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Hmong American Farmers Association Cultivates Profits, Productivity, Community

Just off Highway 52, the go-to route for Twin Citians driving to Rochester, Minnesota, there’s a long stretch of farm fields dotted with a couple dozen little wooden shacks. The scene naturally invites speculation: Is this a tiny house community? Could these be meditation huts for a retreat center? Maybe they’re really rustic camping cabins?
“I hear from a lot of people who see it when they’re going to the Mayo Clinic for treatments. They wonder what is going on there,” says Pakou Hang, executive director of the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA). What’s happening on those 155 acres in Vermillion Township is farming the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the area for decades. More than 150 different types of produce, including tender spring greens, snow peas, onions, summer squash, peppers, herbs and flowers are coming up in five- to 10-acre individual plots, each one a small family farm.
The food HAFA members grow feeds more than 70,000 students in Minnesota public school districts and at Carleton College in Northfield, MN. HAFA members run a CSA. Members sell their produce to the Seward Community Co-op, Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-op, Lunds & Byerlys, and St. Paul Head Start. They conduct numerous research projects. They have implemented sustainable farming practices that have already improved the environment on the farm and water quality in the nearby Vermillion River.
They have restored oak savannah and pollinator habitat. They grow investment perennials, such as berries and asparagus, on land they know they can return to. They have introduced Minnesotan palates to new flavors. They have re-introduced crops, like ground cherries, that Minnesotans haven’t seen for decades. And they have seen production and profits increase exponentially.
In 2014, the first crops went in, tended by 22 families; four farm families are members of HAFA but tend crops elsewhere. “We learn so much from being a part of HAFA,” says farmer Lenny Xiong, including “how to take care of the garden, how to control bugs and how to make the land better for the future. They help us sell our vegetables and we do better with everything.”
Xiong, one of the founding members of HAFA, says he has seen his profits grow every year, and is planting high-value perennial crops for the future because he knows he’ll be able to return to his land each year. He also involves his eight children in the farm, because his parents and grandparents were farmers, so the work connects him with his family and with Laos.
Correcting disparities by growing community
“Farming is very much part of the Hmong narrative, and has been since Hmong people started arriving after the Vietnam War. The whole family pitches in, from growing to selling the food,” says Hang, who grew up working in the fields. “Even today, as second generations have moved to the suburbs and pursued non-farming careers, you’ll still see gardens in their backyards.”
Many Hmong, however, still want to farm. Hmong farmers contribute more than $13 million to the Minnesota economy and grow more than half of the produce sold at the Minneapolis and St. Paul farmers markets. Yet Hmong farmers earn about $3-5,000 an acre for their efforts, while white farmers earn $8,000 an acre.
“High land prices and access to capitol, credit, training and research are barriers to small family farmers, especially those who live in the city,” Hang says. “Many Hmong farmers lease land from rural landowners, but face a long drive to farmer’s markets. Rampant exploitation makes it even harder to make a living.”
Hang adds that landowners often charge Hmong farmers higher rents than white farmers. Or they make uneven deals, such as, “Give us two-fifths of everything you produce.” Or the lease allows landowners to pick whatever they want from the fields. Or they charged Hmong much higher rates for services such as plowing. The going rate is $17 an acre and Hmong were being charged $150, said Hang. “They were getting into a sharecropper situation. We had such a disparity compared to white farmers, yet we were working so hard and had good productivity. We asked, ‘What can we do about this?’”
Hang and her sister Janssen Hang formed the membership-based HAFA in 2011 to help Hmong farmers realize greater profits. By sharing community and knowledge, individual farmers could be more successful. When farmers were able to farm on land that would stay in the Hmong community, things really took off. 
In 2013, with a donation from an anonymous benefactor, HAFA purchased a parcel of land spanning both sides of Highway 52. They remediated soil depleted by years of corn and soybean production; added an agricultural well and a deer fence; renovated a farmhouse; and added produce washing, cooling and storage facilities while schooling members in the stringent food safety measures required by the larger marketplace. To join HAFA, members are required to have more than three years of farming background, experience working on more than three acres of land and to carry $1 million in liability insurance.
Farming: Still a family affair
The HAFA farm is considered an incubator farm, where farmers can get a secure start, making money while increasing their knowledge about farming practices and the financial and market systems they need to tap into. Eventually, some might buy larger plots elsewhere—and the next farmer on the waiting list could take their plot. (Other farmers grow offsite already, but access community resources through membership in HAFA.) The wooden sheds mark each farm family’s plot, providing storage for equipment, or shelter for a child taking a nap.
Farming is still very much a family affair. HAFA also takes a similarly holistic approach to supporting farm families. “For instance, we offer financial counseling for the whole family. Kids learn about how to manage student debt, while their parents look at how to buy a tractor,” says Hang, who notes that more than 90 percent of Hmong farm kids attend college, while less than 20 percent of Hmong kids who don’t come from farm families do.
“Farming facilitates an entrepreneurial mindset and that continues down the generations,” Hang continues. “We have several young people in the HAFA community who are creating businesses from value-added farm products, such as carrot cake, jam, frozen eggrolls, dehydrated okra and fermented mustard greens. The farm has a commercial kitchen, and second-generation kids who don’t necessarily want to farm are figuring out how to create businesses using skills and values they learned in their community.”
Hang says her own parents farmed in order to be able to afford private school tuition for their children. She went to Yale and studied political science, then worked as a financial analyst for an investment firm before taking jobs with Paul Wellstone and the Children’s Defense Fund. After her grandfather died, she realized she was too far from home and her community. “I was raised to believe that if you have gifts, you have to share them with those who need them the most,” she says.
The young organization has inspired Somali and Ethiopian immigrant farmers to explore the possibility of creating something similar. Conventional farmers have toured the farm, too, to see sustainable practices in action.
Hang finds this educational aspect of the organization especially satisfying. HAFA members continuously analyze and share their processes to find new ways to improve. They create how-to documents on best practices for every element of the farming experience, from how to buy a tractor to how to improve soil health to how to break into specialty markets. HAFA also runs cooking classes at Kitchen on the Bluff in St. Paul, educating the consumer as well as the farmer.
“Hmong farmers changed Minnesota cooking, revitalized it and saved it,” Hang says. “When we first appeared, farmers’ markets were dying. They sold potatoes, tomatoes and corn. Our produce was unusual at the time. We had mint, peppers, patty pan squash and pea shoots, which started attracting the Bon Appetit crowd, who wanted to make a foo-foo salad. Then people realized this was wholesome, nutritious, delicious food. Before the local food movement really took off, Hmong farmers were making these things accessible, and bringing people together over food.”
 Amy Goetzman writes about the arts, culture and people who are making Minnesota a better and more interesting place. She lives with her family in Minneapolis.

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