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 exposed her daily to harmful chemical pesticides. Eventually, her mother developed cancer linked to pesticide poisoning. As May Lee watched, her mother grew ill and passed away. This great sadness in May Lee’s life made her aware of the dangers that conventional farming practices have on people’s health and the environment. After her mother’s death, May Lee resolved to make changes in her own life. When she heard about Big River Farms’ education program, she applied and made the move from conventional, industrialized farming to organic farming. Now, she mentors others in sustainable agriculture and, along with her family, runs an independent farming operation at Big River Farms called Mhonpaj’s Garden (named after one of her five daughters).
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. She continued in this traditional lifestyle as a young wife and mother. In 1980, May’s family was among the many groups of refugees who left Laos for Thailand in the wake of the United State’s withdrawal from Vietnam. By this time, May was married and had two children. Her family spent a year in Thailand before resettling in the United States. Everything, says May, was unfamiliar here and sometimes shocking.
May, an outgoing and sociable person, appreciates the opportunities she’s had at Big River Farms to share ideas and work cooperatively with her neighbors. As our Farmer Mentor, she puts a lot of effort into helping other farmers learn new skills and acquire knowledge about maximizing health and safety in organic food production.
When asked, May admits a part of her 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. She feels her children are fortunate, and that they have been given a good education and many opportunities. But, she admits, she still misses the buffalo and rice paddies of Laos. We’re so grateful for all of May’s farming knowledge and skills!