Not from Sweden any more: A new generation of immigrant farmers in Minnesota

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On Saturday, two busloads of immigrant farmers from the 3rd Minority and Immigrant Farming Conference arrived at Gardens of Eagan near Faribault. Gardens of Eagan founder, Martin Diffley, showed the group his tractors.

“You don’t need an expensive tractor,” he said to the group of 50 bundled farmers. Few of the immigrant farmers have tractors or any of sort machinery for that matter. One of the farmers, middle-aged Hmong man, Chafong Xiong, asks Diffley about organic fertilizer.

“I use Sustane 154, that’s S-U-S-T-A-N-E,” Diffley said, pointing to the stacks of fertilizer bags behind a tractor. “You can get it at J.R. Johnson in Roseville. You use 400 pounds for an acre.” The farmers nodded their heads, as if they were logging the details into their memories for the spring.

Chafong Xiong says he wants to go organic – he can’t sell under the organic label because he doesn’t own his own land – but he wants to learn how you grow food organically. Farming is an “experiment,” Xiong says, meaning that sometimes you make money, sometimes you don’t. This year Xiong says he will try to plant a few rows of berries without using chemical fertilizer, and see how it works out.

But there are limitations to his operation. He rents land, and he knows that to raise organic food, you have to have some infrastructure.

“You have to have equipment. Manure is good, organic fertilizer is good, too, but you need to be able to spread it.”

Xiong is like many Hmong farmers. He puts in one or two thousand dollars in the beginning of the season, works his land, sells his produce at the farmers’ market, and ends up with a few more thousand dollars to show for it at the end.

Immigrant farmers like Xiong, mostly from Laos, grew the farmers’ markets in the Twin Cities into institutions over the past 20 years. Nowadays they are bustling places, and it’s hard to get a spot to sell. A few immigrant farmers, and local food advocates are asking themselves if the farmers market is as good as it gets.

Xiong made some money over the summer, but he doesn’t keep records so it’s hard to know what was profit, and what was a loss.

“In Laos, having a garden and food to eat is wealth,” says Mhonpaj Lee. She grew up farming with her family. Lee went to college, found a job as a translator, and now she’s returning to farming.

“I disliked farmers’ markets — there were all these people trying to bargain your price down,” she says. Often times, Lee says, her family would come home with less than $50.

So, how does a family run a business with that kind of margin? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Lee says there’s a paradox in farmers like Xiong’s situation. They want to make money but they are just happy to have a farm.

Lee has a garden—or a small farm—on land leased by the Minnesota Food Association, one of the sponsors of the conference. The organization’s mission is to create a more sustainable food system in Minnesota. Through the Minnesota Food Association, Lee is able to sell to Cub Foods, and restaurant chains like Chipotle Mexican Grill. Lee says she doesn’t think the farmers’ market is bad, but it’s limiting.

“Everyone is fighting for the same space,” Lee says.

The U.S. agricultural census found that the number of Hispanic farmers in Minnesota nearly tripled from 260 in 1997 to 694 in 2002. The number of non-white farmers doubled, going from 196 to 411 in the same period. (“Hispanic” and “non-white” are terms used by the agricultural census.)

Glen Hill, executive director of the Minnesota Food Association, says he’d like to see immigrant farmers find other places to sell besides farmers markets.

“If it’s the only thing you have, it limits you,” he says. “Ideally, you have your produce sold before you harvest it.”

But if a grower sells at the farmers’ market he has to gamble on how much he will sell, Hill says. The grower might sell his vegetables in a couple hours so he could have harvested more, or he might not sell it all, but since it’s already harvested, the grower has to get rid of it.

Hill would like to see local farmers like the Hmong become more successful, because the demand for local food is huge. He says institutions like Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter cannot get enough local food to meet demand.

“We want to see momentum continue,” he says.

But selling to distributors and institutional buyers is not as easy or intuitive as selling at the farmers’ market. Growers need to have liability insurance to sell to businesses, and they need to figure out how to navigate food safety laws.

Grower Natividad Lopez bought insurance last year for the first time. Lopez, who rents land near Chaska, has steered away from farmers’ markets, he says, because selling there takes too much time.

He sells his jalapeños, tomatoes and green peppers to Mexican restaurants, and grocery stores like El Burrito Mercado in St. Paul.

“I knock on doors of Mexican stores – sometimes it’s hard to find the owner, but they will buy from me,” he says.

His liability insurance didn’t pay off because the distributor that required it didn’t buy from him last year. Lopez says he’s not sure if he will buy insurance again.

Like most small farmers, Lopez wants to buy land one day. He says his farming brings in some income, but the joy of farming is personal.

“My daughter dreams of living on a farm – she loves animals. I love the plants, I love to see how they grow,” Lopez says.

Lopez and Hill know that traditional Minnesota farmers are aging, so they say there must be opportunity for immigrant farmers. Most don’t work the farm full-time right now – but little by little, generation by generation, they are learning to make it more than just a past-time. And they are searching for a way to make their sales more than a farmers’ market bargain.

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