Farmer Mentor Extraordinaire, May Lee
~Story by Nancy Cook; Photos by Lebo Moore and Laura Hedeen
May Lee’s story as an organic farmer begins with the story of her mother. For years, May Lee’s mother worked on a U.S. farm that daily exposed her to pesticides. She developed cancer that was linked to pesticide poisoning. As May Lee watched, she grew ill and died. This great sadness in May Lee’s life made her aware of the dangers to people’s health and the environment in the prevailing food production systems. After her mother died, May Lee resolved to make changes in her own life. When she heard about MFA, she put in an application and at the soonest opportunity made the move from industrialized farming to organic farming. Now she mentors others in sustainable agricultural methods and, along with her family, runs an independent farming operation.
Historically, farming was part of life in Laos, where May was born. She grew up surrounded by corn fields, rice fields, and rice paddies. As the second child and oldest daughter of a large family, May lived the farming life, and never went to school. She continued in this traditional life style as a young wife and mother. Then, in 1980, May’s family was among the many groups of refugees who left Laos for Thailand in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Viet Nam. By this time, May was married and had two children. The family spent a year in Thailand before resettling in the United States.
Everything, says May, was unfamiliar and sometimes shocking. When she first examined a stove in her new country, she looked around and asked where to get the wood for cooking. She’d never cooked with electricity.
May’s husband started school in 1981, and ten years later, after he’d completed his education, May started her studies. This was in 1992, and by now there were eight children at home. Graduating in 1996, May had hopes of entering the field of landscape design. Changes in government funding made the family’s financial situation too tenuous, though, so May instead entered the farm work force. It is a life she has come to value deeply. “I like to do things by myself,” May notes. She loves the autonomy she has, where “no one can control my time.” At the same time, May, an outgoing and sociable person, appreciates the opportunities she has at MFA to share ideas and work cooperatively with her neighbors. May puts lots of effort into helping other farmers learn skills and acquire knowledge about maximizing health and safety in food production. She can also be found interacting with the community at local farmers markets in St. Paul, Mill City, and White Bear.
As May notes, many people don’t realize what it takes to ensure that food is safe and what it takes to make people healthy. “People don’t know, children don’t know,” she says. “They only know hamburgers, pizza, hot dogs! They care about having food, good food, tasty food, but they don’t necessarily care about what’s in the food.” In part, she believes, this is a consequence of modern lifestyles: “Rush and rush and rush and work!” For May, this is a cause of concern because, more than anything, she worries about the environment of the future. She wants badly to eradicate dangers to health like those that killed her mother.
She has hope. Her experiences lead her to believe that change can start in the schools. She encourages educators to teach children about healthy living, effective uses of technology, and planning strategies. Children should be brought to the farms so they can see the process firsthand. The children, she is confident, will tell their parents what they’ve learned. That will help educate the public.
A part of May still lives in Laos. In many ways, she is a resident of two countries. She loves her adopted home: “People are honest here,” she says. “The government is well organized and fair.” She feels her children are fortunate, that they have been given a good education and many opportunities. But, she admits, she still misses the buffalo and the rice paddies of Laos.