The Serfs of Arkansas

Publication: The American Prospect

Author: Monica Potts

03/09/2011 - Shane Tawr doesn't remember exactly why he first decided to try his hand at chicken farming. Tawr had a government job in Milwaukee but wanted relief from the city's bustle. He decided in 2004 to head down to the Ozarks, buy a chicken farm, and work for himself, just as many of his Hmong ancestors had done in Laos.

The Hmong, who came to the United States in large numbers as political refugees after the Vietnam War, settled mostly in urban communities in California, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Some raised chickens and tended small vegetable gardens, but many worked jobs that kept them near the poverty line. In the early 2000s, chicken producers such as Tyson, which is based in northwest Arkansas, began courting the Hmong, and advertisements about chicken-farming opportunities appeared in Hmong-language newspapers. Roughly 500 Hmong now live in communities throughout Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma and raise breeder or broiler chickens for a handful of companies that operate in the Ozarks, according to research from the Farmers' Legal Action Group, a Minnesota nonprofit. For Tawr and others, farming presented a path to success by being self-employed and self-sufficient. It was a way to marry the values and skills many Hmong brought from Laos -- farming and family -- to achieve the American dream.

The arrangement that Tyson offered Tawr, now 44, sounded easy. He wouldn't have to buy chickens, wouldn't have to take the birds to market and find the best buyer, and wouldn't have to do any marketing to sell directly to customers. Tyson would provide the birds, feed, antibiotics, and any other supplies he needed. All Tawr had to do was the work. "I just kinda wanted to check it out," he says. "And the weather was nice, and at the time, I actually thought that maybe raising poultry was kind of guaranteed money."

Read the full article, The Serfs of Arkansas, on The American Prospect's Web site.

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