Hmong farmers growing their future

Hmong American Farmers Association members Lang and Mee Hang use hoes to clear weeds in their farm plot in Dakota County’s Vermillion Township. (photo by Mike Hazard, courtesy of HAFA)
Hmong American Farmers Association members Lang and Mee Hang use hoes to clear weeds in their farm plot in Dakota County’s Vermillion Township. (photo by Mike Hazard, courtesy of HAFA)
The 155-acre farm run by HAFA includes 125 acres of tillable land, which is divided into five-acre plots. HAFA member farmers can lease either five or 10 acres to farm at a low rental rate. Membership includes access to refrigerated food storage, tractors and other equipment, and the farmhouse with a kitchen and bathroom. (photo by Mike Hazard, courtesy of HAFA)
The 155-acre farm run by HAFA includes 125 acres of tillable land, which is divided into five-acre plots. HAFA member farmers can lease either five or 10 acres to farm at a low rental rate. Membership includes access to refrigerated food storage, tractors and other equipment, and the farmhouse with a kitchen and bathroom. (photo by Mike Hazard, courtesy of HAFA)
Hmong American Farmers Association members Lang and Mee Hang proudly display their greens before taking them to market. The 155-acre farm run by HAFA includes 125 acres of tillable land, which is divided into five-acre plots. HAFA member farmers can lease either five or 10 acres to farm at a low rate. (photo by Mike Hazard, courtesy of HAFA)
Hmong American Farmers Association members Lang and Mee Hang proudly display their greens before taking them to market. The 155-acre farm run by HAFA includes 125 acres of tillable land, which is divided into five-acre plots. HAFA member farmers can lease either five or 10 acres to farm at a low rate. (photo by Mike Hazard, courtesy of HAFA)

Food growers keep traditions going while learning new methods

Hoping to give Hmong food growers a leg up, a St. Paul-based organization called the Hmong American Farmers Association is helping farmers find new ways of selling their fresh produce and new paths to economically fruitful farming.

South of the urban core, past the suburbs and out into the lesser-known land of Vermillion Township, a group of Hmong farmers, many of them East Siders, are hard at work as many as seven days a week during the growing season.

They work on land leased to them at bargain rates through the Hmong American Farmers Association. Some use farming techniques they've known since they lived in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and China, where they were nomadic and relied on farming to sustain themselves.

They farm five- and 10-acre parcels provided by HAFA, sharing cold storage, produce cleaning stations, a tractor with tilling, seeding, and mowing capabilities, and other amenities provided by HAFA. A private benefactor purchased the land and plans to sell it to the farmers, once they're financially poised.

In the meantime, the Vermillion Township land in Dakota County means the farmers don't have to relocate every year to new rented parcels, as was common before the HAFA farm came about — it's a form of business security.

HAFA is wrapping up its second year on the land, which hugs both sides of U.S. Highway 52 about 22 miles south of St. Paul.

It used to be a dairy farm, and most recently was planted with corn and soybeans — long rows of the two cash crops grew throughout the 125 acres.

But now, the fields are a finely tuned patchwork cultivated with all varieties of vegetables, with two rows of broccoli butting up against tomato crops, herbs and squash vines.

The modern, mechanized methods of raising cash crops have been replaced with traditional Hmong farming techniques.

Seventeen farm families call the 125-acre farm a second home, spending long days in the fields.

Though the hours are arduous and the pay is modest, it's a way of life these Hmong farmers have embraced.

The farmers sometimes have unimaginably long work days — they'll spend all day and night in the field, preparing for a farmers market.

They might harvest and process food until midnight under the glow of bright lamps that emanate from the farmhouse, then drive to their homes in St. Paul with their fresh produce, and wake up at 4 a.m. to bring the food to the seasonal morning markets. They'll finish selling around 1 or 2 p.m., and then go back to the field and do it over again, sometimes getting only a few hours of sleep over an entire weekend.

"It's not a 9 to 5 job; it's a lifestyle commitment," says Pakou Hang, director of HAFA.

But it has looked to some Hmong elders like their only choice, she says, and they've made it work — buying homes on the East Side and Frogtown, and sending their kids to college.

New markets

Some of these farmers have been doing that for 30 years, but the new plots they're farming on, provided by HAFA, are providing them new options to make their living, and new markets to sell their food to.

HAFA does for the farmers what was hard for them to do on their own — find markets other than farmers' markets, which can be unreliable sources of income. Using the food processing company Russ Davis Wholesale, they're able to sell directly to institutions. Through relationships HAFA has built, the farmers can sell their food to several public school systems including Minneapolis, as well as Lund's and Byerly's stores, and Mississippi Market Food Co-op.

The day of the Review's visit, HAFA staff were meeting with staff from HealthEast to explore the possibility of selling HAFA-grown food in hospitals.

HAFA calls this program its Alternative Markets Program. The program has meant that the farmers are able to make a little more on their produce — in 2015, Hang estimates the farmers are pulling in about $5,000 per acre. That's $25,000 gross income for a family working a five-acre plot, or $50,000 on average for a 10-acre plot. So a whole family could be toiling for well over 40 hours a week for $50,000, which after expenses could look more like $25,000, Hang says. The goal for the farms is to yield $8,000 an acre.

