“Farmers often work twelve-hour days,” Yao Yang explained. Having water available near the field is a big deal. That’s often not the case on rented fields, but it’s an important part of the Hmong American Farm. So are the simple washing sheds where they can prepare produce for market, and the cooler where produce can be stored until it’s picked up for delivery.
The 16 farmers who rent five or ten-acre fields from the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) are part of a project that includes research, cooperation and community. Through HAFA, they have access to equipment, capital and training. Because of the on-farm cleaning and storage facilities, and because of HAFA’s organizing and expertise, they can sell their produce to colleges and institutions, as well as through farmers markets. HAFA’s website explains:
“There are five distinct but interrelated components in the model: land access, new markets, trainings and capacity building, financing, and research and data collection. What makes HAFA’s model unique is that it works with cohorts of experienced Hmong farmers and employs community organizing tactics to truly get at systems change.”
A September 15 open house celebrated the first farming season on the HAFA farm, 155 acres located in Vermilion Township southeast of St. Paul. Yao Yang, a recent CSB/CSJ graduate and HAFA intern, guided our tour of the farm. She explained that in order to lease land at the HAFA farm, each person must have prior experience in farming and a license to sell at a farmers market. Many also rent other fields near the Twin Cities. HAFA offers training in marketing and in topics such as soil fertility, as well as a secure place to store produce overnight. Another kind of security is also important — tall fences keep deer out of the fields. A few times, Yang said, someone left gates open and she and her uncle chased deer out of the farm before locking up at night.
Besides the farmers’ plots, HAFA has research plots to test the use of cover crops. Oats and buckwheat will become green mulch to restore soil compacted by years of corn and soybean rotation. Next year, she said, they hope to add beehives.
Simple things make a world of difference: The security of farming the same five acres year after year. Water. Access to toilets. A place to sit in the shade and rest for a few minutes.
Even more important, HAFA offers an intentional community of support, helping Hmong farmers to become “better farmers, business operators and stewards of the environment.”