With beads of sweat trickling down his face and the sun beating down on his back, Boua Chao Xiong spends many days on his hands and knees yanking potatoes and other produce from the dirt.
The 64-year-old man cultivates other crops, such as green beans, with more care as he chats back and forth with relatives who often retreat to the shade. Within view of suburban backyard decks and manicured lawns, Xiong works the land by hand for hours each day. He lugs his own water from home via van in tubs and buckets.
The Brooklyn Park resident is among dozens of Hmong farmers who have a found a hidden space in the suburbs to raise their crops.
But now an incident that an attorney attributes to cultural misunderstanding has threatened the calm and raised questions about whether the farmers will return next summer.
Xiong told Eagan police that a homeowner threatened to kill him and his wife last month over a fence dispute.
Richard Schliesing, who owns land bordering Xiong's plot, faces an August court date on a charge of making terroristic threats, a felony that carries a maximum five-year prison sentence.
"That's the police rendition of what happened," said Schliesing's lawyer, Paul Rogosheske. "He didn't threaten anybody. There's a property dispute. It'll all sort out."
Xiong told police that Schliesing loaded a 12-gauge shotgun in plain view of him and his wife in an effort to intimidate the couple.
"I'm thinking he might shoot me for real," Xiong said through a translator. "In this country, if you carry a gun outside you're not joking."
Farming in the suburbs
Though some portions of Eagan have retained a rural character, the plot the farmers work is a bit of an oddity: It sits at the core of a subdivision in the center of town.
Surrounded by homes on all sides and dotted with shabbily dressed scarecrows, the 20-acre plot that Xiong and others work is filled with sectioned-off gardens chock full of everything from beets to zucchini. The fields of food have piqued the interest of residents and brought new merchants to the Eagan Market Fest, city officials said.
When officials with the Association for the Advancement of Hmong Women in Minnesota found the land, they envisioned a convenient sanctuary for Hmong farmers, many of whom traveled hours north daily to raise their crops.
Xiong and Schliesing disagreed over fencing, both men agree: Xiong built a barrier made of sticks and string to protect his crops from deer. Schliesing had grown accustomed to feeding the animals on his property.
When officers arrived to question Schliesing, they spotted several pellet guns through a rear patio door. The homeowner also registered a 0.088 blood-alcohol level during a breath test. While searching the home, officers found a shotgun and several other weapons in a closet. The shotgun, however, was not loaded.
Schliesing has a pre-trial hearing at 9 a.m. Aug. 23 in Dakota County court to determine whether enough evidence exists for him to stand trial.
Xiong farms about six acres with his wife, daughter and son-in-law. They spend an estimated eight hours per day tending their crops, which they sell at Twin Cities area farmers markets.
Before they relocated to Eagan, the family worked land in Stacy, more than 30 miles north of St. Paul.
"I never had any trouble before," Xiong said through a translator.
His son-in-law, Thomas Vang of St. Paul, attributes the incident to racial tension.
Ly Vang, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Hmong Women in Minnesota, isn't sure what sparked the disagreement, but court officials have granted a protection order for the farmers.
'Extremely isolated incident'
Many of the gardens abut homeowner properties, but city officials have heard few, if any, complaints from residents, said city spokesman Tom Garrison.
"This was an extremely isolated incident," he added.
Debra Kessler has lived on nearby Crestview Lane for almost 25 years. For as long as she can recall, dense brush that provided a haven for rabbits, deer and other wildlife filled the acreage.
When farmers flock to the fields on weekends, the sounds of children laughing and playing echo from the fields, Kessler said.
"I'm thrilled they're using the land," she said. "It's marvelous."
In Dakota County, Hmong farmers also work more than 100 acres in Rosemount and about 10 acres in Vermillion Township through agreements arranged by the Association for the Advancement of Hmong Women.
The allegations about the incident frightened farmers, including Xiong's family, and raised questions about future use for the land.
"It's kind of scary," said the son-in-law, Vang, of St. Paul. "But we'd be losing a lot of money if we didn't come back."
Before the Hmong association and farmers sign on for another year on the property, however, Vang plans to gauge reaction this fall during their annual harvest meeting. Until then, the farmers plan to stick it out.
"We have no choice," Xiong said through his son-in-law. "The plants are there. I depend on this income to survive."
Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491