Hmong poultry farmers make move to Oklahoma

10-04-2007 | | |

Running an industrial poultry farm is nothing like chicken farming in Laos. Months after moving to Arkansas, Jai Lor and his wife have lost more than US$10,000 on a botched deal to buy a chicken farm. He receives an offer for another chicken farm, about 13 miles away in Colcord, OK. It comes with a price tag of more than US$1 million.

This farm is different. The last property produced eggs for consumption, but this is a breeding operation that leads to the chicken meat sold in markets. Unlike many other farms that have wrought nightmares for other Hmong-American poultry growers, the new farm is under a contract with Cobb-Vantress, a subsidiary of Tyson Foods, which guarantees a stable monthly income. Lor and his wife, Choua Moua, scrape together their savings and drain their 401(k) accounts to come up with the 20% down payment. They borrow US$860,000.
After putting in his initial 80-hour weeks, the bank takes US$8,000 right off the top of his US$14,000 monthly income. By the time Lor pays bills for electricity, propane, truck insurance and farm machinery, he’s lucky to bank US$2,000 out of that check.
Even so, Brian Bowen, a field supervisor with Cobb-Vantress, thinks Lor is faring better than many Hmong-American farmers who came before him. Farm groups say hundreds of such families who migrated from places like Minnesota to the Ozarks for a dream of owning land are now facing financial hardship.
The Hmong blindly stepped into a brutal business, says Bowen, himself a poultry grower. Some of the earliest newcomers had no idea that they were responsible for repairs on the farms. One young couple didn’t know how to plug in equipment. Others paid way too much for their farms or signed onto high interest rates, making it impossible to turn a profit, he says. Lor, though, may have a chance of survival. His work ethic and attention to detail impresses Bowen.