When Yer Yang lost her poultry farm in rural Cassville to foreclosure in 2012, she was convinced someone from the government would help her.
The Hmong widow wrote to numerous state and federal officials, and at one point she even went to Washington, hoping she would get help from President Barack Obama.
Instead, the federal government is demanding she repay more than $250,000 in loans on the foreclosed property, along with other debts.
Yang, 46, said the experience has left her destitute. After being evicted from the farm, she and her teenage son were left homeless for months, and she was subsequently jailed for a week on a bad check charge.
In desperation, she said she twice tried to commit suicide.
It is a far cry from the dream she said she had coming to the United States as a young girl.
An Ozarks farm
Yang emigrated with her family to the United States in 1982, and they lived for a while in Madison, Wisconsin, where she graduated from Madison East High School. She then attended the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. She married another Hmong immigrant, and they started a family in Madison, where she worked for the school system and her husband worked in the computer department of a local company. They also owned apartments and would work nights maintaining them.
“We would take the kids with us, and they’d sleep,” she said. “But we had always wanted a farm because we felt like we’d be able to spend more time with each other and with our children.”
In 2003, their dream came true. Yer and her husband, Nengntakhueyeng Thao, bought a 40-acre farm near Cassville with a loan from Hometown Bank in Carthage.
Included in the $616,000 purchase price, she said, were four growing houses where they raised broiler chickens, under a contract with George’s Processing, an Arkansas-based poultry company with a plant in nearby Butterfield.
She said the property was appraised at $600,000 before the purchase, adding, “We liked it so much, we paid more.”
Using money from the sale of their apartments in Madison, the couple made a $109,000 down payment on the property. Annual mortgage payments of $52,945 had reduced that debt to $362,021.17 when her husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack on June 29, 2011. He was 47.
It was only three weeks after her husband’s death, she said, that a couple came to her house with a contract from Hometown Bank authorizing them to buy her property for up to $375,000 and to buy and manage her next flock. The potential buyers were the son of a couple that owned a neighboring farm and his wife. But that offer represented about 60 percent of what she and her husband had paid for the property nine years earlier.
Yang refused the offer.
“I wouldn’t have gotten anything, even money from the flock,” Yang said.
She also wanted to keep the farm in hopes of making enough money to support herself and ensure her children received a college education.
At the time, her son was in high school and her daughter was attending the University of Wisconsin. She had a full scholarship, but Yang said she and her husband had been paying for her daughter’s housing and other costs. Her daughter has since quit college.
Yang said she wanted to keep the farm, which had been a profitable operation, and in her attempt to keep it, sought a modification of her loan lowering her payment. She explained that before her husband died, he had done much of the labor on the farm; now, she needed to hire help.
On Oct. 1, 2011, she and bank officials signed a new mortgage agreement, extending the life of the loan an additional 13 years and lowering the annual payment to $42,704. Like the original loan, the modified agreement was underwritten by the Farm Service Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The arrangement guarantees repayment to the bank for up to 95 percent of the loan amount in the event of default.
Immediately after her husband’s death, with Yang hiring workers to help raise chickens, she said the operation remained successful and was ranked among top growers for the company.
On Jan. 25, 2012, she was paid $25,766 for the first flock she had raised without her husband’s help, with the money deposited directly into her account at Hometown. Two days later, Yang said, the bank took nearly $11,000 from her account without her knowledge. She said she was not aware that that would happen and that when her husband operated the farm, no such withdrawals were made.
She protested after learning of the withdrawal and said $8,000 was returned. But on March 16, two days after she received a payment of $24,042 for her second flock, $11,099 was taken from her account by the bank.
Lonnie Heckmaster, president of Hometown Bank, said he could not respond to a series of questions about Yang’s situation because of a pending lawsuit and because the bank is bound by confidentiality rules regarding clients.
That spring, Yang also consulted a Pineville attorney, Abe Paul, who contacted the bank, and reported back to Yang in a letter that “it was the bank’s practice to take an assignment from each of the six or seven poultry checks to apply towards the annual installment rather than making one lump sum payment.”
Bank officials also told Paul that because Yang had hired additional labor for daily operations, “there is simply not enough cash flow to service your loan obligation as well as your regular operating expenses.”
Paul never represented Yang in any of her subsequent court actions.
Yang also said she believed the renegotiated contract specified a single, annual payment, which would not have been due until Oct. 10, 2012, based on the loan agreement.
“That’s how we had always done it,” she said.
She said she asked again for the money to be returned to her account, but she said the bank refused this time.
At that point, she said, with money being withdrawn by the bank, she was unable to pay workers or other bills, including insurance, which was a requirement of the loan agreement. The bank contacted her in September 2012 and told her they would foreclose on the property because her insurance had lapsed.
