working to build a stronger support system for Hmong farmers in the state.
A March report commissioned by Dane Co. shows Hmong farmers only make up 1 percent of total producers in the county, but at the Dane Co. Farmers Market, they make up more than 15 percent of members, according to a market manager.
Planning for the future can be complicated. Mayerfeld says especially for those who are older, language barriers can strain their access to help. In an industry where resources are traditionally passed down from generation to generation, Mayerfeld says Hmong farmers in Wisconsin generally own less land than white farmers. “Then that’s not a ready-made asset to pass on to the next generation,” she said.
Lee isn’t sure what he will do with the four acres of land he currently rents in Marshall. When he will retire is another question he plans to answer another time.
“You have to do something for yourself,” he said. “Otherwise, I can sit down at home and not do anything.”
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