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WAUNAKEE — On Tuesday evening, while the sun was still hot in the sky, Pa Xiong crouched down and cut at the unbroken dirt with a handheld hoe, preparing the land for planting. Wiping sweat from her brow and batting away insects, she said the plot of land that she rents on the eastern edge of Waunakee is a place of comfort for her.

Xiong, a Hmong woman who came to the United States from Laos nearly 40 years ago, said tending to her crops of beans, corn and flowers has many benefits for her. She’s able to grow food for her family to eat, it’s good exercise to help address her diabetes and high blood pressure, and it takes away her stress.

“It relieves my worry,” Xiong said through a translator. “My life feels more fulfilled.”

But when Xiong and the other Hmong families found out that their landlady, Peg Whiteside — who had been renting plots to Hmong families on about 10 acres of her property for decades — had decided to retire and sell her expansive farm, even their plots of land became a point of worry.

Thanks to a partnership of local nonprofits Groundswell Conservancy and Community GroundWorks with grant funding from the Madison Community Foundation, the Hmong families — many of whom are refugees — can continue to cultivate their fields at Westport Farm while building up infrastructure on the land and tapping into educational resources.

Nine families currently use land there to grow food for their own tables, although some also sell their produce at area farmers’ markets.

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Groundswell Conservancy, which works to protect and preserve natural and agricultural land, bought the 10 acres of land on Bong Road last year at a discount from Whiteside for $50,000 — half of its appraised value, Executive Director Jim Welsh said. The group also worked with Whiteside to set up a perpetual conservation easement on the rest of her land, so that even when she sold the rest of her farm, it would continue to be used for agriculture.

‘Sustaining their life’

Now, Community GroundWorks, which specializes in urban farming, and Groundswell plan to use $38,000 — half of which comes in the form of a grant from the Madison Community Foundation — to continue helping the farmers with infrastructure improvements and training.

“This is really about sustaining their life, sustaining their livelihood,” said Maeraj Sheikh, director of equity and community engagement at Community GroundWorks.

Community GroundWorks is organizing the farmers into a committee so they can advocate for their own needs and direct any improvements at the site. Yimmuaj Yang, the gardens network manager with Community GroundWorks who also has an acre plot at Westport Farm, is working with those farmers as a go-between for the farmers and the partnering organizations.

Input from the farmers is paramount for the project, Welsh said. Many of the farmers are refugees from Laos or Thailand who came to the United States following the Vietnam War.

Community GroundWorks will also be working with the farmers to train them in areas such as land management and soil health or other areas where the farmers feel they can improve, Sheikh said.

“Many times, groups come into these communities of color with their own agenda, and they leave when that agenda is done,” Yang said. “That can actually be very harmful.”

A place of comfort

“To know that the Hmong growers at Westport Farm will have access to the land for the rest of their lives and are provided culturally appropriate services is unbelievable,” Presley Chang, who farms on the land, said in a statement.

Although not far from the traffic of Madison, Westport Farm is a quiet space lined with verdant trees and a patchwork of plots of various sizes. The sky stretches out over the neat rows of crops, where the farmers tend their own plants or take breaks to chat with one another in their native language.

Being out at the farm reminds farmers like Xiong of their homes in rural Southeast Asia, where many of them were farmers.

Westport Farm

Nine Hmong families share 10 acres of land at Westport Farm, primarily to grow their own food, although some sell their produce at area farmers' markets.

“Every time I’m out at the land tending to the vegetables I’ve grown out of love, I’m so happy,” said Mai Chang, who had been farming on the land for about 14 years. “I feel this enormous weight lifted from my shoulders. I’m no longer stressed out and I don’t have to worry about anything else.”

Economic boon

Wisconsin’s Hmong population experiences poverty at about twice the rate of the state’s population as a whole with an 8% unemployment rate among men and 23% lower family incomes, according to a report by the UW Extension based on 2010 census data. Because of this wealth gap, it can be difficult for Hmong families to purchase their own land for farming, Sheikh said.

Farmers like Be Vang, who has been growing on a plot at Westport Farm for two decades and has only lived in the United States for a few more years than that, also use the farm as an economic contribution to their family. Vang said that when he’s growing the food himself that his family eats, he is saving them money while providing nutritious and chemical-free vegetables.

“When there’s an abundance of food, you can spread the wealth and invite others to come to harvest,” Vang said through a translator.

Although some of the farmers on the land sell their produce, most of the families grow food for their families. Not only does this save money, but it also allows them to grow produce that reminds them of home that often can’t be found in a typical grocery store, Sheikh said. The farmers grow staples of their own cuisine, including bitter melon, Hmong cucumber, bok choy, jicama and Hmong winter squash, Yang said.

“It was a part of their life,” Yang said. “By growing, they can connect to their land, connect to their memories.”

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Shelley K. Mesch is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She earned a degree in journalism from DePaul University.