Immigrant farmers seek sustainability


Vince Xiong wants to be more than just a farmer. The 36 year old man, who came to the United States as a refugee when he was four years old, is farming a plot of land at Big River Farms. Run by the Minnesota Food Association (MFA), Big River gives training and opportunities for immigrant and minority farmers. Xiong, who previously had a career in computers, switched to farming after watching documentaries about the importance of sustainable agriculture. 

“My intention is to be more than just a farmer,” he said. “I want to educate Hmong farmers about sustainability. It’s not just about not using fertilizers. It’s a whole process.” 

In Laos, where Xiong’s family is from, nobody used chemicals or pesticides, but when the Hmong refugees came to the United States, many of whom took up farming here, they were introduced to pesticides and chemicals. “They became addicted,” Xiong says. 

Xiong came to St. Paul as a very young child after spending time in a refugee camp in Thailand. He eventually moved with his family to Minneapolis, where he went to North High School and Washburn, and became a computer salesman. 

His whole life changed when he started learning about the food movement, through documentaries and the internet.  He watched The Corporation, and Food Inc, and was shocked to see what corporations were doing to the food people eat. “The more I watched, the madder I got,” he says. 

Now, Xiong is in his second year in MFA’s program, learning about different sustainable techniques like using cover crops — where a field is covered in green plants after the harvest to reinvigorate the soil. 

Xiong is also learning about how to be organized, keeping track of paperwork and logistics.  “Most immigrants don’t have a plan for their crops,” he says, which he finds the most complex aspect. 

This summer, Xiong was out working on his plot every day, getting some help from his family. His parents are farmers too, but they’ve only done so for consumption. “I’m the first one to sell to market,” he says.

Next year, he’ll have two acres of land, and will have to hire some people to help him. After he completes the program, however, he hopes that MFA receives funding so that he can get an extension, because he’s not quite ready to buy his own land, which can cost around $50,000 an acre. He’d like to buy 40-100 acres eventually, creating either a co-op with other farmers or with him managing a farm full of organic farmers.

Hmong farmers aren’t the only group ride the sustainable farming wave. According to Aaron Blyth, Big River Farms’ manager, farmers in their program have such diverse backgrounds as Bhutanese, Karen, Asian, and Latin American, as well as non-immigrant minorities. 

Porfirio Perez, who is from Guatemala and has been in the United States for 12 years, found out about MFA’s program when he was working with a friend who was in the program several years ago. Now, he’s going through the program himself. Perez said that he’s been farming all his life, but “it’s better here.” In his country, the only way to farm was to dump a bunch of chemicals on the vegetables, whereas he’s now learning all kinds of sustainable techniques, such as composting, cover cropping, using turkey pellets, and organic pesticides for flea beetles.  Perez works on the farm along with his family whenever he’s not working at his “real” job, at a construction company. “It’s not easy,” he said, but he loves what he’s doing. 

Glen Hill, Executive Director of MFA, said the organization takes a comprehensive approach to working with immigrant farmers, connecting the people they serve with resources, whether that be business planning, plot planning, or connections to other organizations that can serve people learning how to farm sustainably.  “I’m very encouraged and proud about the farmers in our programs that are organically certified in Minnesota.  They’re doing it out of values… They realize there is market potential, but they’re doing it because they believe this is the right way to farm.” 

Doug Nopar, from the Land Stewardship Project (LSP), said LSP also has been making strides to support immigrant farmers. The 30-year membership organization is devoted to promoting family farm agriculture, and helping new farmers, as well as advocating for public policy that benefits sustainable farming at the state and federal level. 

In the last couple of years, LSP has begun focusing more on connecting with immigrant and working more cross-racially, Nopar says. In Winona, they’ve begun working with the Hmong community, helping them to find land, and leading workshops, where they teach such techniques as soil fertility, marketing, high tunnels, as well as hoop houses and green houses to extend the season.  LSP works closely with both MFA as well as the Hmong Council for Advancement of Hmong Women, and the Latino Economic Development Center, which is starting to work with Latino immigrants interested in farming. 

“It’s all fledgling,” Nopar said. There are all kinds of barriers that immigrant farmers face, including fear of deportation for undocumented Latinos.

Nopar said that part of the reason that LSP has begun reaching out to immigrant and minority groups is the changing demographics of the state, which according to the state demographer, will be comprised of 25 percent people of color by 2030.

“Clearly our state has been changing for a while,” Nopar said. “Many of those families come from agricultural traditions and histories. From our standpoint, we need more people farming. We’re trying to reverse the trend of fewer and fewer people farming, creating opportunities for people to farm and supporting their success.”

Part of that, he said, is education, and LSP supports a farmer-to-farmer education process. So far, LSP’s work with immigrants has been on a small scale- sponsoring about a dozen Hmong farmers from Winona.  They also encourage people to go to MFA’s immigrant and minority farmer’s conference in February.