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100 years ago, whites drove Sikhs out of Bellingham. Now Sikh farmers flourish

Two thirds of the raspberries grown in the U.S. come out of the soil in Whatcom County, Washington. And chances are, the berries you ate this summer were grown by Sikh farmers there.

Paul Sangha learned the trade from his father. Sangha is one of nearly 100 East Indian Sikhs tilling the soil just south of the Canadian border. They’re adding their own centuries-old traditions of family farming – and transforming the region.

"My dad has been farming here for 30-plus years, ever since he first came to the U.S.," Sangha said.

Between Sangha, his family and other farmers, about 5,000 acres of berry fields are being farmed by Sikhs in Whatcom County.

"We don’t feel like we’re here to take anything away. We want to integrate into the community. We want to be a part of Whatcom County, Washington state."

It’s kind of a shocker in light of history. About a century ago, hundreds of Sikhs immigrated to Bellingham to work in the lumber mills. Satpal Sidhu, an educator and Whatcom County Council member, said because the Sikhs were willing to work long hours for low wages, they were very favored by the management, which came with a backlash.

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Resentment by white workers grew. In 1907, a mob of about 500 men attacked the Sikh workers. They overwhelmed the small police force and drove all Sikhs from the town.

"And for 75 to 80 years later, nobody Sikh ever came to Bellingham," Sidhu said.

Racist laws in the early 20th century restricted Asian immigration into the United States, so a large community of Sikhs started farming in British Columbia, literally a stone’s throw from Whatcom County.

And they prospered; they wanted to expand. Whatcom County offered cheaper land and room to grow. They began to return.

Rob Dhaliwal, a Gen Xer who grew up in Abbotsford, came to the United States when his parents immigrated from Canada.

"My father, actually he’s the one who started farming raspberries," Dhaliwal said. "He planted his first raspberries in 1977 up in B.C. In the mid ’80s he moved his operation down south here and we’ve been farming here since."

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But for some Sikh farmers it wasn’t easy. Some locals wouldn’t work with them. Satpal Sidhu says when the first Sikh berry farmers harvested, processors refused to take their berries. But two local farmers stepped up to help.

"They actually came to the Sikh farmers and told them why don’t you bring all your berry drums to my farm at night. I’ll take your berry. And when I get paid I’ll give you the check," Sidhu said. "And they actually did. For three seasons, this happened in Whatcom County."

After that the Sikhs got organized. Sidhu says the biggest change came in the mid-90s when Sikh farmers formed a cooperative. The group grew to 50 farmers. They handle 50 million pounds of raspberries.

From Dairy to Berry

With that market clout, attitudes changed and so did the economy.

Retired dairy farmer Keith Boon sees it this way: "When I started there was over 1,000 dairies farms here in the county and today there’s less than 100 so I guess that tells you the way it’s going."

His father started dairying here in 1948. Boon followed in his father’s footsteps. But he got out 10 years ago. He’s one of dozens of longtime dairy farmers here who’ve sold their land to Sikh berry farmers. He felt hammered by low milk prices and a growing number of regulations. The final blow was his kids didn’t see how they could afford to go into dairying.

"Gotta change something sometime," Boon said.

An East Indian company now raises blueberries on Boon’s former family homestead. It’s bittersweet to see his farm shrink. But –

"I mean the neighbors I have, we’re very proud to have them as neighbors," Boon said. "They do a nice job. They’re stewards of the land. And we are as well."

"It’s just satisfying to be able to grow fruit that everybody enjoys to eat," Dhaliwal said. "And being able to tend to the plants and watch them grow and see them go from bud break to actually harvesting. It’s an amazing thing.

Remember the 1907 riot? Dhaliwal said he had never heard of it. And neither had Keith Boon or Paul Sangha.

"There’s no 'You are this type of a farmer. You look this way, you’re that type of farmer.' No, we are all farmers," Sangha said.

It’s a testament to how time and farm traditions have turned the site of a hate crime into a home for a new wave of immigrants.

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