Vibrant flower bouquets are one of the beloved farmers market items in King County, but in March 2020 as farmers markets temporarily closed due to the emerging coronavirus pandemic and the statewide “Stay Home Stay Healthy” order, flower growers across the region had no place to sell their bouquets.
According to the Washington Hmong Farmers Cooperative, about 80% of the flower stands at Pike Place Market and other farmer markets throughout the region are owned by Hmong farmers.
Farmers markets are one of the only ways for many Hmong flower growers to connect to consumers, so when the markets temporary closed at the beginning of their selling season, farmers had a tough choice to make: They could figure out alternatives to reach consumers, or let their harvest die out. This predicament left many farmers in need of support.
Hmong Association of Washington (HAW) – a nonprofit organization with a mission to empower the Hmong community through advocacy, economic development, and education – worked to support the Hmong farmers in reaching consumers and adapting their business plan to the temporary closure of the farmers markets.
When the “Stay Home Stay Healthy” order was put in place, HAW Executive Director Cynthia Yongvang conducted a needs-based assessment of the nearby Hmong community. Cynthia quickly identified the Hmong farming community as being in needs of assistance and reached out to Luke Woodward at the Northwest Agriculture Business Center (NABC) for their support and expertise on cooperatives.
“The Hmong farmers have been pretty self-sufficient, relying on farmers markets, but since the farmers market closed, especially Pike Place market, that affected several farmers and we needed to act fast since the flowers were blooming,” she said.
One idea to support farmers was through pop-up stands. According to Cynthia, local businesses like Bangrak Market, Maven meals, Acropolis Pizza and Pasta, Jay Berry’s Café, and many other local businesses offered space outside the business for customers to purchase flowers during their visit. Other local organizations, such as Tilth Alliance, YMCA, University of Washington, and Junior League of Seattle also supported the flower growers by hosting pop-up stands. The Hmong Association of Washington rallied a team of volunteers to host pop-up stands at homes, local organizations, and businesses.
The pop-up stands were a huge success and continued every weekend for a year.
In addition to the pop-ups, farmers also began selling bouquets through online orders that customers could pick up at a stand or have delivered by volunteers. Online orders increased the number of bouquets the farmers had to prepare. According to Cynthia, the farmers had up to 150 bouquet orders that they had to fulfill, which was no easy task.
“The process of putting together a beautiful bouquet is both tedious and is like a form of art,” Cynthia said. “When a farmer sells at the market, they can take their time, they can bring flowers by the stem and slowly put the bouquets together. But with the pop-ups and online orders they needed to have the bouquets available right away.”
Through these experiences and conversations, HAW also learned that the farmers could benefit from ongoing support.
“They don’t have any other organization to support them, and some have tried to join cooperatives, but there have been cultural or language barriers, so that’s what started the conversation of how to support the farmers in the long term,” said Cynthia.
During these conversations, the farmers identified growth areas in their business plans and infrastructure needs. Some farmers also planned on retiring and wanted to pass down their businesses to their kids but needed support.
Developing a growers cooperative to provide ongoing support
After many conversations, Cynthia and the farmers decided to start a cooperative. The Washington Hmong Farmers Cooperative is the first Hmong cooperative to be created in Washington and officially began in 2022 with 15 farmers.
The cooperative offers opportunities to farmers interested in sharing resources, marketing strategies, and infrastructure needs. Having individually operated farms come together to form a cooperative will also alleviate issues around land use constraints and make it easier to expand the number of goods, and improve bargaining power.
The cooperative not only benefits the farmers businesses but also supports families.
“There’s a farmer with a young child and a husband with a disability, Cynthia said. “All she wants to do is be a farmer. Still, she doesn’t have the capacity to deliver the bouquets or go to the farmers market because she would have to worry about healthcare, transportation, and setting up equipment by herself, so working with the co-op will allow her to balance her work life and be there for her family more.”
In its first year, the Washington Hmong Farmers Cooperative supported Mother’s Day event by preparing 1,200 bouquets part of a school fundraiser, organized by Friendly Vang-Johnson at Friendly Hmong Farms
Through this fundraising event, the cooperative identified areas of opportunity for the group, such as the need for a refrigerated vehicle, standardizing bouquets, additional land access to grow more flowers, and support for transporting flowers. The Hmong Association of WA also worked with Northwest Agriculture Business Center to provide technical assistance to the cooperative members and they have done a needs-based assessment on the cooperative. The evaluation showed other growth areas, such as only 8% of the farmers own the land they farm on, and 62% said they need help marketing their products.
“This information is critical,” Cynthia said. “It helps guide us into the next year as we plan to develop the infrastructure and allows us to go into the wholesale market or have our own CSA.”
If you would like to support the Washington Hmong Farmers Cooperative by purchasing a bouquet, please get in touch with them at Hmongfarmerscooperative@gmail.com.To learn more about the Washington Hmong Farmers’ Cooperative and support their work, visit wahmongfarmers.com.