Hmong farmers in St. Paul, Minnesota have the best advocate for their business enterprises: themselves, working together.
Originally from China, the Hmong are an Asian ethnic group that migrated to Vietnam and Laos in the 18th century. They have never had a country of their own. After the Vietnam War ended, many resettled in the U.S., giving the U.S. the largest Hmong population outside of Asia. The population in Minnesota is more than 60,000, second behind the state of California.
WATCH: Hmong Farmers Drive Local Food Economy in Minnesota
The Hmong, who are long time farmers, did what they knew best when they got to Minnesota. And by the late 1980’s they spearheaded the revitalization of local farmers’ markets, making them some of the most vibrant in the city.
But the Hmong also discovered that as immigrant farmers, they faced barriers in buying land, obtaining financing, accessing markets and building sustainable family businesses. They were struggling. To combat all that, a group of Hmong farmers established the non-profit Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) in 2011.
“One of the reasons HAFA was created was because Hmong farmers were experiencing so much uncertainty. They didn't always have access to land,” HAFA co-founder Pakou Hang explained. “So when you don't have land tenure or land certainty you can’t actually invest in organic certification, you can't invest in perennials, which actually have higher profit margins.”
HAFA’s intent was to “advance the prosperity of Hmong American farmers through cooperative endeavors.” At the center of the association is a 63-hectare (155-acre) farm outside St. Paul where member farmers have long-term leases on two to four hectare (five to 10-acre) parcels to grow their vegetables and flowers.
How HAFA helps
On a recent Friday, Mao Moua and her husband were harvesting vegetables at their plot - for a Saturday farmer's market.
The Mouas were among the mass exodus of Hmong people fleeing Laos for Thailand and eventually the U.S. in the 1970s. Ever since they arrived, they have been farming in Minnesota and in recent years on the HAFA membership farm.
“I like farming on the HAFA farm because this is a Hmong association,” Moua said. “There are Hmong workers who help us. They are like our hands, eyes and ears. I like there is also water, electricity and the food hub."
She added proudly, “[I grow] corn, sweet potato, cherry, snap pea, cucumber, and a little cherry tomato. That’s all.”
HAFA’s alternative markets program is called Food Hub.
“Our Food Hub is the place where we aggregate HAFA farmers’ produce and we distribute, sell it to different institutions such as schools, co-ops, or restaurants. And then we also have a CSA program or community supported agriculture that we have about 350 currently members. They get a weekly subscription of produce,” explained Operations Manager Kou Yang.
And if any of the farmers need micro loans to buy tractors or new farming equipment, HAFA’s business development programs are there to help. But Hang said all the programs are not just for income generation.
“What we're really interested in, what we are focused on is actually wealth creation not just intergenerational wealth but community wealth,” Hang said.
Today, Hmong American farmers make up more than 50 percent of all produce growers selling at area farmers’ markets.
“The Hmong growers’ participation in the farmers’ market has really revitalized the farmers’ market," said David Kotsonas a director of the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association.
The Hmong are also at the center of a Minnesota-based local foods economy that has changed the way Minnesotans eat.
“Hmong farmers are major contributors to our local food economy and to our overall economy,” Hang said. “I mean studies have shown that they produced over $250 million in sales.”
Hang was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and came to the U.S. with her parents in 1976.
“During the Vietnam war in Laos my father joined actually a secret army that was allied with the United States CIA. When the Vietnam War ended and the communist faction came into power in Laos they actually began to target Hmong soldiers," she said.
Hang has big dreams for the HAFA farm which in addition to enabling farmers, conducts research and fosters community ties.
“A hive of learning. A hive of community building,” Hang described it.