“We really did not even think it would get this big. It just happened and it’s like a huge jigsaw puzzle. Every day and every week things shift, fit together, click, and everybody is coming together beautifully as it’s gotten bigger. It’s been wonderful.”Vikki Cha, Hmong farmer
When the COVID-19 pandemic required temporarily closing local farmers markets in March, Seattle resident Tara Clark realized that the livelihood of Hmong flower farmers she knew would be in jeopardy. So Tara — a Seattle photographer, community activist, and creator of the BelieveLoveUnite movement — called her friend Xee Yang-Schell, daughter of Hmong farmers, to ask how she could help.
Tara wondered if just maybe, she could buy up and sell a few of the flowers that otherwise would go to waste. She asked Xee if she could get 50 dozen early season tulips — a number that seemed ambitious to both women — from any Hmong farmers she knew. Xee was skeptical but promised to find out.
Xee quickly called back: the first farmer she contacted, Vikki Cha, had tulips to sell. Since that morning, Tara says, “the two of us have been on an unimaginable, inconceivable roller coaster ride filled with love, hard work, and the opportunity to witness humanity rising every single day.”
Tara and Vikki’s partnership to distribute and sell flowers has grown exponentially. Today, it involves 46 Hmong family farms, 15 dispersed Seattle distributors, and numerous local restaurants. Working together, to date they’ve sold 12,000 dozen flowers and brought in $265,000 to support the farmers. How they scaled up this two-person operation in less than six weeks is an inspiring testament of the #SeattleTogether spirit in the COVID-19 era.
After Vikki delivered 50 bunches of tulips on March 25, Tara began selling the flowers on the parking strip in front of her house on north Capitol Hill. She made sure people observed social distancing protocols and facilitated drive-by pickups, and her neighborhood was supportive. She sold out the first day and told Vikki “I think I can do 100 tomorrow.” After sleeping on that calculation, she called Vikki back in the morning and told her “bring 200.” Business was so brisk that by the fourth day, she told Vikki “bring 300!”
“I was speechless. It’s unheard of that one person will buy like that. I asked, ‘are you sure you can do that?’” recounts Vikki.
Tara assured her she was serious. From the outset, Tara had fronted the money each day, which Vikki explains was key: “It’s been very safe: prepay, preorder.” This helped build trust with the Hmong farmers Vikki worked with to procure more flowers.
Creating equity and growing a collective spirit among farmers
In addition to making daily deliveries from her farm in Carnation to Tara’s Seattle home, Vikki thought about how to best meet the demand for flowers. She was determined to help other Hmong farmers who also were worried about making ends meet.
Figuring out how to include other farmers required both leadership and relationship building, which Vikki launched into immediately. The Hmong farmers who sell at Pike Place Market are spread out on parcels of land from the Snoqualmie Valley to Monroe. As a group, the Hmong got started farming in the 1980s as part of the Indochinese Farm Project to help resettled refugees from the Vietnam War.
They work long hours, seven days a week. Vikki explains that after she gets home at 6 or 7 p.m. from a day at Pike Place, she’s got a full evening ahead of her cutting flowers, alone “with a headlamp,” to be ready for the next day’s market. She often eats dinner at midnight and starts all over at 6 a.m. the following morning. A mutual Hmong friend predicted at the outset that as competitors, “Hmong farmers wouldn’t collaborate.”
Nevertheless, both Vikki and Tara wanted to make sure as many farmers as possible could sell their tulips and daffodils as the orders grew. Vikki says that although it varies somewhat depending on availability, she has set a general guideline of 100 bunches per day, per farmer, thereby “making sure everybody gets a little bit of something.” She continues her outreach to build trust. Now, over half of all Hmong family farmers in the region benefit from their project.
Spreading the word and expanding their reach
When she wasn’t selling flowers, Tara was posting photos and information about the project on her Facebook and Instagram accounts. Soon, friends and acquaintances were volunteering to sell flowers in their own neighborhoods. She now has distributors in 15 locations, including Leschi, Queen Anne, and Mercer Island.
Ashleigh Dickenson was Tara’s first distributor, and she’s partnered with her daughter to sell flowers as an educational project while schools are closed. There’s been so much interest that Tara has been working 14-16 hours daily to keep up with the demand. She launched an online order form and created spreadsheets to keep track of everything – including information about all the monies she and her distributors have collected and what she’s paid out to each individual farmer.
Within the first few days, it became apparent that people weren’t just buying flowers for themselves, but also to give away to health care and other essential workers. Additionally, they have donated dozens of bunches to residents in senior living facilities and nursing homes. Tara notes “the flowers have made a tremendous impact on elderly people” by reminding them that they aren’t alone. One recipient burst into tears when she received a bouquet.
Looking toward the future and expanding market strategies
Several weeks ago, Tara began purchasing vegetables from the farmers. She donates them to restaurants that are helping to feed Seattle residents experiencing food insecurity and homelessness. So far, they’ve provided 500 pounds of potatoes and 200 bundles of kale to Tamara Murphy’s Terra Plata, Uyen Nguyen’s Nue, and Kristi Brown’s That Brown Girl Cooks. She’s also talking with other restaurants about becoming flower distributors.
“I would love to connect with other shops throughout the city to have them be pick up locations,” Tara said. Continuing to expand and ensuring that the collaboration grows, Tara explains, will be — in part — contingent on expanding volunteer resources in areas like communications and accounting.
Both women agree their success has been grounded in equity and transparency and fueled by the willingness to take risks and connect with others. Tara and Vikki have adopted flexible strategies to further their shared goal of supporting the farmers through makeshift marketplaces.
Moreover, the Hmong farmers’ experiences with new distribution pathways has, Vikki observed, opened their eyes to future marketing possibilities.
Enhancing Human Connections
They emphasize that the project has deepened understanding across cultural and socioeconomic boundaries within both of their communities. They love seeing how diverse people have become “intertwined” and the effect that their work is having on all those involved – from the flower farmers to the distributors, vendors, and recipients.
Before, Tara explains, selling and buying flowers at the market was essentially an exchange of goods, but now Seattleites are seeing that there’s a “human being on the other side of the transaction”. The endeavor has “help[ed] create connections” between people who otherwise wouldn’t have thought twice about each other.
“It’s been so wonderful to see who the flowers go to; I love the connection. It drives me to do this. I get to see the recipients, hear the stories. . . people are so happy to get flowers. . . it brings joy. It’s full of love and joy in a time when there is so much sadness, death, separation. To be able to witness the silver linings, pieces of light and happiness. . . I just feel so lucky and blessed.”Vikki Cha
As the local media continues drawing attention to their endeavor, both women note that the partnership and opportunity to expand while building upon shared values has imparted hope in uncertain times.
Vikki hopes that “after this pandemic, this can carry on.” She says she’ll continue doing it as long as there is “demand and supply.”
This week, Tara designed cards to give away with the flowers, to remind buyers of the Hmong farmers who grew them. Both women expect the business to continue expanding as peonies come into season next week and as Mother’s Day approaches. They have no idea exactly what the future holds, but both are confident that the impact of their unanticipated endeavor –- personally, economically, and in the broader community — will continue to be “mind blowing.”