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Safety through stories

Traditional tale-telling used to teach Hmong children about farm safety

By H.J. Cummins

Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS -- Ah, to be young and on the farm in summer. Vigorous work. Fresh air. Nature's season of growth in surround sound.

Or ... dehydration. Repetitive strain injuries. Broken bones.

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Farm work is the most dangerous summer job for American young people. Among older teens, year in and out, it brings the highest risk of death -- higher than working alone and late at night in retail or construction jobs.

Some of the newest Americans -- Hmong young people -- are working as farmhands. And a novel safety program out of the University of Minnesota is using centuries-old Hmong storytelling to deliver safety lessons on some very modern farming hazards -- rototillers, sharp tools and even difficult customers at urban farmers' markets.

"The Hmong have a culture and history of agriculture, and we want them to maintain all those values," said John Shutske, a University of Minnesota agriculture professor and one of the program developers. "We just want to help them better protect their children from the hazards, and ultimately the injuries, that can occur."

About 1.5 million youngsters take farm jobs every year -- the vast majority on their own family farm. It's a lifestyle and legacy many parents and children cherish. For Minnesota's Hmong, it's not only a way to spend days together, it also relieves parents' worries about keeping children away from gangs, Shutske said.

Safety is one of the principles Vang Yang and his family practice on their truck farm near Northfield, where they commute every day from their home in St. Paul. Yang is a community program specialist for the New Immigrant Farm Program, part of the university's Extension Service.

Choua Yang, at 15 the oldest of the family's four children, loves farming. She started three years ago, helping an aunt. Now her extended family shares a 116-acre organic plot. Her immediate family raises flowers, vegetables, berries and herbs on about 10 acres. This year, her father is going to try some wheat.

Her parents deliberately carry on some farm methods from their home country of Laos. They use the long Laotian knife. On their backs they carry their hand tools in straw baskets that their grandmother still weaves for them each winter. The extended family divides itself between the farm work and market stands every day. Choua favors the markets, she said; sometimes customers tip her.

When asked, she can quickly recite a list of safety instructions from her father: Park bicycles away from truck paths so they don't get run over. Don't ever burn plastic; it smells bad and makes poison. If you have a knife and someone approaches, immediately lay it on the ground. Wear a hat against the sun and boots against the mud.

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Assignments grow along with a child's age. The youngest, Cherjan, is 7, and he's not allowed to hold a knife. Choua will cut a cucumber for him if he's hungry. He spends a lot of time exploring the parcel of land on his bicycle, and he is good at spotting bird nests.

All the safety stories will become available this fall, Shutske said.

They are a variation on the North American Guidelines for Children's Agricultural Tasks, a compilation of safety instructions on everything from feeding calves to harvesting tobacco to driving a tractor.

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