|By Heidi M. Pascual
John Xiong's job at the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS, U.S. Department of Agriculture) is tied to
the land. Like his Hmong forefathers who worked on their farmlands on the hilltops of Laos, Xiong has been
interested in the type of soil suitable for farming in Wisconsin, where he grew up and which he considers his home.
While he himself doesn't farm, thousands of Wisconsin’s Hmong do. Wisconsin ranks third in the U.S. for the highest
Hmong population behind only California and Minnesota.
Part of Xiong's work as a cartographer greatly benefits farmers and landowners. He provides information on soil
types and existence of wetlands for agricultural purposes or building homes and other structures, not only in
Wisconsin, but throughout the U.S.
"We do soil survey or soil mapping," Xiong said in an interview with Asian Wisconzine. "We digitize, or we make a
digital project, out of previously published surveys in paper format that soil scientists and soil researchers have
compiled. We create the digital maps for the nation."
He explained the importance of updating old surveys and keeping soil mapping in step with the latest
technology. "The maps that we're working on were produced back in the '60s, '70s. They're old, and the way they
surveyed back then, technology-wise, was different from now; but we need to have a basic layer, a digital layer we
can work with."
Xiong also explained the use of soil maps and its role in development. "It's useful for everybody because people
can research what type of soil we have," he said. "Farmers would know if they should grow corn or other crops. By
knowing the type of soil, farmers can reduce the amount of fertilizer (they use) if the soil doesn't need all that. A lot
of agencies, private and public, use our data for building houses. If there's bedrock, let's say four feet, it's not good
to build a house on that location or it's going to cost a lot of money to dig a well out there if you build a house. Our
maps will also tell you where the waters are. We can tell you where the wet spots are by the type of soil. So knowing
the type of your soil is really important."
Recently, NRCS had a big celebration; they just finished mapping all the soils of Wisconsin. "We completed the
digital mapping of Wisconsin, and it's now online, at www.websoilsurvey.com," Xiong said proudly.
And Xiong's parents must be very proud of their son, the middle of five children, who was 3 years old when they
moved to the U.S. as Hmong refugees in 1979. The family moved four times, initially settling in Decatur, Ill. where
their church sponsors were, then Chicago, Twin Cities, Minn., and eventually in LaCrosse, Wis., to follow some
While two older siblings became teachers, Xiong graduated with a bachelor's in geography, a course that's rarely
taken by Asian American youth.
"I took geography, which was totally ‘not normal,’" Xiong said with a chuckle. "The Hmong people prefer the
typical doctor, lawyer, teacher professions. And geography wasn't on the list. My parents wondered why I even
chose that degree, but I did, because I liked the courses, the professors, and making maps. My professors opened
my mind and made me see that maybe there's something out there for me. I graduated in 2001."
Describing himself as "shy," Xiong admitted that his high school years weren't enjoyable, and neither was his first
year at UW-Madison. "I really didn't like the high school atmosphere," he said. "Because in high school you have to
be a certain way. Then, there were a few Hmong in my class in high school. I guess it was just me. When I went to
college, that's where I found myself. I told myself, I can do this; I don't have to be like everybody else. However, at
UW-Madison, a big factor in me not doing well or not succeeding or not being comfortable was because the classes
here were so large, compared to those at UW-La Crosse. Here, they just know you by your ID when you took the test,
but when I went to La Crosse, I knew my professors by name, they knew me. I came here under a collegiate program
for high school graduates in La Crosse — the Upper Bound program. The only reason I went to UW-Madison was
because my two older siblings went to UW-La Crosse and I didn't want to do that. I figured I'll try something new, but
it wasn't for me."
His first job after earning his degree, however, returned Xiong to Madison. "I got a job in Madison as
photogrammetric technician," he recalled. "It was before Sept. 11. Unfortunately, I was let go soon after, when the
company, as many other companies losing business at that time, did a lot of cutbacks. The first ones to go were the
newly hired." Out of job, he volunteered with NRI (Natural Resources Inventory), which is under NRCS (Natural
Resources Conservation Service) just to see what other geographer majors did. "I just wanted to see what was out
there," he said. Soon after, he was hired as a temporary employee with NRCS in 2002. He worked at the Onalaska
field office in La Crosse County as a soil conservation technician or a cartographic aide. In less than a year, a
position opened in Madison and Xiong became a cartographic technician.
Xiong is very proud of his work as cartographer and his office, the NRCS. He is also very excited about his additional
title as Asian Pacific Islander Program Manager.
"I like what I'm doing: mapping and the geographic information system," he said. "We have offices in almost
every county … and people can get information from our offices or check our website. We provide technical help in
terms of conservation of water and land. We have programs that help farmers, and many of them actually get some
money from the government to preserve say, a wetland, or turn their land back into a wetland; there are different
"Also, we are trying to target specific groups, and because I'm also the Asian Pacific Islander Program Manager,
I work with the Asian Pacific Islander Organization (APIO) on two scholarships: one from the USDA and another
from the APIO. Here in the state, we now have have three AAPIs, which is good. When I first started, I was the only
Asian Pacific Islander employee in the state. So, we have come a long way. I've helped recruit the other two. I'm
glad that I'm making a difference, increasing our diversity, which is what we want." He does a lot of outreach,
especially with the Hmong community, by participating in the Wisconsin Hmong Association Annual Conference
and distributing information on various agricultural issues.
Xiong wants to continue promoting diversity in the USDA in the state, and in the near future, get into soil
analysis, not just digital mapping. Meanwhile, he is making sure that his wife (who works with the Mental Health
Center of Dane County) and son get to enjoy what Wisconsin has to offer its citizens, particularly those who came
under unfortunate circumstances, like the Hmong who supported the U.S. military in its fight against the
communists during the Vietnam War.