Lillian Hang works at the Hang Family Farm in Vermillion Township, Minnesota, alongside her children, siblings, and parents, growing a mix of vegetables and herbs local to the area and those the family brought with them 30 years ago when they moved to the U.S. from Southeast Asia. From carrots, onions, and potatoes to lemongrass, Thai basil, mustard greens, and bitter melons, the Hangs and other Hmong American farm families who’ve come to Minnesota as immigrants from Thailand, Laos, and other areas of Southeast Asia have helped reshape the state’s agriculture and contributed significantly to the growth of local farmers markets over the last 30 years. And they’re continuing to innovate, growing new crops that might not be expected to thrive in Minnesota’s notoriously frigid climate.
“Mom and Dad are testing with sweet potatoes … Japanese sweet potatoes, the purple sweet potatoes, as well as these cream-colored sweet potatoes. For the longest time, people said, ‘You cannot grow those in Minnesota. It’s too cold,’” said Hang.
But even as Hmong farmers like the Hang family have made an impact locally, many continue to face barriers to land ownership that have left their farms struggling to put down roots. There are approximately 400-500 Hmong farm families in the State of Minnesota. Many also worked and lived as farmers in their home countries, and in the U.S, some own their farms and work the land themselves as family farm workers. However, according to a 2015 report from the Minnesota State Legislature, 99% of farm owners in Minnesota are white, though the number of Hmong (and other Asian community)-owned farms is increasing. A 2020 report from the Minnesota State Legislature names several challenges to ethnic farm ownership in Minnesota: financial barriers and access to capital and resources; systemic and institutional racism; land availability and cost; access to health insurance and the cost of health care for farmers; education, training, and resources; broadband access; climate change; market access; a lack of “culturally appropriate resources;” navigating regulations; and a statewide focus on larger farms.
The Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), of which the Hang Family Farm is one of more than 100 members, has been working to change that.
“We are a membership-based non-profit organization that was created in 2011 to kind of adjust the injustice that Hmong farmers face around lack of access to land, markets, trainings, research, and also credit and capital,” said Janssen Hang, co-founder and executive director of HAFA. “The inception really started out of an act of self-determination.”
Many Hmong farmers live in Minneapolis-St. Paul or the surrounding metro area, but land available for ownership is scarce, and that imposes real limits on how farmers are able to plan and execute their work from season to season.
“The other week my parents were planning garlic. Garlic you need to plant it prior to the summer’s harvest. So, if you are renting land from year to year, you have to spend all the money and it’s expensive. You spend all the money to plant garlic, but man, no one wants to be in a situation where next year they are saying, ‘Oh, am I going to get that money? Is the farmer going to let me harvest the garlic that I invested so much money into?’” said Lillian Hang.
Working collectively has been at the forefront of HAFA’s strategy to increase family farmers’ control over their own futures.
“Farming is not an individual activity,” said Lillian Hang. “You really need a group of people dedicated to farming.”
In 2013, an anonymous donor purchased a 155-acre farm in Vermillion Township, located halfway between St. Paul and Rochester, Minnesota. The farm was then leased to HAFA and members have sub-leased plots and collectively managed their use of the farm and its plots since then, splitting the land into five-to-10-acre plots.
“The farm is about building intergenerational and community wealth,” said Janssen Hang.
The land’s relative permanence allows the farmers to build their businesses, and the collective management means that all members have a support structure for their work and for that work to be sustainable.
“What we do is we would actually model sustainable practice on the farm, from cover cropping, contour planting, looking at the efficacies of soil and water quality here. We actually have a designated area for our pollinator habitat, and actually have a bee apiary on the farm here,” said Janssen Hang. “The other thing is that, programmatically, we also run an alternative market program.”
Many Hmong farmers sell their goods at the Minneapolis and St. Paul farmers markets, despite the farm being located in a rural part of Dakota County, south of the Twin Cities. Janssen Hang notes that Hmong farmers make up 50% of the farmers at the St. Paul and Minneapolis Farmers Market, but he says that lack of access to resources, training, credit, and capital turned the vital Hmong family farmers into “second-class citizens.”
According to Janssen Hang, developing an alternative market program is necessary so that the Hmong farmers are not so dependent on the whims of the farmers markets. Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul farmers markets run year round, but the number of markets that operate between October and April is very limited.
In addition to challenges with the markets, HAFA’s farmers are also contending with possible loss of land from a state infrastructure project. The Sahan Journal has reported that Dakota County and the Minnesota Department of Transportation are currently exploring the possibility of transforming a local highway into a more traditional freeway, and the proposed plan would include the acquisition of four-to-seven acres from the HAFA farm for freeway redevelopment. This would mean two of the family farms would lose access to their land. Currently, the county’s research is still preliminary.
In the meantime, HAFA members are trying to raise the money to purchase the Vermillion Township farm outright, and they are in the midst of a $5-million capital campaign. HAFA received $2 million from the state in 2020, and it has just over $9,500 left to raise.
According to Lillian Hang, the effort to buy the farm outright is still worth it even with Dakota County looming.
“Whenever any of the aunties, or uncles out of town come and visit us, the first thing mom and dad say is, ‘Hey, let me take you to our farm. Let me take you to our farm,”’ she said. “And I love it. Because, they call it our farm, even though their name is not on the ownership. It’s like, ‘This is ours, almost. And the way they say it, it’s almost like, ‘This is part of me.’”