Immigrant Families Farming Dreams Become Reality With Non-Profit’s Help

Hmong farmers make Minnesota a national leader in the local foods movement. Visit any Twin Cities farmers’ market, and their contributions are evident. Yet, too often, they struggle both for access to land and for a return on their investment and work.

For Pakou Hang’s family, farming is “part of our life, part of our blood in some ways.” From as early as she can remember, she grew up helping to grow food and to sell it in farmers’ markets.

Her life path led through farm fields and farmers’ markets to Yale and the University of Minnesota and years of community organizing and social and economic research. After years of experience in community organizing and financial research, she brought a critical analysis to the place of Hmong farmers in the food system and especially in farmers’ markets.

In 2011, she founded the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), with a mission “to advance the prosperity of Hmong American farmers through cooperative endeavors, capacity building and advocacy.” HAFA members are families, all with farming experience, all committed to farming as a family business. As a non-profit organization, HAFA receives funding from grants and donations, as well as from its members. That makes it possible to focus beyond profit, to development of individual farm families and of new farming practices and models.

Cooperation Key To Success

The HAFA model includes collaboration with the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC), which works with Latino immigrant farmers across the state. Together, the two organizations have developed bi-lingual and bi-cultural training programs for immigrant farmers.

Like HAFA, LEDC is committed to supporting the dreams and plans of immigrant farmers, as well as other immigrant businesses. LEDC has helped Latino immigrants to find land, to pool their resources to form cooperatives, and to build relationships with local businesses and governments across the state. Beginning with the Agua Gordo cooperative in Long Prairie, they supported the Shared Ground marketing cooperative, which now has eight member farms and buys from about 20 others. The cooperative model allows these farms to bid for institutional markets, as well as providing technical assistance for individual Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) efforts.

The high tunnel at HAFA, which is used to extend the growing season.
The high tunnel at HAFA, which is used to extend the growing season.

In 2013, HAFA acquired a farm: 155 acres near St. Paul. That’s where HAFA families grow more than 100 varieties of produce each year – from rhubarb, dragon’s tongue beans, heirloom tomatoes, bitter melon, zinnias and dahlias. Great-grandmothers and kindergarteners tend their fields together.

HAFA combines farming and community organizing, with projects including improving land access for farmers, developing new markets, providing trainings and capacity building, providing financing, and research and data collection.

On the 155-acre HAFA farm, member families get long-term leases that enable them to make multi-year plans and investments. Until Yeng Lee’s family joined HAFA, she couldn’t plant the flowers she wanted to grow and sell – beautiful perennials that required more than one season in the same field. With the assurance of multiple years on the same land, she could plant the flowers she loved.

HAFA’s business development program offers credit and financial assessments, financial management trainings, and help developing business plans and generating financial statements.

While one family farming five acres might not be able to afford a tractor, twenty families farming a hundred acres can share not only a tractor but other equipment as well. While one farmer might not produce enough rhubarb or green beans to supply a co-op or a hospital, the HAFA farmers working together can commit to filling larger orders. Combining resources and production, HAFA farmers built cleaning and storage facilities that allow farmers to sell to “local institutions and businesses like hospitals, schools, food processors, distributors, and grocery stores, or directly to consumers through community supported agriculture (CSA).” 

Socially responsible farming, says Pakou Hang, starts with a triple bottom line — environment, economy, and community —  but also requires a fourth bottom line: changing the distribution of wealth. Socially responsible farming means dreaming big and modeling possibilities of work that has meaning and fills rather than draining the spirit, cooperation, shared ownership, and care for the land and the people on it.

Twenty families on a small farm in Minnesota will not change the agro-industrial system that dominates the landscape in the United States. They can offer an alternative vision, and a model of cooperation and value-based farming to inspire others.

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