The Strawberry Farm
Charlotte’s Berry Farm employed immigrant employees, exclusively from the Hmong community. They were willing to do and enjoyed the work, and they were damn good at it. Whether weeding, harvesting or picking rocks, they were solid workers. But it took time to understand how to maintain a solid working relationship with these folks who had spent anywhere from their entire lives to the better part of their lives in refugee camps in Thailand. They had their own social norms, their own culture, and it did not always jive with what we were used to.
Many of the elders did not speak but a few words of English and were resistant to having to learn so late in life. So the young were expected to translate, and yet subjugate themselves to the elders. And one of the first things we learned about the community was that this created a fair amount of tension between the elders and the young. So when their was a mixed team from an age perspective, one had to handle things a certain way. For example, while we employed individuals, we often payed only the elder in charge all the wages.
Another thing arose which was a real problem for us from a legal perspective. Many of the elder males felt they had paid their price having fought for the US under the tutelage of CIA operatives who had promised them refugee status in the US. These men were bitter about having had to wait many years to have that promise kept. And they carried the scars of war, literally and figuratively. They felt that they did not owe taxes and social security. And I did not blame them!
Lutheran Social Services had sponsored and worked to place most of the Hmong immigrants in the Eau Claire area. While they did a good job of placing them, they lacked the understanding of the way they lived and how they interacted. Many of these folks were ill-prepared to adjust to their new environment. The did the best they could. It did not help that they felt maligned by their new neighbors in many cases. We did not care to treat the Hmong that way, and they seemed to sense that early on. We often had more workers show up than we could reasonably employ on a given day. And we slowly but surely learned about the Hmong. They are a beautiful people, and this group in Eau Claire had endured a great deal, and still endured a great deal when they were placed in our city.
We learned that it was better to have a team of younger employees if we could arrange it that way. And we learned that if you wanted to get work done, you put a female in charge of the team. The men tended to spend their time telling everyone what to do and then doing not much themselves when in charge. It worked better to have a 25 to 30 year old female running the team, and younger males working under her direction. That was just the way it was. The younger teams also were bilingual, so all members could be addressed without translation, easing the process of training as well as giving general directions at the start of the day. We learned …, and so did they.
A lack of understanding about the ‘paperwork’ involved in employing someone was an ongoing problem for a few years. We had some employees that provided different SS numbers at different times. Something that can happen pretty easily when dealing with shifting individuals in the teams of seasonal workers. When we identified the problem, we would explain it to them, and often received a rather confused, blank stare in return. They were not cheating the system as far as they were concerned. Income was a family endeavor for them and individual identification within the family regarding income simply was not a concept they adjusted to easily. We had to watch….
I think of those early years and the struggles they faced and the struggles we had understanding what they were doing and why. As we learned and understood more, so did they. We had fun working with these neighbors of ours. I recall Dad attempting to employ his evangelical tendency with the Hmong. That did not last long… . They would listen politely, all while clearly ignoring him. He gave up quickly. He learned to respect that they had their own belief system, and they were not open to other lines of thought. Dad did not hold it against them, he just let it be after a few tries. And Dad being Dad, did learn about what they found funny and/or amusing. He joked around with them just like he did with all employees. Whether working or Ideal Carpet Cleaning or Charlotte’s Berry Farm, you could bet you were going to end up laughing if Dad was around. I always thought of Dad’s humor as his best Evangelical tool.
Mom of course was the one who learned to manage the Hmong teams over time with her firm but compassionate style. Slow to anger and quick to listen and understand and accommodate when she could, she was the one who learned the most. And they learned to return respect in the same way. They came to show caring for our family. We had gained some friends along the way.
These days, we can choose to have a problem 11 million strong, or we can choose to have an opportunity 11 million strong. Yes, it takes time and investment. And yes, we need and should employ a consistent policy regarding our borders and illegal immigration. That policy should simply recognize that the lack of one previously gave us an opportunity. It should simply provide a short path to citizenship for those here, and then move us forward in such a way that we don’t have the problem in the same way again.
We don’t need to malign these folks that came here and contributed and continue to contribute as best they know how. We need to forget the hows and the whys, and simply move forward with them. We need to invest in them in a way which enhances the US. It is the only logical approach. Turn the problem into a opportunity. That is what we do here in the US. We did it with Germans, Irish, and to a lesser extent Africans. We made them Americans.
We are under leadership right now that prefers to think in term of limited opportunity and lots of problems. We can hope that changes in 2020, but even if it does we will have a long way to go get moving forward again, economically, politically, and most importantly: As a unified nation which encompasses so many different folks from so many places. What an opportunity! We just need to take it.
It takes time to incorporate new folks into what we call the United States. It takes patients. And in my mind, Charlotte’s Berry Farm epitomized that. I am proud of that experience gained. I owe a debt of gratitude to my parents for what they taught me about dealing with others. Just as importantly, I owe a debt of gratitude to the Hmong community for giving us the opportunity to learn from them. And we did learn so much… .
It was the opportunity of a life time, and we took it. I am proud of that.