At a creative farm south of St. Paul near the town of Coates, two things about fruit, vegetable and horticultural growing are immediately clear. You cannot plant and raise perennial crops when renting land on a year-to-year lease. You cannot even think about having an orchard unless you own the land.
That is what makes the HAFA Farm in Dakota County so intriguing and why government agencies and nonprofit organizations are pitching in to help the Hmong American Farmers Association get the farm launched and for HAFA members to buy the farm.
“I think we are working on a model that will transition and sustain new farmers in locally grown food production,” said Pakou Hang, executive director of HAFA. “For Hmong, this has been a 20 to 25 year struggle.”
It has. New Minnesotans, a large part of whom are Hmong immigrants and refugees, have been growing produce for metro area Farmers Markets since arriving in Minnesota. Each year, urban sprawl pushes produce farmers farther away from metro markets, adding to production expenses as farm family members commute from urban homes to fields and add distance between fields and markets.
This is the second of an occasional series on what Minnesotans are doing to change the structure of the local food and agriculture industry and, in the process, open the way for a whole new generation of Minnesota farmers.
John Flory, special projects director with Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) said all Minnesotans should be concerned about who will farm in the future. Census data show Minnesota farmers have a median age of 57 years, he said. As they approach retirement, their farm “children” are scattered to the wind in other careers. They may want to hold unto family farmland, Flory said. But they aren’t returning to take over farm operations.
Hmong farm families have the same experience, said Pakou Hang. The average Hmong farmer is 55 years of age. Hmong children, like other Minnesotans, have gone on to other careers and opportunities and only return to the hard work of locally grown produce production when “farming is instilled in our bones.”
What HAFA is doing has brought government, education, nonprofit groups and industry together to smooth HAFA’s path. This is economic development work to expand and grow a local food industry. It is also a systems development project to make local food production and marketing more efficient, viable and profitable.
HAFA, formed in 2011, has 36 members. A benefactor who wants the Hmong to form a cooperative and purchase the land in eight years purchased the Vermillion Township farm. There are 16 Hmong farm families now renting five- and 10-acre plots on the farm; some of the land is enrolled in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program to protect the adjacent Vermillion River, and some of the acreage is used to grow cover crops and other experimental crops that are part of HAFA’s educational programs.
Janssen Hang, a brother of Pakou who is HAFA’s senior organizer, said HAFA has remodeled an existing pole barn to include a cold storage facility to help farm members expand fresh vegetable marketing into December or January.
It has also constructed an outdoor washroom for members to clean their produce before going to farmers markets and an indoor washroom for their produce. The latter is required for licensing to serve institutional customers, Janssen Hang said., and to supply new customers, the Lunds and Byerly’s stores.
Institutional customers now include Minneapolis public schools, a few corporate dining establishments, and the Minneapolis regional office of Bon Appetit Management Co. The latter provides institutional food services for Carleton and St. Olaf colleges in Northfield plus cafeteria services at some of Minnesota’s medical technology companies.
The farm is getting intellectual support from Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) and its nearby Dakota County Technical College, said Vinai Vang, who heads HAFA’s research and alternative markets program. Community organizations, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and various groups Vang describes as “partner organizations” are also directly or indirectly involved.
Among them is the Latino community’s LEDC from which Flory has been especially “generous” with time and talents, said Pakou Hang. Yolanda Cotterall, LEDC’s Greater Minnesota Rural Program manager, serves on HAFA’s board.
“We really are kindred spirits,” Pakou Hang said of her Latino collaborators. “We all face the same market challenges and access to capital problems. We all have language obstacles. And we all want futures in agriculture.”
All those reasons help explain an important, 26-month, $199,100 grant recently announced by the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation. It will support HAFA’s development of training programs for Hmong farmers on farming practices while HAFA works to develop a land ownership cooperative to buy the Vermillion Township farm and help other new entrants into Minnesota agriculture gain access to land.
The latter, said Pakou Hang, will need waivers from Minnesota’s anti-corporate farming law from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. And it will need legal and accounting help to shape and structure a new cooperative that has no existing model in Minnesota.