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'This is life': In North Carolina mountains, Hmong refugees grow rice, uphold food sovereignty

Lee's One Fortune Farm is a symbol of a life rebuilt after the Vietnam War, which left the Lees to scratch out an existence in the Laotian jungle.

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Lee's One Fortune Farm is a symbol of a life rebuilt after the Vietnam War, which left the Lees to scratch out an existence in the Laotian jungle.

Published Updated

MORGANTON, NC - For Lee's One Fortune Farm owners Chue and Tou Lee, Laotian Hmong refugees, the rice they grow in the North Carolina mountains represents wealth, but not because it delivers top dollar at tailgate markets.

"In our culture, if your family was able to eat rice at least two meals a day, or even three meals a week, you're considered one of the rich folk," Tou Lee said.

Tou Lee in the morning sun at the Lee family's newest farm on a 94-acre piece of property in Morganton.
Tou Lee in the morning sun at the Lee family's newest farm on a 94-acre piece of property in Morganton. Stephan Pruitt Photography / Special to TAS

More than that, it's a symbol of a life rebuilt from the ashes of the Vietnam War, an American war that left the Lees and many other Hmong refugees to scratch out an existence in the Laotian jungle. 

Lee's father died working as a "backseater" to United States pilots based in Long Tieng, a covert base in Hmong highland territory. He would ride in the back of warplanes and help spot Communist military operations along the Ho Chi Minh trail, Lee said.

When the war ended, Lee's family expected help from the US. Instead, they were abandoned. Lee was only 3 months old.

"Like the thing that happened in Afghanistan recently, we were the folks that got stuck on the tarmac, waiting for the US aircraft," he said. "It never came."

Terrified of retribution from the Laotian Communist government, his family fled to the jungle, where they lived undetected for about six years.

Eventually, with the help of French silver Tou Lee smuggled close to his body, they crossed the Mekong River to Ban Vinai, an overcrowded refugee camp in Thailand with no electricity or running water, Lee said.

He witnessed death daily before he resettled to the US at age 8 with the help of an uncle.

Chue Lee has a similar story. She remembers the jungle. She remembers it being wet and her family being hungry. "We didn't really have a childhood," she said. 

Chue Lee picks yardlong beans at the Lee family's newest farm on a 94-acre piece of property in Morganton.
Chue Lee picks yardlong beans at the Lee family's newest farm on a 94-acre piece of property in Morganton. Stephan Pruitt Photography / Special to TAS
'A good problem to have'

'A good problem to have'

The Lees, now the parents of six children ages 9 to 34, have since carved out a more stable life in western North Carolina. It's also one of food sovereignty.

Lee's One Fortune Farm is a patchwork of eight family-managed farms scattered through several rural counties. Though the farms grow a variety of Asian staples, their crowning jewel is rice production.

The two most productive fields, owned by Tou Lee's aunts and uncles, should produce an estimated 7,000 pounds of rice this year.

The most recent addition to the family's farmland is 94 abundant acres in Morganton, North Carolina, with two deep-green rice fields and rows of vegetables. In the future, there will be orchards of Asian pear and peach trees and more rice paddies, to keep up with demand.

Farming on this scale has given the Lees the security they have longed to have in their family.

"...It's like having money in a way that's hard to describe," Tou Lee said, sweeping his hand toward fields blooming with Chinese water spinach, Thai basil and other essentials of the Asian table.

For his older relatives, farming is their entire life. "For them, it's better than having money in a jar somewhere," he said. "This is life. If you have it, you have something. If you don't have it, then you don't have anything."

Tou Lee drives his truck on his farm. STEPHAN PRUITT PHOTOGRAPHY / SPECIAL TO TAS
Tou Lee
... it's better than having money in a jar somewhere. This is life. If you have it, you have something. If you don't have it, then you don't have anything.

The Lee family harvested every grain of rice by hand until a grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation, which redirects tobacco settlement money to support economic opportunity in rural North Carolina, helped them buy a small combine. Now, what used to take 10 people a week to manage can be done by one person in five hours.

That's important, as demand for rice from Lee's One Fortune Farm far outstrips what's now being produced. "It's a good problem to have," Tou Lee said. 

People from as far away as Washington state call looking for the white sticky rice the farm grows, which closely replicates what's traditionally harvested in the mountains of Laos.

The Lees also grow short-grained white rice, purple sweet sticky rice and red rice with a flavor reminiscent of chestnuts. The majority is sold at regional tailgate markets. 

"It's really popular in the Hmong Laotian community, but we found out that everybody who's tried it, they have loved it too," Tou Lee said. "Locally, we've barely got enough to provide for the people here, though we do save some for our families up north."

The local demand helps underscore the relatively large population of Hmong people in this mountainous region of North Carolina.

Chue and Tou Lee at the Marion location of Lee's One Fortune Farm, a patchwork of family-managed farms in Western North Carolina producing Asian specialty produce and traditional sticky rice.
Chue and Tou Lee at the Marion location of Lee's One Fortune Farm, a patchwork of family-managed farms in Western North Carolina producing Asian specialty produce and traditional sticky rice. Stephan Pruitt Photography / Special to TAS

The Morganton farm is about 35 miles west of Hickory, the largest city in neighboring Catawba County. An estimated 8,000 Hmong Asians live in the Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton metro area, according to a Pew Research Center report citing the most recent census data.

