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Flooding Undermines Seattle's Flower Farmers

Bright blooms are a specialty of Seattle's farmers markets, but the Hmong farmers cultivating that niche market are losing their livelihood to an increasingly erratic Snoqualmie River



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CARNATION, Wash. – Even on a foggy fall day, the view is beautiful near this aptly named hamlet 25 miles east of Seattle: rows of dahlias create a canvas of colors across the Snoqualmie Valley. But when the Snoqualmie River floods – and it's been doing so more often in recent years – the scene turns wretched.

Water can be six feet deep, swamping everything. 

This fall, the river started rising in September after unusually heavy rains. Standing on the road above his farm, farmer Bee Cha surveyed the seven acres he has been farming with his parents and brother for half of his 39 years. "It's too early," Cha recalled thinking. "It can't be happening."

The iconic crop here, as across this valley, isn't grapes or apples. It's flowers – lilies, gladiolas and dahlias that are a favorite at farmers markets across the Seattle area. The small industry is dominated by Hmong farmers like Cha and his family – an ethnic community originally from Laos that today farms much of the valley. 

The community is increasingly stressed by wet weather and floods – 23 since 2006. September's rains and the rising river triggered memories of the 2009 and 2006 floods – both declared federal disasters by President Obama. 

Sudden flood
The 2009 event crested at a record 62 feet, 8 feet above flood stage, but at least farmers weren't caught off guard as in 2006, which had set the earlier crest record of 61 feet.

"Hmong farmers weren't prepared for a sudden flood," Cha said of the November 2006 surprise, "so we were hit hardest…This whole thing was a lake," he said of his farm.

His family lost $40,000 in bulbs and flowers in that single event. The entire Hmong community, some 30 farming families in the valley, saw an estimated $1 million worth of work wash away, according to King County figures

The demise of Hmong farming here would destroy what has been a success story. Just before the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the United States brought hundreds of Hmong families who had been military allies in Laos to a few areas. Those in Seattle were introduced to flowers. Most were rice farmers in Laos and had never grown flowers, but the city and university researchers teamed up to train them. A farming niche was born.

Reason to worry
Floodwaters are much deeper than when Cha's family first started farming here in 1994, the farmer said. "It never flooded that much," he said of the early years.

The 2006 flood did prompt some action in King County. A task force of county officials and valley farmers endorsed funding elevated "farm pads" to place machinery on higher ground.

And while the task force didn't tie the recent flooding to a particular cause or causes – some locals attribute it to development upriver – climate change was identified as a reason to worry.

"A sense of urgency stems from the concerns that climate change will increase the frequency, timing, duration and magnitude of floods," the task force stated in its report.

Climate models for the Pacific Northwest suggest warming temperatures would mean more rain and less snow for mid-elevation basins like Snoqualmie, potentially causing more floods.

"We have a lot of certainty that it will warm," said Amy Snover, director of the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group. "And that matters to anyone who cares when and where the water is."

'Adaptive approach'
A county flood district, created in the wake of the 2006 flood, has helped elevate some homes, bought out others and funded farm pads. It's part of what Matt Kuharic, King County's climate change specialist, calls "an adaptive approach" to dealing with future floods. 

Adaptation can also mean moving, but not everyone has the means to do so.

Climate change certainly "raises questions of who has the resources to adapt," noted UW's Snover.

Added Kuharic: "It's pretty clear that vulnerable populations have the potential to be impacted most." 

Obstacles in the way
A few Hmong farmers have moved to less flood-prone areas. But that land is more expensive and farther from the area's farmers markets.

Other obstacles are in their way of adaptation:

  • The vast majority can't afford to buy land. So they rent, and landlords have no incentive to invest in flood protection on their behalf.
  • They can't get federal disaster aid because flowers are not a commodities crop.
  • They can't insure their crops against flooding because their land, ironically, has no mechanical irrigation.

"The Hmong have colonized a lot of fairly marginal, i.e., cheaper, farmland," said Jennifer Langston, a researcher at The Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit looking at Northwest sustainability issues. "Since immigrant farmers tend not to have as much start-up capital as say, a Microsoft retiree looking to start a hobby farm, they can wind up farming ground that's more problematic to start with and will probably be made worse by climate events like droughts and floods."

Feeling trapped
Cha says his family and others feel trapped. Negotiating lower rent doesn't seem like an option either. "They know we have nowhere to go," he said of the landowners.

The Hmong are not alone. They stand with vulnerable groups across the globe – from other farmers in flood plains, to the urban poor in places like New Orleans – that live at the margins, unable to move or adequately adapt. As result, poor and minorities are disproportionately pinched by an increasingly turbulent climate.

Sightline Institute founder Alan Durning describes the impact of more extreme weather events as "poverty ratchets" – incidents that drive people into poverty.

"Lacking the resources that resilience requires, working class people can become poor when disaster strikes and assets or health are wiped out," he said. "It's almost as if climate change singled out and punished the less fortunate."

Cha's family is trying to adapt by moving machinery to higher ground each fall and, more importantly, removing bulbs in case another bad flood hits. 

But a decade from now, he said, it's not clear that flower farming here will be an option.

"It's going to get worse," he figures. 

And if the Hmong flower farmers are driven out, who'll do the labor-intensive work needed to provide Seattle with its iconic bouquets? Cha can offer little more than a nervous chuckle: 

"I don't know."

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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