Learning new tricks

Currently, the farms have no particular certifications such as USDA Organic or GAP (Good Agricultural Practices), but they do keep food safety plans and logs, and have a structure in place to track produce back to the field where it was grown, in case of an e-coli outbreak or other health concerns.

And Hang is quick to note that the farmers do use a variety of sustainable farming techniques, such as intercropping; “farming on the contour,” where land is shaped to preserve water from running off and stripping the land of topsoil; using safe, natural pesticides and fertilizers; and growing pollinator plants that encourage bees and other pollinating insects to take up residence. HAFA staff also keep honeybees on the property.

That said, Yao notes it can be difficult to convince farmers to adopt different farming techniques and avoid the use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers. After all, they've been farming in their own way for generations, and some have grown fond of the use of artificial fertilizers to jump-start their crops.

"It's very much about respecting elders," says Yao Yang, an organizer for HAFA. "We can't say 'Grandpa, you should grow these string beans.'"

But they can demonstrate the benefits of growing a particular crop such as string beans, which are a legume that provides natural nutrients to the soil. To that end, they have a demonstration greenhouse to encourage farmers to save up money to purchase their own, and increase their harvest, and a full array of educational programming for the off-season.

Rich farming history

Hmong people have a rich history in agriculture. According to a document titled “Hmong Farmers: In the Market and On the Move” from Farmers’ Legal Action Group, a non-profit law group providing support to family farmers, it was a way of life.

Prior to immigrating to the United States, many Hmong subsisted as farmers in the mountain region of northern Laos. Farming in cooperative groups or clans, they would walk out to their fields every day from a nearby homestead.

“Leaving Laos after the Vietnam War meant leaving the land, but perhaps more importantly, the agrarian lifestyle that was a foundation of their people,” the document states. “After immigrating to the United States, many Hmong settled in urban communities, yet their agrarian roots continued to be a motivating factor behind entry into family farming.”

Hmong people began arriving in numbers to Minnesota and other parts of the country in the 1970’s. They’ve settled mostly in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, with well over 60,000 Hmong people living in Minnesota, primarily in the Twin Cities.

Back in Laos, their primary farming technique, was called “slash and burn,” the document states, where they burned fields before planting seeds and after harvests. This created nutrient rich ash to fertilize the soil and improve production of vegetables, rice, and poppies. But the method also exhausted the soil and necessitated regular migration.

Since coming to the United States, they’ve adopted new techniques.

Ownership? Not yet

Though HAFA works with about 128 farmers on and off of their land, that represents just a sliver of an active Hmong farming culture in Minnesota, which is mirrored in California and Wisconsin. Hang estimates there are about 400 farmers in the metro area.

"Farming is a really important part of our narrative," she says.

And despite the prevalence of farming among the Hmong, Hang can count on one hand the number of farmers who actually own their land — she can think of only three.

She points to barriers in accessing financing as a major part of this, and says most of the affordable agricultural land is not within driving distance of the Twin Cities, which is a sticking point. Most of the farmers would like to remain tied to the metro area, where they have access to Hmong culture and community.

HAFA is hoping to make land ownership more common for Hmong people who would like to keep farming, by offering financial counseling, contributing to farmers' savings accounts, and providing training to the farmers. In the off-season, HAFA members are required to participate in farming classes, learning about planting techniques, budgeting, soil health, and more.

HAFA offers a core farming curriculum, as well as more specialized training on specific crops and techniques. In order to join HAFA, a farmer has to have been making a go of it on his or her own for at least three years.

At least one group of farmers has begun leveraging training they've gained from HAFA to come up with a two-year plan to grow their business and buy farmland of their own.

As Hang sees it, Hmong farmers are an integral part of local, sustainable agriculture.

She worries that Hmong farmers have been overlooked as locally grown produce and farmers markets are coming into vogue — she points to farmers markets, which were dying out in the 1980s — until Hmong immigrants arrived. Now they're alive and well, and trendy, she notes.

Younger generation?

With many of the farmers at HAFA being elders, HAFA faces a difficult hurdle. Yang ponders, "How do we make this less intimidating for young people?"

While there are a few enthused younger Hmong farmers, not many are interested in making a life of it.

In some ways, this is what the Hmong elders wanted — to work hard in agriculture so their kids could gain access to education and avoid the difficult, labor-intensive livelihood of farming.

But, Yang adds, with modern farming practices and technology available, a new generation of Hmong farmers could have access to technological advantages that make farming less labor-intensive and more of an economically sustainable livelihood.

Things like tractors, irrigation, hoop houses and a better understanding of soil science could give new Hmong farmers a leg up.

And younger Hmong people are taking an interest in food in other ways, she notes — for instance, one of the HAFA farmers has a son in culinary school. The son's plan is to use Hmong-produced food to prepare and serve in a restaurant.

But perhaps some young people will stick with farming. One young Hmong farm family at HAFA is making a go of it: 32-year-old Teng Thao could be found quickly washing tubs full of root vegetables.

He got his start at farming by helping his mother, but now he's committed to it, coming out to the field as many as seven days per week in the peak of the growing season.

Growing mostly root vegetables, leafy greens and tomatoes with his wife, brother and mother, the group makes a modest but decent living, he says.

Though he could be working a different job in the city and probably making a similar amount of money but working fewer hours, he feels drawn to farming and hopes to continue to do it.

He finds peace in the rural scenery, and, besides that, he can see it as an economically viable option down the road.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

 

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