FRESNO, Calif. (AP) - As Neng Fong looks around at the bok choy, Chinese broccoli and other Asian vegetables he grows on the 10 acres he has leased from a local farmer, he dreams of owning his own farm someday.
"My life depends on farming," says Fong, 45, who fled Laos more than two decades ago.
Many Hmong like Fong fled persecution in their country by coming to the United States. They also took to farming because it was a trade they could continue while making a new life in America.
And more and more Southeast Asian natives like Fong are becoming California's newest farmers, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.
Out of 74,126 farms in California, about 11,075 are owned or operated by minority farmers, according to the 1997 farm census, the most recent numbers available. In 1992, figures show 9,680 of the 77,669 state's farms at that time were owned or operated by minority farmers.
The number of Asians who operate or own California farms is 3,408, up from 3,292 in 1992. Hispanics are the largest group of the state's minority farmers, with 4,515 - up from 3,883 in 1992. Blacks make up 277, slightly up from 253. American Indians make up 524, up from 486.
The census recorded other non-white California farmers as 2,351, up from 1,766 in 1992.
The California numbers reflect a national trend. The number of minority farmers nationwide rose to 75,375 in 1997 from 64,443 in 1992, according to the farm census. Hispanics represent the largest number of minority farmers in the nation at 27,717, up from 20,956 five years earlier.
"Minorities have lower net worth in terms of household assets and fewer resources provided to them by previous generations. And farming, although it requires a lot of hard work, if they work hard, they can get ahead," said Joe Miller, census worker at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Farming still represents an opportunity where they can start and work hard and be successful."
Richard Molinar, a Fresno County farm adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension Office, said he expects these numbers to grow statewide when the new farm census is released next year.
"With the growing Hispanic population, we're also seeing a steady increase in Hispanic farmers as well, but there's a more dramatic increase with Southeast Asians," he said. "After coming to the United States, it was something that they could easily pick up on that they knew. It didn't require a lot of language or training to be able to sell their produce."
But such diversity often brings challenges. Minority farmers cite language, lack of outreach programs and discrimination as barriers. Some groups have filed lawsuits against the USDA alleging discrimination when applying for loans. The USDA has paid more than $600 million in settlements to about 12,500 black farmers around the nation.
Recognizing the challenges, local, state and federal officials have tailored outreach programs to specific groups.
The University of California Cooperative Extension Office has hired a Hmong farm adviser to help Hmong growers produce and sell their crops. The USDA has hired liaisons for American Indians. The Fresno County Farm Bureau, one of the largest farm bureaus in the state, plans to print its materials in Hmong and Spanish.
"All of those ethnic groups contribute so much to agriculture both economically and culturally. We're the ones missing out by not having the information in their language," said Mandy Littlejohn, the Fresno County Farm Bureau outreach coordinator.
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