When Lillian Hang’s parents immigrated to the United States from Laos in the late 1970s, they were already experienced farmers.
“It was one skill that they had coming to a ‘foreign land,’ where they didn't know the language, they didn't know the culture, they didn't know the system,” she said. “It was the one thing mom and dad could do to provide for themselves.”
Lillian Hang’s family started out with backyard plantings of squash, green beans and corn. Then they expanded into growing in plots in the exurbs south of the Twin Cities and selling produce at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market. They didn’t earn a lot, but it was enough to pay for clothes or school books.
But access to the land was precarious. They never knew if the landowner would renew the lease or sell the land to someone else.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
“There's always a 50/50 chance that come the springtime, the land may not be there anymore,” Lillian Hang said.
That uncertainty disappeared when the Hmong American Farmers Association closed on farmland just south of the Twin Cities in Dakota County last year.
The more than 150 acres are home base for the organization and 20 families of Hmong farmers, providing some elders who came to the United States as refugees decades ago with the opportunity to plant seeds and literally put down roots on land they own.
‘We can save ourselves’
Land access has been an ongoing issue for farmers, especially those from diverse backgrounds, according to Robin Moore of the Land Stewardship Project, which advocates for sustainable agriculture.
As it became harder for smaller farms to compete, surviving farms gobbled up their neighbors, leading to both land and wealth consolidation — mostly by white farmers.
“The face of farming has been primarily white, the idea of farmers has been primarily white, even though that’s absolutely not true,” Moore said. “In the larger scale of things, it’s just been financially less and less feasible to be a farmer of any kind, let alone a smaller scale farmer.”
Hmong farmers in the last three decades have become an important part of the local food system in the state. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture found that about half the vendors at Twin Cities farmers’ markets are of Hmong descent. But the principal operators of Minnesota farms are about 99 percent white.
That’s where the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) came in. Co-founder and executive director Janssen Hang, Lillian’s brother, said the initiative for the group was sparked at a meeting of non-profits and farmers more than a decade ago.
“One farmer stood up and said, we need to stop waiting for people to save us and we can save ourselves,” Janssen Hang said. “That really led to the inception of HAFA.”
HAFA formed in 2011 as a collection of Hmong farmers, most of whom sold at farmers markets. They noticed Hmong farmers were often at a disadvantage when dealing with agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, banks or even local landowners, who would often hike up the rents for Hmong farmers.
Janssen Hang said it was clear that farmers needed to band together.
“We know that you can’t just stress land and have produce to grow but not have a market,” he said. “You can’t just focus on land and market but not have access to credit and capital so that you can improve your farm operation. It’s that whole cycle that needs to be addressed simultaneously.”
Other efforts are being made to help diversify farming in the state, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has a new Office of Emerging Farmers, which is tasked with helping farmers who have traditionally faced barriers in farming.
The office got a $1.5 million boost in the last legislative session and took applications for hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants for farmers to get technical help or subsidies for crop insurance.
“As commissioner, I saw the opportunity to open our programs to all farmers who maybe don’t look like me, because I think we have a real thriving and changing demographic in Minnesota,” Commissioner Thom Petersen said. “Our Latino population is growing, our Somali population, our Hmong population and that provides a lot of opportunities, very agrarian in nature because, ultimately, one of my goals is to always have more farmers.”
HAFA has worked closely with partners, including the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Petersen said their project is a great example of the success that farmers with diverse approaches can have.
“I do this too when I see a farmer, ‘Oh how big is your farm? How many cows do you have? How many acres do you have?’” Petersen said. “That’s not always representative of what’s done there — it’s amazing the volume that farmers can grow on small acreages.”
Working the farm
In 2014, an anonymous benefactor with a ten-year lease on the farmland offered it to HAFA. The farmers in HAFA each claimed plots of five or ten acres, and staff started working to set up the day-to-day operations of the farm, with an eye towards the ultimate goal of buying the land.
If you drive south from the Twin Cities, the geography of big box stores and fast-food chains gives way to field after field of commodity crops like corn. But on Highway 52, in the township of Vermillion, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it break in the scenery as little red sheds dot the landscape, and farmers on foot go about their daily tasks.
Walking into the plots, you’ll see flowers for cut bouquets, high tunnels with rows of trellised heirloom tomatoes and even more obscure fruits like ground cherries, with the fruit tucked away in papery husks.
Janssen Hang said the 10 HAFA staffers see their job as supporting the about 100 farmers who work on site. They help with everything from organizing agricultural trainings to providing a pool of shared equipment like potato planters and eco weeders.
HAFA staff even demonstrate new farming techniques for sometimes skeptical farmers, including an analysis of costs associated with growing heirloom tomatoes in a high tunnel.