The petition to foreclose on the property was filed Oct. 1, 2012, and the bank began eviction proceedings a month later. Yang said she tried to contest the process, again consulting with an attorney and contacting government officials. She was not eligible for a public defender because she still owned the farm.
Yang and her son were evicted from the farm and their home in February 2013, and not allowed to take any of their furniture and personal belongings.
Yang said they lived for four months in her car, then briefly in a tent in Roaring River State Park, eating food provided to them by the senior citizen center in Cassville. She said they were able to get a hot meal and a shower once in a while with relatives.
The Barry County Circuit Court in April upheld the bank’s foreclosure. Yang had filed a petition to challenge the action, but the court entered a default judgment when she did not show up for the hearing.
Yang notified the court she could not attend because she was going to Washington, D.C., to appeal for help. She even staged a protest on the Washington Mall, and said she was hospitalized after suffering a breakdown when she did not get the help.
She said that the bank also refused to honor some checks she had written about the time they began withholding the money, and one of those that bounced was turned over to the prosecuting attorney’s office.
Yang spent seven days in the Barry County Jail after she was arrested Aug. 30, 2012, for an insufficient funds check that had been written to a company that made repairs at the chicken farm. The prosecuting attorney later dropped that specific check charge.
The Farm Service Agency, which underwrote the loan, is demanding she repay more than $250,000 — the balance on the farm loan — and for a $6,200 loan she took out to purchase propane to heat the chicken houses. Hometown Bank was the lender on the loan for the propane as well, but since it was underwritten by the FSA, the federal government is the one collecting the bill.
Yang did get responses from all her letters to government officials — though not the help she wanted.
One came from an official of the Farm Service Agency, written in response to a letter Yang wrote to President Barack Obama.
In her letter to Obama, written in May 2012, Yang told the president, “As a mother Hmong woman, 5 feet tall, I do everything in my capacity to run this farm in order to support the family.”
But in his letter, Chris P. Beyerhelm, deputy administrator for farm loan programs, said the agency “has no authority to interfere with the lender’s right to service its accounts in accordance with its own policies and procedures.”
“It is standard practice for both FSA and other agricultural lenders to require an assignment of income from poultry contracts to assist in the timely repayment of the loan. While we certainly empathize with you in this difficult situation, FSA’s role is limited to ensuring that the lender has performed in accordance with provision of the guarantee.”
Yang said her last hope was the Southern District Missouri Court of Appeals, where she argued the nation that became her new home was founded on the principle of justice for all.
With the help of a paralegal, she outlined her challenge to lower court rulings that upheld the foreclosure. Including copies of court and bank documents — many of the same ones she had copied and sent to federal and state officials — she argued that money was taken from her account by the bank without her approval and that then her property was taken without due process.
The bank, in its response, said it acted lawfully. It also contends Yang made no arguments concerning due process or bank practices in earlier court hearings, and therefore was ineligible to make them on appeal.
Kevin Checkett, attorney for Hometown Bank, said the bank “disputes all allegations” that Yang had made in her appeal.
Earlier this month, the appeals court dismissed Yang’s claim, saying the petition — drafted primarily by Yang — was substantially lacking in form and content. Yang said she could not afford an attorney for the appeal, but the appeals court noted that all filings are held to the same legal standard, regardless of whether they are written by licensed attorneys.
“Our adherence to these principles stems not from a lack of sympathy for the pro se appellant, but is necessary to assure judicial impartiality, judicial economy and fairness to all parties,” the court wrote.
Yang, who is now living in subsidized housing in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, said she doesn’t know what is next for her, now that she has exhausted her appeal.
Her sole income is a check from SSI, but $54 is being withheld from each monthly check to repay the bank for the cost of the propane; no garnishment has been started for the larger loan.
“It was our dream to have a farm. Even though the work was hard and dirty, we liked it so much,” she said.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 260,000 Hmong residents live in the United States, with more than 8,500 in the Four-State Area.
Bankruptcies among some Hmong chicken farmers in the Ozarks were the subject of a 2006 report by the Farmers Legal Action Group, based in Minnesota. Its report found that some farmers had purchased their property based on inflated prices and inflated estimates of farms’ production values. Those loans also were underwritten by the Farm Services Agency. Lynne Hays, senior staff attorney with FLAG, said the organization later attempted to convince the USDA to look more closely at some of those loans, and to encourage banks to restructure them so farmers could survive. There was no “systemic resolution,” on the loans, she said. Some farmers were able to restructure, while others gave up and left their farms, declared bankruptcy or were foreclosed on.