ROCKY COMFORT, MO. — Fue Yang walks by rows of yu choy, an Asian green with bright yellow flowers, and rows of freshly planted garlic on the farm he runs with his parents.
Yang said his family farms much as his parents — Neng and Zoua Yang — did in Laos, planting and harvesting the vegetables by hand. But Yang is part of an effort to try to extend the growing season for Hmong farmers in Southwest Missouri and Northwest Arkansas.
The Yang family farm will become a teaching farm for other farmers in the area with workshops taught in Hmong and English. The Webb City Farmers Market recently received a $60,452 grant from the Missouri Department of Agriculture for the project.
"We're hoping it teaches the Hmong community how to modernize," Yang said.
The grant will pay for the workshops and two high tunnels, plastic-covered structures that help protect plants from cold weather. One will be heated and another unheated.
"It gives you an extra three months," said Hector Troyer, a Stark City farmer who will be a mentor on the project.
Eileen Nichols, a volunteer manager for the Webb City Farmers Market, said the high tunnels will be built at the Yang farm in December at workshops that area farmers can attend.
"We have a vested interest in this," Nichols said. "Our winter market is very popular. The more produce we have the more customers we can satisfy."
Yang and his parents sell their vegetables at the Webb City Farmers Market and at the Farmers Market of the Ozarks in Springfield.
About 210 Hmong residents live in McDonald County, according to census estimates. Newton County has an estimated 537 Hmong, and Barry County has 189.
The 2012 Agriculture Census lists 74 Asian farmers in McDonald County, or about 8 percent of the county's 926 farmers.
Mai Her, the Missouri farm program coordinator for a nonprofit called Hmong National Development, said Hmong moved to Southwest Missouri for the chance to buy their own land and have farms.
"Hmong people are a very agricultural people," Her said. "It comes pretty much naturally."
Nashon Bishop, who works at Lincoln University's outreach program for small farmers, said Hmong farmers are skilled at growing root crops such as carrots, which can be difficult to grow in the rocky soil of Southwest Missouri.
"There are crops that our Hmong farmers can grow better in Southwest Missouri than anyone else," Bishop said.
Yang said his father was part of a Hmong resistance movement in Laos during the Vietnam War called the Special Guerrilla Unit that was organized by the CIA. The unit was organized in the early 1960s when the Communists began to take over Laos, a country in Asia bordering Vietnam. More than 100,000 Hmong refugees fled to the United States after the Communists seized power in 1975.
In 1980, the Yangs immigrated to the United States. Fue Yang, 35, is the oldest of the Yangs' seven children, three sons and four daughters. The family lived in Massachusetts until 2009 where Neng and Zoua Yang worked at manufacturing jobs and were part of a nonprofit called the Flats Mentor Farm that helped Hmong farmers.
Yang said the founder of the farm, Maria Moreira, helped Hmong farmers connect with markets for what they grew.
"All my life I remember my parents having little gardens," Yang said.
They bought 43 acres near Rocky Comfort in 2009. They also have about 40 part-Angus cows and Asian chickens, which have dark meat. A well provides most of the water for the farm.
"They're looking for a way to live how they did in Laos," Yang said.
Other Hmong farmers in the area have tried high tunnels, but Nichols said they can be tricky.
One Hmong farmer lost his entire tomato crop in a high tunnel when he improperly vented a wood stove that was in the high tunnel, filling the structure with smoke. Another planted tomatoes too close together and has since used the high tunnel only for storage.
Troyer, the mentor, said farmers shouldn't put high tunnels in low spots where water will gather or windy places where they could blow over.
"There are a lot of things you want to do right or you'll have to take it down," he said.
Vegetables such as spinach, carrots and broccoli can be grown in the unheated tunnel. More vulnerable plants like tomatoes and peppers can be grown in the heated tunnel.
Nichols said the vegetables will be grown using compost, which will be changed regularly to prevent diseases in the tomatoes.
Yang, who has been taking classes in horticulture at Crowder College, said he is both excited and scared about the project.
"I'm not sure how it's going to turn out or what's going to happen," Yang said, "but I guess that's normal."
The Hmong population in Southwest Missouri has grown since 2000 when the census listed just 26 Hmong residents in the entire state. By 2010, an estimated 1,329 Hmong residents were living in the state, according to the census. The largest Hmong communities are in Minnesota and Wisconsin.