WHITEWATER

Linda Vang didn’t realize how much she missed being around Hmong elders until she attended a dinner at the Vang C&C Farm.

The UW-Whitewater student, who is Hmong herself, enjoyed being around their wisdom and hospitality again earlier this month.

The dinner on her relative’s farm in Jefferson was not just a family get-together, however. It was a farm-to-table dinner and conversation event that are part of a larger statewide project headquartered at UW-W.

Vang worked with her relative’s farm as part of the Lands We Share initiative. The program is collecting histories and making presentations to tell the culturally diverse stories of farming in Wisconsin.

“I would really like people to learn that farming isn’t a stereotype of a typical white family or, like, a corporation that’s passed down from generation to generation,” she said. “There are so many different types of farming, so many different ethnicities.”

The interactive exhibit within the Wisconsin Farms Oral History Project is traveling the state to start conversations, said director and UW-W history professor James Levy. The Lands We Share tour is a collaboration of UW System campuses in Eau Claire, Oshkosh, Madison, Milwaukee and Whitewater

On those campuses, the projects have included work from more than 300 students (including “dozens” in Whitewater) and 25 faculty and staff members, according to a news release. They have conducted about 400 oral history interviews.

The Lands We Share exhibit first premiered in Oshkosh on Oct. 10 and is currently at the Hoard Historical Museum in Fort Atkinson through early January before it moves to Johnson Creek.

After that, from Jan. 28 to Feb. 10, the exhibit will be on the UW-W campus.

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UW-Whitewater history professor James Levy listens to public relations students give a presentation about the Wisconsin Farms Oral History Project.

The beginnings

Following the 2016 presidential election, Levy said he noticed most people were not talking or listening to one another.

“Farming captures sort of red, rural areas, but it also captures the urban area,” he said. “Our focus on race and ethnicity allows us to look at other kinds of farms and smaller farms and farmers of color.

“We thought we’d do this traveling conversation tour.”

Levy said he came from teaching in New York City, and he noticed that talking about race was “tricky.” He first came to UW-W in 2011 when he was hired to build a public history program.

Public history, he said, first came about in the 1970s, but it has taken off in the last 10 or so years. The concept is, as it’s named, about taking the skills of a historian and bringing them out in public—outside the classroom to galleries, museums, historical societies, the web, films and more.

So Levy wanted to build a project that looked at farming and food production through the lens of race and ethnicity in Wisconsin. The project could bring about more conversations about family history and ethnic identity.

Wisconsin has the third-largest Hmong population in the nation, he said. It also features “fascinating” indigenous farming, and Milwaukee as the “center of urban agriculture, arguably, in the world.”

“So, I thought, ‘We have this amazing state,’” Levy said. “For farming, it’s incredibly diverse.”

The Lands We Share is focusing on five farms. Levy said these include:

  • The Oneida Nation Farms.
  • The Vang C&C Farm.
  • A black neighborhood’s garden in Milwaukee.
  • A German family’s dairy farm that employs almost exclusively workers from Central America.
  • The Allenville Farms near Oshkosh that has workers from Oaxaca, Mexico, as well as some Hmong employees.
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UW-Whitewater student Cheyenne Brewington gives a presentation about the Wisconsin Farms Oral History Project.

‘And the food was great’

Students from UW-W have had several responsibilities, such as recording oral histories, taking photos and conducting archival research. A public relations class broke into groups and created campaigns for Levy and the project this semester.

Vang, who is from the small town of Berlin about 20 miles west of Oshkosh, is putting together an interactive map.

Another student, Catherine Lee, said she does some behind-the-scenes research, some website and tech work as well as public relations. Lee is a sophomore from Kohler, which is near Sheboygan.

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Catherine M. Lee

Most of her research is about the Dettmann Dairy Farms near Johnson Creek. She has investigated genealogy of the German family and visited the register of deeds office in Jefferson to “connect the pieces” of land being passed on.

Before this project, Lee said, she had no experience in farming.

“I just love learning more about that lifestyle and how diverse it is,” she said. “And the food was great.”

It’s common for people to assume that not being farmers means farming doesn’t affect their lives, Lee said. People also have a “narrow view” of what farming is.

The project also stands to inform others about where their food comes from, which Vang said is important.

For example, Vang said, digging into farming and agriculture can lead someone to learning about what pesticides are used and if food is genetically modified or organic.

“It’s important to know that,” she said.

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UW-Whitewater student Linda Vang speaks about her participation in the Wisconsin Farms Oral History Project.

‘Next time I go home’

The first certified organic Hmong farm in Wisconsin was the Vang C&C Farm in 2012, according to the oral history project’s work on Cheu and Chia Vang’s farm.

But long before that, Cheu Vang was in the northern hills of Laos, where his family had a history of slash-and-burn farming.

Eventually, conflicts between feuding forces made the family flee.

The Vangs came to the United States in 1975 and settled in Jefferson County in 2005. They bought a farm from the Hake family, who were one of the original settlers of Jefferson County, according to the history.

“Two worlds came together when the Vangs bought the land to start a new farming tradition: The Vang farm was a little bit of Wisconsin and a little bit of Laos,” the project states.

The Vangs’ commitment to organic farming comes from their roots in Laos.

Sitting in a room on the fifth floor of Laurentide Hall in Whitewater, Linda Vang said she had not done an oral history before this project, but she wanted experience interviewing.

She said she connected with the Vang farm in part because it feels like the small community where she grew up.

“In our history and in our culture, agriculture is really important,” she said. “I really love what I’ve been learning, and I really love what we’ve been doing.”

Vang said she believes some Hmong people farm to cope with the trauma the group has faced. After she learned so much, it’s a question she still hopes to ask her own mother.

“I’ll ask her next time I go home,” she said.

And on her drive back, she will pass the Vang C&C Farm.

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