The US Asian population nearly doubled from 2000-2019 and is expected to surpass 46 million by 2060. Still, of about 3.4 million farmers and food producers in the country, about 95% are white.

Diverse food options are still limited in many major supermarkets, making the Lee farm an essential part of providing specialty rice locally.

Attracting a younger generation

Attracting a younger generation

The Lees grow a mountain field variety of rice that retails for about $7 per pound. Green, or young rice, a Lee's One Fortune Farm specialty, can retail for as much as $10 per pound. 

The price sometimes gives those accustomed to buying cheap commodity rice at the supermarket pause. Even so, the profit margins for rice, a slow-growing plant demanding of labor and resources, are slimmer than most of the other crops Lee's One Fortune Farm produces.

Tou Lee points out green rice at Lee's One Fortune Farm's Marion location.
Rice in the palm of Tou Lee's hand at Lee's One Fortune Farm.
A single grain of green rice. This rice, harvested by hand during a very short window, is rare and fetches $10 per pound.
Tou Lee points out green rice at Lee's One Fortune Farm's Marion location. This rice, harvested by hand during a very short window, is rare and fetches $10 per pound. Tou Lee points out green rice at Lee's One Fortune Farm's Marion location. This rice, harvested by hand during a very short window, is rare and fetches $10 per pound. Tou Lee points out green rice at Lee's One Fortune Farm's Marion location. This rice, harvested by hand during a very short window, is rare and fetches $10 per pound. STEPHAN PRUITT PHOTOGRAPHY / SPECIAL TO TAS

The Lees' latest rice field expansion in Morganton will yield only a few hundred pounds this year. The Lees primarily planted the existing paddies there, beyond a thick stand of forest in what used to be a pond, to learn whether two nearby creeks are sufficient enough to irrigate the field. 

So far it's working, and soon the Lees will further push back the tree line, growing the experimental field to up to seven acres of rice production. When the right conditions are met, an acre of rice can produce up to 2,500 pounds.

That represents income for the entire Lee family, who collectively do the hard work in a way Tou Lee compared to the Amish community. 

Chue Lee picks water spinach at the Lee family's newest farm on a 94-acre piece of property in Morganton.
Chue Lee picks water spinach at the Lee family's newest farm on a 94-acre piece of property in Morganton. Stephan Pruitt Photography / Special to TAS

"Because you see, whole groups of families, they'll go work one person's field and another person's field, and they do that for the whole community until everybody gets their fields planted, gets their fields tended to and harvested and put up for the year," he said.

Without that collective labor, there's no profit margin, he said. 

In another field, a short drive back through the forest, the Lees grow a mix of traditional American and Asian farm fare.

There are rows of heirloom Peaches and Cream sweet corn and a leafy tunnel of Chinese yardlong green beans. Hills of sweet potatoes — the creamy-fleshed Murasaki and the purple-fleshed Okinawa — rise near a patch of cassava plants.

The African and Indian communities like the young greens, Lee explained. Hmong people mainly boil and eat the roots, also known as yuca.  

Nearby grow vigorous vines of luffa squash, which Hmong people revere in soups and stir-fries. Many older Hmong grow it in their backyards, but the younger generation is often more at home in the supermarket, much to their parents' dismay — the Lees among them.

"A lot of the people born here in the U.S., my kids, a lot of our cousins and kinfolks that are born here, they say these things like, 'Oh, I don't know, I don't think I can eat that,'" Tou Lee said.

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Chaoya Yang, a 31-year-old grad student studying Library and Information Science at the University of North Carolina's Greensboro campus, highlighted the work of Hmong women as part of her internship at the Catawba County library.

Yang, who moved to Catawba County from California as a girl, said her mother grew a lot of what they ate in the backyard. Although American supermarkets carried an embarrassment of riches, they stocked almost none of what the family needed for their traditional dishes.

Chue Lee of Lee's One Fortune Farm holds melons and cucumbers grown on her property in Morganton.
Chue Lee of Lee's One Fortune Farm holds melons and cucumbers grown on her property in Morganton. Stephan Pruitt Photography / Special to TAS

"When I first heard of food sovereignty, I thought 'Yeah, that's my mom.'" Yang said. "I didn't know there was a word for that."

Though some of the traditional foodways are disappearing among the younger generation who grew up with supermarkets, Yang said things are changing. 

"When we were younger, our parents always were growing stuff, and we never learned how to do it," she said. "But there's a growing community of young people who do want to learn how to grow their own food."

The Lees are counting on that.

A frog rests on a rice plant at Lee's One Fortune Farm.
A frog rests on a rice plant at Lee's One Fortune Farm. Stephan Pruitt Photography / Special to TAS

They plan to build a pagoda in the front of their Morganton land, equipped with a commercial kitchen. There, they hope to teach traditional cooking skills using farm produce.

In a separate educational area, they'll teach prospective farmers how to grow rice and specialty fruit like the Asian pears, picked expertly at perfect ripeness.

"My ulterior motive is perhaps, the way this style of farming that we do with the Hmong culture, that it doesn't die with my generation," Tou Lee said. 

How to coax food from the earth sustainably, to preserve both tradition and food security, is a practical skill worth preserving, he said. 

"If nobody takes the mantle and uses it, we'll lose it," Chue Lee said. 

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Mackensy Lunsford covers food policy, restaurants, agriculture and other food-related topics for the USA TODAY Network's South Region. She's the editor of Southern Kitchen and correspondent for The American South.

Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com

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