As relatives and neighbors scoured their Dakota County fields for something -- anything -- they could salvage Friday afternoon, La Xiong surveyed the rented 18-acre plot that once sprouted a cornucopia of vegetables: beans, tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, broccoli, corn, onions, lettuce and bell peppers. It's all gone, he said; all but the occasional stray potato or pepper that will be gathered up to sell for a pittance.

The peppers were pocked with holes, the lettuce was shredded, the broccoli sliced off as cleanly as if it had been cut with a knife. Stalks of corn lay bent and torn, or stood like tilted masts in pools of water. Thursday afternoon's thunderstorms tore a vicious path through this area that includes Coates and Rosemount, pounding it with hail and wind, and deluging it with torrents of rain. It also wrecked the family vegetable plots of scores of Hmong-American farmers, those same farmers who keep Twin Cities' farmers markets well-stocked with fresh produce.

"We don't even know where to start," said Xiong, who with his father and mother, and wife, Mai Song Lee, farm the plot. "It's too late to replant this." Though Xiong and his wife have other jobs and live in St. Paul, they and Xiong's parents sank about $20,000 into seeds for planting this spring, and will see that investment blown away by the storm. They have no insurance.

"We never thought this would happen," he said.

Xiong's parents, who moved to the United States in 1980 and have been farming garden plots ever since then, were especially hard hit by the loss.

"I've never seen my parents so sad in my whole life," he said.

State Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, was out Friday inspecting the damage to the vegetable plots. She estimated that a concentration of about 150 Hmong vegetable farmers work plots in the area and that about 100 of those were hit hard by the storm.

"In my estimate, 90-95 percent of the crops were wiped out," she said. That includes heavy damage to the plot close to Highway 52 that her mother and sister work.

"That used to be lettuce," she said, pointing to rows of plants that had been crushed and slashed down to puny green nubs. The impact on the farmers markets mostly in the east metro could be incalculable, she said.

Today's St. Paul farmers market will likely be hit especially hard.

"Tomorrow, many, many of those tables will be bare," she said. "There won't be any tomatoes because the tomatoes have been devastated. If this wouldn't have happened, you would have had all kinds of beans and peppers there. There's not going to be a lot of produce at the farmers market. A lot of families won't be there. People who stop at the farmers market ... there just isn't going to be as much."

Moua said there is another big concentration of Hmong farmers in Anoka County, largely spared by Thursday's storm, and that they often work the Minneapolis Farmers Market on Thursdays.

Jack Gerten, manager of the St. Paul Farmers Market, wrote on the market website that Thursday's storm "definitely affects the farmers markets," and has hurt several growers.

"Some of them had major damage to their crops," he wrote.

Other farms damaged

The storm didn't spare other farmers. Tom Hockert, county executive director of the Dakota and Washington counties Farm Service Agency, called the damage to crops in his area "severe." Hockert said the full extent of the damage won't be known until fall harvest, but "it looks real ugly right now."

Moua, who was on the phone Friday to other legislators, both local and national, to try to figure out what can be done for the Hmong-American farmers whose plots were wrecked by Thursday's storm, has called a meeting of interested legislators and officials at the state Capitol Monday.

"My intent is to get the people who know to do an assessment and help identify the best relief we can get to these families," she said.

Xiong and his family had just been to a farmers market in Eagan Thursday when they saw the storm blowing in. They drove to their 18-acre plot and watched helplessly as the storm ravaged their fields.

"It was all brownish, with rain everywhere," he said. Next spring, he and his family will plant again. But where will the money come from?

"I'll just have to save up, use my money more wisely, get some more overtime," he said.

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547