Minnesota has one of the largest Hmong American populations in the United States, and many of them farm. According to a recent feasibility study funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Hmong American farmers made up over half of all producers at farmers markets located in the Twin Cities’ metropolitan area. But Hmong farmers face multiple challenges to farming, including access to affordable and long-term land near metropolitan areas, access to equipment and capital that can increase the efficiency of their operations, access to trainings to enrich their knowledge, access to cool and dry storage facilities that can elongate the shelf life of their produces, and access to alternative markets (besides the farmers markets) that can diversify their income. HAFA is working hard to alleviate these challenges.
HAFA’s work is grounded in strong communitarian values and based around a Whole Food Model, which acknowledges that all aspects of the farm-to-fork system must be addressed simultaneously to truly build intergenerational and community wealth. 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.
Agricultural Land Trusts
The most pressing challenge for Hmong farmers is gaining long-term access to farm land that is affordable and near their homes. Without access to land, Hmong farmers cannot invest in specialty produce that would garner higher profit margins or access federal loans and crop insurance programs that would protect them from climate change. HAFA is working with public and private entities to lease or purchase large tracts of farmland and turn them into agricultural land trusts through the assistance of conservation easements. In fact, in 2014 HAFA just launched the HAFA Farm–a 155 acre incubator and research farm located in Vermillion Township. In this way, Hmong farmers can get access to farmland near metropolitan areas, and large tracts of lands will be preserved for food production.
The majority of Hmong farmers sell exclusively to the farmers markets. Unfortunately, farmers who earn sales from only one market are very vulnerable to any shocks in that market. The focus of the Alternative Markets Program (AMP) is to gather fresh, locally grown produce from HAFA’s farmers and teach them how to sell the produce to local institutions and businesses like hospitals, schools, food processors, distributors, and grocery stores, or directly to consumers through community supported agriculture (CSA). This model has already expanded sales for HAFA member farmers and has increased accessibility to locally grown produce for metropolitan residents.
It is difficult for Hmong farmers to access capital and credit. Without these resources, Hmong farmers cannot invest in equipment that could make their operations more efficient and productive. To combat these challenges, in 2014, HAFA launched a business development program with the Eastside Financial Center (a program of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota). This program offers HAFA members the opportunity to undergo credit and financial assessments, attend financial management trainings, and meet one-to-one with farm management instructors to write business plans and generate financial statements. Moreover, this program has a matched savings component where farmers can save up to $2,000 in an IDA and have that amount matched 1:1. With the support of organizers, HAFA’s farmers can leverage those funds to purchase needed equipment with a micro-loan from AgStar Financial Services, Farm Service Agency (FSA), or the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). This comprehensive, multi-dimensional business development program is the only one of its kind in the country and a real model for community development.
Farming is dynamic, and constantly evolving. HAFA works to ensure that our members have access to the latest farming techniques, ranging from cover crops and living mulch, to wind break projects and high tunnels. In 2013 the organization teamed up with the Minnesota Fruits and Vegetable Growers Association, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Minnesota State College and Universities system to conduct a variety of research projects from longitudinal research on the state of Hmong farmers in Minnesota to the effects of cover crops in vegetable production on soil and water quality.
HAFA and its community partner, the Latino Economic Development Center, received a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop and test a bicultural and bilingual training program aimed at increasing the farming and business acumen of immigrant farmers. Since its inceptions, HAFA’s training program has conducted over 20 workshops and trained over 500 people on an array of topics from soil health and food safety protocols to high tunnels and farm machinery.