The radio station connecting California farmers

Multilingual broadcasts provide crucial resources to underserved refugee and immigrant communities.

 

Vila Xiong helps Michael Yang set up for his weekly radio show.
Tomas Ovalle for High Country News

From a one-story stucco building in Fresno, California, Michael Yang’s voice travels through the airwaves across the Central Valley, where hundreds of Hmong farmers are preparing their fields for their summer crops, radios on.

On this particular day, Yang’s voice is a little wobbly. He’s been sick for nearly a week and has a cough. Yang is a small farms and specialty crops agricultural assistant with the University of California’s Cooperative Extension program, a statewide program that engages with researchers and locals in finding solutions to rural challenges. And he is one of the only connections that exist between Hmong farmers and agricultural services in the Central Valley in their native language. So even when he isn’t feeling well, he rarely misses his weekly slot at KBIF radio, a station that also broadcasts to Punjabi/Hindi, Vietnamese and Japanese listeners. “His voice is really important,” Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, a small farm advisor, told me. Crucial even.

Yang’s broadcast starts with a saxophone melody that welcomes the farmers to his hour-long program, The Hmong Agriculture Radio Show. After he plays some traditional Hmong folk music, he’ll read through the market price for various “Asian vegetables,” a catchall term to describe the variety of crops that Hmong farmers and other Southeast Asian farmers grow, such as bok choy, lemongrass and bitter melon. This unique produce is sold at farmers’ markets or to trendy restaurants in the Bay Area, among other places on the West Coast.

California is the country’s largest resettlement destination for the Hmong, an ethnic minority that helped U.S. soldiers fight a secret war in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s. For farmers like LaCha Her and his wife, Tong Vue, the radio program is one of the only ways they learn about new regulations or opportunities for their small-scale, highly diversified farming operation. “On the farm, we don’t have time to watch TV,” Vue told me, “So we have to use Facebook and listen to the radio.”

Yang started the program in the late 1990s, after realizing that this community of farmers was having a hard time accessing important information and new agriculture regulations. “A lot of farmers said we need to be aware of what is going on,” he said. “So I talked to my boss and we were able to get some grants to help the radio announce agriculture (information) to the small farm community.” 

Michael Yang speaks with LaCha Her in a greenhouse full of sweet potato.
Tomas Ovalle for High Country News

In addition to providing farming resources, Yang keeps farmers up to date on pesticide safety, Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, and labor laws. The station has become a tool for community advocates to reach this demographic in the people’s native language as well, including groups like the Fresno Center, which helps connect Hmong and other immigrant or refugee communities with services like education, healthcare and housing.

The radio model has proven successful. Sam Vang, a soil conservationist with the local Natural Resources Conservation Service, based in Fresno, started his own Hmong radio program around the time Yang did, to get out his messages about soil health and NRCS funding opportunities. By listening to Vang’s program, LaCha Her learned about hoop houses and was able to receive assistance through a NRCS environmental incentives program to install them on his farm. Also known as tunnel structures, hoop houses help farmers grow certain kinds of produce all year.

More recently, Vang filmed a series about soil health for HmongUSA TV, which was streamed to YouTube. Vang said people from around the country have watched the show — there are large Hmong populations in Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well — and some of his advice has even gone global to Vietnam, Laos, French Guiana and Australia.

When he first tried to connect with the Hmong community in California’s Central Valley, Vang would go door-to-door. Distrustful of government meddling, farmers would brush him off. With their radios on, tuned to programming in their native language, farmers listen openly. “It has been a challenge, right?” Vang said. “But you find a way that reaches people.” 

Jessica Kutz is an editorial fellow for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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