Hmong farmers use Minnesota-grown roots to bolster operations, farmers' markets

Noah Fish
Forum News Service

ROCHESTER, Minn. — On a Saturday morning in mid-July, stacks of broccoli, kale, carrots, potatoes (in three different varieties), beets, rhubarb, kohlrabi, spinach, cucumbers and more can be found at the Yang Family Garden stand at the Rochester Farmers Market.

The Yang family has been a vendor at the Rochester market for more than a decade, and grows all the products they sell in Chester, Minn., just outside of Rochester.

Emily Yang, who was in sixth grade when her family first started selling at the weekly markets, said their biggest hit in the summer is usually asparagus and strawberries but this year they have no asparagus because of the weather. Pickled cucumbers and carrots are also popular items around this time of year, she said.

She said back when the family first started selling at farmers’ markets, the events weren’t as popular as they are now.

Yang said they were worried this year that the pandemic would upend their business at the farmers markets. But they’ve been OK financially, she said, with there still being plenty of foot traffic each weekend.

“It’s not nearly as bad as we thought it would be,” Yang said of the market crowds. “A lot of people are still coming, and they are being safe.”

Laos to Minnesota

The Hmong population lived throughout Southeast Asia in similarly geographically areas, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

In Laos, where Yang’s parents came from, the majority of farmland was taken once the Hmong people migrated there. That drove many of them to settle in “rugged mountainous regions” where thick forested areas were cleared to create land for crops to be grown.

Many Hmong families used their farming heritage to make a living when they settled in America. Over half of all producers at farmers’ markets in the Twin Cities area were Hmong American farmers, according to a feasibility study by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Yang’s parents came to the U.S. in the late ‘70s from Laos as political refugees after the Vietnam War. They landed in Minnesota, which has one of the largest Hmong-American populations in the country.

Yang said her parents settled in St. Paul at first but she was born and raised in Rochester. She’s a graduate of Rochester Mayo High School.

“Rochester was a nice area and our family felt comfortable here,” she said. “It’s all about just staying where you’re comfortable, so you don’t have to migrate anywhere else.”

Yang’s parents have eight children who are all grown now. All of them still contribute to the family’s farming operation, said Yang, even ones living out of town who have their own families now still help when they can on the weekends.

There are a few other Hmong farmers selling at the same farmers’ market as the Yang family, and Yang said even though they aren’t close with those families, they know who they are.

“The Hmong population in Rochester isn’t very big, so you kind of know everyone,” Yang said. “You kind of just know when another Hmong family moves in, or leaves.”

Barriers in markets and land

Yang said her family has always worked independently to navigate the markets for selling their products, and their options are limited to one.

“For us, some of the struggle is that our market is once a week,” Yang said. “We don’t have a place to sell throughout the week.”

If it’s not sold, she said very little of the produce can be saved until the next week’s market. Channel One Regional Food Bank will sometimes pick up leftover produce, but otherwise stuff goes to waste, Yang said.

Weather also plays a big factor in how business is at farmers’ markets. On July 11, a rainstorm moved in just as the market got underway.

“It really depends on the weather for markets, because if it’s going to be rainy or super windy, people don’t come,” she said. “And if it’s super hot sometimes people also don’t come.”

Yang said her family hasn’t looked much into other markets for selling produce, because they all have other jobs that they need to prioritize.

But of the biggest barriers that exist for Hmong-American farmers, Yang said access to land is on the top of the list. Their family doesn’t own the land they’ve grown produce on for decades, but instead rent it from a family friend.

“Really a big part of the struggle is having land, because a lot of Hmong people who want to sell don’t have their own farm where they can grow enough to do that,” Yang said. “You can’t do this just by gardening in your backyard. It’s not realistic.”

Another hurdle is the variety of produce and trying to gauge what’s going to sell at markets.

“We grow stuff that we want to eat, but some of the stuff people don’t know about so you can’t really sell it,” Yang saud. “You have to know what’s popular and what’s becoming a trend.”

But the Yang family has introduced new produce favorites for some shoppers in Rochester, such as water spinach, which they started selling a couple years ago. Water spinach is a semi-aquatic, tropical plant from southeast Asia.

“Right away (water spinach) didn’t do very well, because not a lot of people knew about it,” Yang said.

Water spinach is now a favorite among their regular visitors.

‘Build community’

It’s the 26th year of the Rochester Farmers Market, which is organized by a nonprofit, vendor-owned association of around 100 business owners who farm within 50 miles of Rochester.

A big part of having success at farmers’ markets comes from having regular customers who are willing to trust vendors to have good products every week, said Mary Glenski, manager of the Rochester Farmers Market. She said they have customers come to the staff booth on Saturday mornings looking for the Yang family’s tent.

“When vendors make that commitment to the long term, they start getting a vibe on how things are going to go,” Glenski said. “When you’re here week after week, you build community.”

She said having diversity in vendors at the market is the only way that it should exist.

“The farmers’ market is about our local community, and if you don’t acknowledge that the local community is diverse and you don’t showcase that, you aren’t doing your job properly,” Glenski said.

Thom Petersen, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said there are between 400-500 Hmong farm families in the state. Most of the state’s Hmong farmers operate in the Twin Cities area and Dakota and Washington counties, Petersen said. But more of them are moving to other parts of the state.

Petersen said affordable access to land is also on the top of his list of barriers for Hmong farmers in Minnesota.

“An issue I’ve worked on for a long time is trying to help Hmong farmers find farmland,” said Petersen, who was meeting with the Hmong American Partnership this week to talk about the topic. “But we’re starting to see more Hmong farmers to be able to buy land and starting to farm in different places in the state.”

Petersen checks in every few weeks with Janssen Hang, executive director of the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA). The association was formed in 2011 as a way for Hmong farmers to overcome the barriers that exist for them.

The association’s mission is to “advance the prosperity of Hmong American farmers through cooperative endeavors, capacity building and advocacy.”

Petersen had a hand in helping sibling co-founders Janssen Hang and Pakou Hang put together the deal in 2013 that secured a 155-acre plot of land in Hastings, Minn., for Hmong farmers to grow a variety of crops on.

“We get a lot of questions from people driving up and down Highway 52, and wonder what that is,” Petersen said of the HAFA farm.

HAFA describes the site, which is about 15 minutes south of St. Paul, as a “research and incubator farm.” The organization subleases plots of land to its members who are experienced Hmong farm families, where they can hone their operations and then sell their products through the markets set up by HAFA.

Farmers who operate on the land in Dakota County sell their products to the HAFA Food Hub, which encompasses CSA shares, schools, retailers and institutions. But they sell more than just produce.

“Some of their highest cash crops are flowers and different crops you wouldn’t even think of,” Petersen said of HAFA farmers. “Whatever helps get people introduced to the Hmong farming community is good.”

Members of the Yang family sell produce from their stand at the Rochester Farmers Market on July 11. The Yang Family Garden has been a vendor at Rochester market for over a decade, and grows all the products they sell in Chester, Minn. just outside of Rochester.
Leng Yang makes a transaction at the vendor tent that his entire family sells produce from each week at the Rochester Farmers Market.
A mural on a barn at the 155-acre HAFA farm in Hastings, Minn., where the organization subleases land to its members while also helping them get access training and markets.
Mallina Xiong takes a break on an evening in July 2020 from tending to plants on her parcel of land on the 155-acre HAFA farm. HAFA subleases land to its members while also helping them get access to bi-cultural and bi-lingual trainings.