FREE SPEECH ZONE | Hmong Farmers Stepping Up to Help Build a Local Food System


ST. PAUL [December, 2011]- All farmers juggle risk – weather extremes, rising production costs and the uncertainty of market prices all affect the bottom line.  Hmong farmers have additional hurdles to enter the marketplace; instability from renting rather than owning land, and lack of capital and credit to secure financial resources for farm improvements or expansion.

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As Staff Attorney and Hmong Outreach Coordinator for the Farmers’ Legal Action Group (FLAG), a non-profit law center that provides legal services and support to farm families, Hli Xyooj has advocated for Hmong farmers since 2006. The transition from traditional farming practices to operating the farm as a commercial business is a difficult one for many of the farmers, says  Xyooj.  “The farmers came from subsistence farming which was their way of life – not a commercial business. Every day they knew what they had to do and went to the fields.” 

Hmong farmers have a familiar presence in farmers’ markets throughout Minnesota, but public markets are often flooded with the same products, thus reducing sales for any one farmer.  Sales are further impacted by fluctuating demand and attendance at the market.  So many farmers are produce rich, but cash poor – and without storage facilities, profits perish with the produce. 

When FLAG learned about the farmers’ barriers to success, they partnered with The Minnesota Project in 2011 to offer farmers assistance through training and connections to new markets.  liHH FarFfFarmers that sought assistance varied widely in their communication and business skills.  English as a second language, complex agriculture regulations, and selling their produce pose on-going challenges.  But some Hmong farmers like Robert and Nancy Lee persisted and pioneered their way to new markets.

The Lees live in Albertville, MN and rent farmland in neighboring St. Michael. They’ve always grown their own food but did not start farming commercially until they lost their job in the economic downturn.  Being immigrants with no formal education, it was very difficult for them to obtain new jobs in a high unemployment environment. Farming was what they knew, so it was natural for them to start selling fresh produce.  With some help from FLAG and The Minnesota Project, they met a new customer at the University of Saint Thomas (UST) in St. Paul, MN.

UST’s Dining Services Director Todd Empanger agreed to buy vegetables from Nancy and Robert on a trial basis.  Large dining operations generally purchase food from distributors that source fresh and processed food throughout the U.S. (a large portion coming from California).  However, with a recently established student farm on campus and growing awareness of the detrimental effects of our conventional agriculture system, UST was ready to include locally produced food on their menu.  With no “middle-man” representing them, the Lees negotiated a fair price for their vegetables, and their daughter helped them with communication.  

Mee Yang has been farming in Minnesota for 20 years.  This fall she brought samples of her vegetables to a farmer-to-chef meeting hosted by the Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMC) – a major catering company serving multiple metro-area accounts.  There Yang met Andrew Lehrke, BA’s Executive Chef for Macalester College, and sold 8 cases of vegetables within two weeks.  She also taught him how to prepare Hmong meals, which were included on the menu during “eat local” week. 

May Lee, a recent graduate of the Minnesota Food Association (MFA) intensive 3-year organic farmer training course in Marine on St. Croix also attended the meeting with BAMC and hopes the chefs will buy her organic produce.  Lee operates Mhonpaj’s Garden, a farm business she owns with her daughter, and sells fresh produce to the St. Paul’s Farmers’ Market and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) customers in Washington County.

Reflecting on her work with Hmong farmers, Xyooj hopes the broader community will look upon them as valued contributors to a local food system that can meet the nutritional needs of all people in local communities – including families with children, elderly, poor, individuals living with a disability and those without transportation. 

When asked what would most help the farmers be successful, Xyooj stressed long-term access to agricultural land, business skills, and acknowledgement that their farm is a business.”  Xyooj’s advice to farmers is to grab opportunities to learn more –as much as they can. 

Selling local food to local customers creates a double “multiplier effect,” by increasing the money that flows locally, and the potential additional health benefits from eating locally grown unadulterated food.  Less fossil fuel is used for processing and transportation.

Robert, Nancy, Mee, May and farmers like them make it possible for more of us to benefit from fresh fruits and vegetables – that’s valuable for individuals, families, communities, and the economy.