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Hmong American Farmers Association can serve as model for remaking food economy

By Jean Caspers-Simmet
simmet@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 12/09/2013 1:40 PM

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DES MOINES —Pakou Hang sees the Hmong American Farmers Association as a model for remaking the American food economy.

Speaking at the recent National Conference for Women in Sustainable Agriculture, Hang shared how her family came to Minnesota from a Thai refugee camp 15 days after she was born.

Her family started farming as immigrant workers and then contracted with Gedney to grow cucumbers. They eventually rented land and grew vegetables to sell at Twin Cities farmers markets.

"Our days started at 5 a.m. when it was still dark and ended at midnight," Hang said. "It was good motivation for me to do well in school. I said 'I never want to farm again.' A good job to me was not having to go to work in the dark and working where there was air conditioning."

Her parents worked even harder, Hang said. Her father worked overtime at the airport and then picked and rinsed vegetables.

"When I think of the early mornings loading the van for farmers market or those hot afternoons picking cucumbers or those late nights when we stopped at Burger King on the way home from the field, I'm amazed that my family survived," Hang said.

Traditional farmers are aging, and there is no one to take their place, Hang said. Land is expensive, and rules such as the Food Modernization Act will require small farmers to install expensive infrastructure. Climate change is forecast to cause unprecedented global food scarcity, and the country is facing a health crisis because of unhealthy eating and inactivity.

This dismal state of affairs reminds her of a favorite children's book, "Stone Soup," where hungry and scared peasants aren't sure they want to share their food with soldiers.

"The clever soldiers get everyone to give just a little bit to co-create a delicious meal," Hang said. "It's the classic community organizing story that reminds us that we're all stronger together. We can come together as farmers, consumers and activists to recreate the American food economy to something that is much better than we have. Women, young farmers and especially immigrants are at the forefront of this fast growing demographic shift in farming, and if supported, they may be the ones to save agriculture in America. A recent Wall Street Journal article said that a $1 investment in local produce has an $11 multiplier effect for the local economy."

Minnesota has one of the largest Hmong American populations in the country, Hang said. Half of the farmers at Twin Cities' farmers markets are Hmong, according to USDA data. An AgStar study showed that Twin Cities' farmers markets generate more than $600 million in sales.

"You would think Hmong farmers must be doing really well," Hang said. "That's the paradox. They were actually doing worse the past couple years than they were even 10 years ago."

Hang and 15 other Hmong farmers created the Hmong American Farmers Association in 2011. The membership-based organization supports and advocates for Hmong American farmers and their families. Its mission is to advance the economic, social and cultural prosperity of Hmong farmers through economic development, capacity building, advocacy and research.

HAFA founders identified the main challenge facing farmers as access to affordable land near their homes, said Hang, who is executive director. She has a friend who grows flowers, and she knows that she could make more by raising peonies, but she doesn't want to invest in perennials when she doesn't know if she'll have her land from one year to the next. Some landowners rent to Hmong farmers expecting them to give them two of every five products they grow and harvest. One landowner said he'd rent his land for $300 per acre, but Hmong farmers had to agree to let him and his family come on the land and pick whatever they wanted for free.

HAFA reached out to a benefactor who agreed to purchase 155 acres in Dakota County and turn it into an agricultural land trust. A conservation easement strips the land of development rights, which made it more affordable when HAFA farmers buy the land in eight years. HAFA farmers are creating a cooperative to manage the land and a marketing cooperative to aggregate products to sell to schools and hospitals.

"I believe this land and marketing cooperative will revolutionize the way Hmong farmers farm and do business," Hang said. "I feel there are good people surrounding us, and this model will revolutionize how you get over some of these institutional barriers for immigrant, women and beginning farmers."