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Productive and peaceful

FALLS CITY -- Harvest day at Akha Farm in Falls City is a lesson in not only the bounty of summer, but the vast variety of colors in nature's palette.

Michu Ualyue and her daughter Meeh Daw, right, load produce into coolers Aug. 7 in Falls City to take to the Polk County Bounty Market in Dallas Thursday. Ualyue, her husband Matthew McDaniel, and their five children farm an eight-acre plot in Falls City as Akha Farm.

Photo by Jolene Guzman

Michu Ualyue and her daughter Meeh Daw, right, load produce into coolers Aug. 7 in Falls City to take to the Polk County Bounty Market in Dallas Thursday. Ualyue, her husband Matthew McDaniel, and their five children farm an eight-acre plot in Falls City as Akha Farm.

August 13, 2013

FALLS CITY -- Harvest day at Akha Farm in Falls City is a lesson in not only the bounty of summer, but the vast variety of colors in nature's palette.

There are bright purple eggplants, deep green cucumbers and zucchini, and pale yellow squash. Potatoes come in hues of red, yellow and even purple, as do onions.

The string beans stacked in bins on a table laden with the day's harvest may be the most fascinating, though.

Have you ever seen a purple bean? Or better yet, a purple and yellow speckled bean? If you stop by the farm, you would.

"We buy lots and lots of seeds and try them out, to see how they grow," said farm co-owner Matthew McDaniel."You never know what is going to come up. I love nature's colors."

Whatever the hue of the produce, chances are that it will grow well at Akha Farm.

String beans come in a variety of colors

String beans come in a variety of colors

Just two short years ago, few people would have imagined the property that is now the farm could become fertile fields.

McDaniel and his wife, Michu Uaiyue, were the exception. They saw the potential that others understandably didn't in the overgrown and littered eight-acre piece of land.

"This place didn't have a good reputation before -- at all," McDaniel said. "People were surprised when we bought it. But I said to my wife, `This is a perfect piece of property...' She said, `How do you know?' and I said, `Look at the gopher mounds. There is just black gold coming up out of the ground.'"

He was referring to the dark, rich soil that turned out to meet -- if not surpass -- the couple's hopes of being productive ground.

McDaniel said the neighbors were skeptical of their intentions for the property, especially when they started clearing the dense growth of brambles, vines and trees -- plus a collection of old tires.

Akha Farm co-owner Matthew McDaniel looks over the week

Photo by Jolene Guzman

Akha Farm co-owner Matthew McDaniel looks over the week's bounty during harvest Aug. 7 at the farm in Falls City.

They could barely get their now-recognizable "Akha Farm" Suburban through the gate on the property.

"When we came here there was a canopy of about 40 feet of tangle," McDaniel said. "We had big concord grapes up in the canopy. I mean big vines and we chopped and chopped and chopped until we got all the thorn bushes out."

One neighbor warned that the property spent at least part of the winter flooded, but McDaniel said that was the result of all the debris stopping the natural flow of water through the property.

Within three months, the family had cleared the land.

Uaiyue, a member of the Akha, a collection of hill tribes that populate parts of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and China, knew exactly what to do.

She spent her entire life farming in her homeland and calls herself "a compulsive farmer."

"I can't imagine her doing anything else," McDaniel said. "I try to make sure she has what she needs to do it."

Her needs are simple: seeds, water, and a surprisingly small plot of land. With those ingredients, she produces an extraordinary amount of food.

"We had a complete crop last summer," McDaniel said. "Everything was in the ground within six months."

Far surpassing the needs of her family -- she and McDaniel have five children: sons Victor, Ah Tsah, and Ah Ngoh and daughters Meeh Daw and Ah Pymm -- to grow enough to sell at two area farmers markets all season long.

Uaiyue uses traditional farming techniques passed on through the generations of her family in Thailand. She doesn't use any chemicals for fertilization or pest control. Insects are deterred -- for the most part -- by flowers planted with the vegetables and the soil is fortified with compost and organic chicken manure.

Michu Ualyue helps Kelsie Root of Dallas with her produce order at Akha Farm

Photo by Pete Strong

Michu Ualyue helps Kelsie Root of Dallas with her produce order at Akha Farm's booth at the Polk County Bounty Market Thursday.

"And the trick is, she says, is to plant more than you need," McDaniel said, smiling.

Uaiyue is content with simply growing the food, but has also begun to interact with customers at the farm's booth at Dallas' Polk County Bounty Market and Independence's Riverview Market.

"I'm happy. I grow vegetables," said Uaiyue, who is still learning English.

"I like my vegetables. I eat everything," she added, referring to her habit of just picking something out of her fields and eating it raw.

The family's productive and peaceful existence stands in stark contrast to its life in Uaiyue's native Thailand. Her family farmed in the increasingly dangerous region near the Thai and Burmese (Myanmar) border. Drug cartels had begun gaining a foothold, leaving the region's tribes fearful of attack.

McDaniel, who was in the country on a human rights mission when he met Uaiyue, said it had become a dangerous proposition just to venture out to care for and harvest the fields.

"It's basically a war zone," McDaniel said. "It makes gang banging look friendly. There were killings in the middle of the night, people coming through villages and you don't know who they are."

The couple married within eight months of meeting each other, a process that required McDaniel to be adopted by a family in her tribe, and started a family in Thailand. However, with violence increasing, they moved to the United States in the mid-2000s.

McDaniel hopes to use the Falls City farm not only to grow healthy produce, but to highlight the plight -- and the extraordinary farming talent -- of the Akha people still trying to exist the way their ancestors did. He said the tribes face the threat of having their land or children taken from them by the Thai government or well-meaning missionaries. Whatever the intentions, McDaniel said the trends are threatening Akha culture.

McDaniel said given the land and the opportunity -- like his family has in Falls City -- Akha people can be self-sufficient.

"One of the things we wanted to do with the farm is demonstrate how much one woman can grow," he said. "Why would you want to take kids away when (the Akha) can produce this much food?"

Vegetables and more

What: Akha Farms.

Where: 137 Sheldon Ave., Falls City; Polk County Bounty Market, Academy Building parking lot, 182 SW Academy St., Dallas; and Independence Riverview Market, Riverview Park and Amphitheater, Main Street, Independence.

When: Polk County Bounty, Thursdays through Sept. 26, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Riverview Market, Saturdays through Oct. 269 a.m. to 2 p.m.

For more information: 971-388-7185.

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