Farmers were wary of spending $10,000 just to buy each tunnel, but Janssen Hang said they set up a tunnel and showed farmers that one season could bring in enough extra produce to pay for the costs of the tunnels plus some.
“The whole cooperative model is to help reduce the risk to farmers,” Janssen Hang said.
HAFA also helps farmers connect with new markets, including through a Community Sustained Agriculture program they run, test the soil and provide areas to wash and clean produce up to the required standards.
The goal, Janssen Hang said, is to give these small farmers the support and resources they need to make a go of it in a state where the average farm size is more than 370 acres, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture numbers.
They focus on mixed-vegetable production, most of which is done by hand, because they want to farm more sustainably than big farmers, who plant just one or two crops. Farmers at HAFA now grow about 160 varieties of crops on the land.
“You have fruits, you have vegetables, you have corn, you have beans, you have flowers,” Janssen Hang said. “It’s about that biodiversity, so what we’re trying to create here is an agro-ecological environment.”
Moore of the Land Stewardship Project said groups like HAFA, and Hmong farmers in general, have been at the forefront of showing that more diverse farming, which supports pollinators and even native plants, can be successful.
In 2020, after working with allies at the State Capitol, HAFA was allotted $2 million to help the organization buy the land. They closed on the deal last September, which Janssen Hang said was a historic moment for “all immigrant and minorities across the United States to have the very first Hmong-owned nonprofit, collective farm.”
The HAFA farm wasn’t always an easy fit in mostly white Dakota County. Early on, HAFA farmers had a fence they built cut through during the night. Someone else painted swastikas on their garage.
Some township officials seemed to show special interest in any perceived infractions by the farmers, although Janssen Hang said the “intensity” of their attention has diminished over the years.
“They are supportive about the preservation of agriculture. Would I say that they have been very supportive from the very beginning?” he said. “No, they weren’t.”
After HAFA closed on the land, they found out that the Minnesota Department of Transportation decided to renovate the highway that bisects the HAFA land, eating into farmland and making it difficult for farmers to cross without a long detour or a sprint across the busy highway.
They again took the issue to the Legislature, which allotted $2 million to the Minnesota Department of Transportation to build a box culvert that would allow farmers to safely cross or transport equipment like tractors.
A spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Transportation said they don’t yet have a schedule for construction of the culvert, but look forward to working with HAFA on the details.
Other plans to build an interchange that would have encroached on HAFA land was abandoned by Dakota County after opposition from HAFA and their allies, including the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), which described the highway expansion as an issue of environmental justice.
“Communities of color have traditionally carried the burden of road construction,” said MCEA attorney Evan Mulholland. “A preliminary look at the history of the highway development in Minneapolis and St. Paul and most other cities in the country, it’s really striking how that happened — and it’s not stopping.”
Growing community at the farm
Janssen Hang said owning the farm has changed how the farmers thought about themselves. They could now plant more perennials. Work on the soil. Make plans for the future.
The first generation of farmers is in their mid-60s. Ten years ago, Janssen Hang said the older generation thought farmwork was too hard for their children raised and educated in the United States. But after they bought the land, that changed for some, who now saw a future for their children or grandchildren in farming.
“To me at the end of the day, having this conversation, I was like wow. This is what wealth is,” Janssen Hang said. “This is what intergenerational wealth is.”
As a child, Lillian Hang, Janssen’s sister, detested farming. While most of her classmates enjoyed summer breaks from school, she and her siblings were expected to wake up early to help their parents plant, weed or sell produce at farmers markets.
“Ask any Hmong kid and, man, no one liked it,” she said. “Half the time you are kind of embarrassed that you had to do it.”
But decades later, Lillian Hang said it’s grown on her. She said it’s a bit symbolic that people who came to the United States as landless refugees are now putting down roots on their own land.
“The whole purpose of us working so hard and studying so hard is so that we wouldn’t have to farm,” she said. “Then ten, twenty years later we realized the importance of farming, not just bringing the extra income for the family, but the community that’s built at the farm, the intergenerational community with the grandparents and kids.”
Lillian Hang’s mother passed away last year. Now, Lillian Hang brings her own kids, 9 and 11, to help her father with the physical labor. She said they’re master kale washers.
“I noticed from the way he interacts with my kids that he’s teaching more,” she said. “‘This is how you plant the garlic, this is the best way to bundle kale. So he’s really teaching us and sharing that knowledge and making sure that that knowledge and those experiences continue beyond him.”
Judy Yang has been with HAFA since the beginning and said through a translator that owning the land has changed her life. Yang’s son now hopes to follow in her footsteps: “My plan is and their plan is, they will stay a long time.”
Corrections: (Sept. 15, 2023): An earlier version of the story misspelled the last name of Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen and misidentified Highway 52 in a photo caption.