As I drive south on Highway 52 on a sunny Sunday afternoon, city and suburban landscapes give way to long vistas of corn and soybeans. Half an hour from home, I see rows of kale, lettuce, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, flowers and other vegetables marching across neatly tended fields. That’s my destination: the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) open house, celebrating two years on their Dakota County farm.
The 155-acre farm has 125 tillable acres, subleased this year to about 20 Hmong families. The smallest plot is five acres, the largest ten. Five is the minimum size needed to sustain a family’s livelihood, says tour guide Yao Yang. This farming is labor-intensive, so ten acres is the maximum that a family can handle. Some have small tractors, some use hand tillers, and some use HAFA’s newly acquired tractor and equipment to prepare the land for planting. But renting the land and equipment is just the beginning of HAFA’s work with its farmer-members.
HAFA was founded in 2011, and now has 43 family members, which means 128 individuals. “Membership is by family unit, but we work with all individuals in the family,” executive director Pakou Hang explained in an interview earlier this year. HAFA members include not only those on the farm but other Hmong farmers from all over Minnesota. The organization is committed to work on economic development, capacity building, advocacy and research.
This year’s research includes a high tunnel, a greenhouse-like structure that will extend the growing season far into the winter months for cold-weather crops such as kale and spinach and broccoli. Today, sunflowers, tomatoes and groundcherries grow inside the house, where the temperature feels like 90+ degrees, even with one door open for ventilation. Behind the high tunnel, Yang shows peas and cherry tomatoes growing on trellises, another demonstration plot to show farmers a labor-saving technique that also maximizes harvests and profits.
“HAFA is successful because we are results-oriented,” according to executive director Pakou Hang. “We are results-oriented, we are nerds — we experiment and try stuff. We are entrepreneurial.”
Part of the research mission is restoring the soil. Yang explains the use of cover crops to prevent soil erosion and build fertility. Buffer zones protect the Vermilion River and its brown trout. Both alfalfa and peas work to fix nitrogen in the soil, and alfalfa’s long roots aerate soil compacted by years of traditional corn and soybean farming.
Research is paired with education. This year Yao Yang is a beekeeper, with two hives on the farm. By next year, she hopes to have the University of Minnesota beekeeping curriculum translated, and to train other Hmong farmers in beekeeping.
Economic development includes development of new markets. The farmers market sector is saturated, Yang says. HAFA’s Alternative Markets Program has contracts with six retailers and nine institutions, as well as helping to build a CSA subscriber program. HAFA also offers farmers financial assessments, credit assistance, and education and support in developing business plans and financial statements.
On a sunny afternoon, surrounded by farmers and friends, the HAFA dream seems very close, not only for the older Hmong farmers, but for the young people welcoming visitors and leading tours. “We are trying to make farming less intimidating for my generation,” Yang says. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it pays off.”