Tou Lee walks through the rice field at Lee One’s Fortune Farm in Marion, North Carolina. There was a big storm last night and the bottom of the rice plants are submerged in water and mud. “Be careful where you walk,” he calls out. “It won’t go up to your knees, but it might get up to your ankles. It’s very mucky.”
It’s an incredible sight—acres of rice nestled in a valley, surrounded by bamboo. Many farms in the region grow tomatoes or peppers this time of year, so it’s surreal to walk through a rice paddy flanked by the familiar mountains of Western North Carolina.
Tou and Chue Lee are the owners of Lee’s One Fortune Farm, and it’s clear that they’re proud of the land they farm. “We’re at the farm right now,” Chue explains. “We grow rice, so today we’re here to harvest some rice.”
Tou grabs a five-gallon bucket and some straps before he heads out into the field. “What I’m hooking myself up to is a little bucket that’s sitting on my waistline so that I can shuck the rice right into the bucket,” he says.
“This is how we’re harvesting, by hand,” Tou explains. “This is traditionally done for early rice because most of the rice does not completely ripen at the same time. If you come in here with modern technology or a combine, you have to wait for all of it to turn. But when you do that, you probably lose the early ones because the wind and the rain would knock it down to the ground.
The Lee family is part of a community of Hmong farmers. The Hmong people are native to Laos and Vietnam, and many came to the United States as refugees after the Vietnam War. Western North Carolina is home to one of the largest Hmong communities in the United States and several of Tou’s cousins and uncles grow rice here. But they don’t keep it all to themselves.
Lee’s One Fortune Farm is a staple at local farmers markets where they sell rice and fruits and vegetables that many customers have never tried. “We grow a different type of mustard green that it’s only mostly eaten in our native culture. We grow a bunch of different types of cabbages that only eaten in our native culture and we have to introduce all that to the market as well,” he says.
Tou says their produce has been well-received by shoppers. “We made a lot of good friends that way because they all come back looking for the same stuff. The bitter melon—that’s one of the very unique traits of the Asian culture because if you don’t eat bitter melon at least two or three times a month you’re not really immersed into that Asian culture. It’s bitter! I always tell people it’s bitter, but once you learn that and you start cooking with it at times you may have a craving for it,” he says.
Tou’s wife Chue is eager to teach people how to cook their produce, and hopes to teach cooking classes in the future. She wants to establish a certified kitchen where she can make tofu and teach people how to cook greens like water spinach.
“It’s all about introducing a different flavor,” Tou says. One of my favorite sayings to people at the market is, ‘You might have found yourself a new favorite flavor.’”
Tou gets back to harvesting rice, being careful not to sink in the mud and fall. If simply standing in the rice field is this difficult, then harvesting each grain by hand is certainly hard work.
“There is a lot of effort into it,” he says. “The reward is wonderful, but there is a lot of effort you have to spend. Every farmer knows you are at the mercy of the weather to start with, but you work with something like this, something that takes so much labor, then you know you have to really love it or you won’t be willing to do it.”
Tou tells people at the farmers market about the traditional way they harvest and prepare the rice. “This goes back generations upon generations. How we harvest, how we bring the rice home, how we toast it, how we eat it, how we cook it—everything’s traditional as far as we can remember.”
There are some barriers to learning these traditional methods, even for people who grow up in the Hmong community. “My family, as well as every other family, we don’t have a written record that we know for anything that we do. But the older folks had the oratory stories passed down from generation to generation, one person to another. The songs and things that they teach about gathering rice, farming, and folklore. That’s how our traditions are done,” he says.
There’s a reason that many people in the Hmong community don’t have a written record of their history, especially people who came to the U.S. as refugees during the 1970s. Tune in next week to hear how Tou and Chue Lee escaped the jungles of Laos and how it influenced their farming.
Until then, read about Lee’s One Fortune Farm in ASAP’s Local Food Guide, www.appalachiangrown.org
Re-run Aired: September 30, 2019