Farm prospers by providing land, larger markets for Hmong farmers

Farm Forum

Xai Tou Yang stands by an oversized gray bin, bundling his harvest of snakelike green ropes — actually long beans — inside a refrigerated pole barn near Hastings.

For the second year, he’s helping his daughter work about 10 acres of land, subleased from the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), on a 155-acre farm in Vermillion Township. Without the association, the family might not have a plot to farm.

“Hmong people don’t have land,” Yang said through a translator. “Americans own all the land, so it’s hard to get a piece of that.”

Giving Hmong farmers affordable, long-term access to farmland is one goal of HAFA, a nonprofit started in 2011, along with helping the farmers band together to find larger, more lucrative markets for their products. With 19 families farming plots plus a full waiting list, the association has secured contracts to provide vegetables to Surly Brewing, Minneapolis Public Schools and Lunds and Byerly’s. The farm, recently honored as Dakota County’s Farm Family of the Year by the University of Minnesota, has found success by meeting the needs of Hmong-Americans — a group with a tradition and passion for agriculture — while serving the exploding market for locally grown food.

“Our work is a game-changer because it looks holistically at what farming families need to succeed,” said Pakou Hang, HAFA’s executive director.

A membership lets farmers lease land indefinitely, instead of moving around. Knowing where they’re farming the next year provides stability, allowing families to plan ahead with crops, Hang said.

In addition, the association provides resources, such as an on-site agronomist to help with crop questions, access to water, and a refrigerated food truck to transport fruits, veggies and flowers. Instructors from Ridgewater College teach members about farm management, while other workshops provide primers on creating business plans or obtaining financing to buy equipment.

An anonymous East Coast benefactor purchased the farmland and leased it to HAFA in 2013, intending for the association to purchase it eventually.

Ultimately, HAFA’s goal is helping families create self-sufficiency through farming.

“We are committed to wealth creation — embedded in that word is that it’s intergenerational wealth,” Hang said. “This is about families and not individuals.”

The farm grows more than 120 crops, including ubiquitous sweet corn and potatoes. Farmers also raise less common crops such as edamame, gooseberries, lemon cucumbers and banana peppers, along with showy flowers like sunflowers and dahlias.

“The demand for organic and locally grown produce, I think, is only going to increase,” said Hilary Otey Wold, executive director of the Minnesota Food Association. “We are really lucky in the Twin Cities to have an educated and committed consumer base of people who … put their money where their mouth is, supporting local farmers.”

Wold’s association runs Big River Farms, a 150-acre incubator farm in Marine on St. Croix, where a diverse group of future farmers — from American Indians to immigrants from Ethiopia to Guatemala — are trained. The group hosts joint classes with HAFA, Wold said. Big River Farms, which has 60 growers, offers up to six years of training for farmers, a youth program and participation in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program to its members. Its goal in serving culturally diverse farmers is similar to HAFA’s.

“The growers that we work with face the same barriers” as HAFA farmers, Wold said, including limited access to land and capital.

An agrarian history

For hundreds of years, Hmong families worked together as subsistence farmers in Laos and Thailand, said Naton Vang, a HAFA farmer.

In the United States, they continued farming to make a living, relying on the whole family to plant, grow and harvest.

“You can ask any Hmong family — we all grew up with some sort of plot of greens … or corn in our backyard,” said Lillian Hang, whose parents farm a HAFA plot. Many Hmong families farm around the Twin Cities, selling their yield at farmers markets. But there are so many venues that the farmers don’t always make decent profits. And visitors often come to socialize instead of buy, Yang said.

HAFA has helped the farmers make more money. Its food hub matches up buyers, like restaurants and school districts, with multiple families who provide a specific item, said Emily Pence, HAFA’s communications specialist. Food hub staffers also organize a CSA program so community members can buy shares of the farm’s products.

A couple of the 50 to 60 HAFA farmers aspire to run a large, conventional farm, said Tara Yang, HAFA’s business development organizer. But they’re the few that do — most HAFA farmers are getting older and aren’t interested in transitioning to big-time farming.

Despite its size, HAFA received the Dakota County family farm honor from the U.

A family is picked from nearly every Minnesota county annually with the goal of representing the diversity of Minnesota agriculture, said Bob Byrnes, field operations director for the University of Minnesota Extension.

“It is a little bit unusual in that [this year’s honoree] is an association,” Byrnes said.

“To be included in that circle is really humbling because we are still small farmers,” Hang said. “It’s a different type of farming than what is traditionally thought of.”

HAFA is one of several organizations — each with its own model — working to help immigrant farmers get started and continue long-standing cultural traditions around farming.

The Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) is another partner of HAFA, having received joint grants with the association and served as HAFA’s fiscal agent before it gained nonprofit status, said Mario Hernandez, the LEDC’s chief operating officer.

The center sets up cooperatives for Latino farmers, training them to operate their own farms.

As today’s commercial farmers become too old to farm and their children choose other careers, some will be replaced by newer immigrants, he said.

“Looking to Latino farmers, looking to Hmong farmers and their kids,” Hernandez said. “I think it’s a smart move for Minnesota.”