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Hmong American Farmers Association

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Xee Yang harvesting kale flowers

Xee Yang harvesting kale flowers at the Hmong Americans Farmers Association’s farm in Vermillion Township (Dakota County), 2015. Photograph by Mike Hazard; used with the permission of Mike Hazard.

The Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) was co-founded by siblings Janssen and Pakou Hang in November 2011. Since then, the St. Paul-based organization has helped Hmong American farmers develop profitable, sustainable businesses in the Twin Cities.

In 2011, Hmong farmers met in Minneapolis with impact investors from the Opportunity Finance Network conference. At that meeting, Vang Thao Moua, a Hmong farmer who had immigrated to the United States in 1977, said she had been waiting for twenty years to be asked what investors could do to support immigrant farmers. Her remark sparked a lively discussion that culminated with a suggestion that Hmong farmers form their own organization. “We have to stop waiting for someone to come save us. We can save ourselves,” said Blia Yee Moua. A week later, HAFA was formally incorporated with eleven inaugural farmer-members.

HAFA emerged from the understanding that Hmong farmers faced unique barriers. According to a 1997 study by the University of Minnesota’s Department of Applied Economics, immigrant farmers faced many challenges: long-term access to affordable farmland near the Twin Cities; access to diverse markets besides farmers markets; access to capital to purchase land and other farm equipment; and access to bi-lingual and bi-cultural research and trainings.

Because Hmong families did not have access to these resources, many were exploited. HAFA collected stories of Hmong farmers who were charged $300 an acre to rent land from a white farmer only if the Hmong farmers agreed to allow their family to come into the fields and harvest produce free of charge. Some white farmers charged Hmong farmers $50 to $75 an acre for custom soil tilling when the market rates for white farmers were only $15 to $20. Based on an annual survey it conducted, HAFA estimated that, in general, Hmong farmers earned only $5,000 in sales per acre. Other mainstream vegetable growers made over $8,000. In short, racist policies and practices perpetuated an unfair economic system in which Hmong farmers were working hard but barely making it.

To address these problems, HAFA rooted its work in the “whole foods model”—a system that supported capacity-building while protecting ecology and demanding equitable wages for farmers and workers. In order to build true community wealth, HAFA argued that it needed to simultaneously engage all components of the whole foods model: land access, new markets, financing, trainings and research.

Other groups had focused on delivering one component of the system or tried to support individual farmers as they moved through the system. But what made HAFA’s model unique was its focus on all the components, at the same time, with cohorts of Hmong farmers to truly change the system. The ultimate goal was to build the farmers’ self-efficacy, expand social capital, build community and intergenerational wealth, and change the food and agricultural system so that it worked for all. To participate in HAFA’s programs, one had to be a farmer-member. In order to be a member, one had to have been farming for more than three years on more than three acres and have over one million dollars in liability insurance.

HAFA spent its first two years under the fiscal agency of the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC). The small organization was granted 501(c)(3) status in December 2013, but even then, the operation was touch and go. HAFA struggled to secure enough funding to maintain cash flow as it competed with the more established organizations already working with Hmong farmers. What set HAFA apart were its practices, which were rooted in cultural norms, its membership requirements, and its explicit articulation of self-determination. As the organization pointed out in its early grants, it was the only such group started and led by Hmong farmers.

In 2014, through the support of a generous benefactor, HAFA secured a 155-acre incubator and research farm in Vermillion Township (Dakota County) along Highway 52 South. The HAFA Farm, as it came to be known, gave over twenty Hmong families long-term access to five- to ten-acre parcels, along with irrigation and a rinsing, washing, and cooling facility. This opened the door for Hmong farmers to sell their produce to schools, co-ops, restaurants, and other institutions.

In 2017, HAFA received the coveted Bush Prize from the Bush Foundation in recognition of its innovative and transformative work.

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Bush Foundation. Hmong American Farmers Association.
https://www.bushfoundation.org/hmong-american-farmers-association

Idstrom, Devon. “Linking Immigrants to Farming Opportunities.” White paper. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, August 2003.

Hmong American Farmers Association. Our Story.
http://www.hmongfarmers.com/story

McCamant, Thaddeus. “Educational Interests, Needs and Learning Preferences of Immigrant Farmers.” White Paper. Center for Rural Policy and Development, May 2014.

Meter, Kenneth A. “Mapping the Minnesota Food Industry.” Research Paper. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Center for Prevention, October 2009

Olson, Kent, et al. “Results of a Farm and Market Survey for Hmong Specialty Crop Farmers in the Minneapolis, St. Paul Metro Area.” Staff paper series. Department of Applied Economics College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences University of Minnesota, December 2003.

Perry, Mo. “Putting Down Roots: Bush Prize-Winner Hmong American Farmers Association Cultivates Richness in the Local Ecosystem.” b (Bush Foundation magazine), May 2017.
http://bmag.bushfoundation.org/putting-down-roots

Related Images

Xee Yang harvesting kale flowers
Xee Yang harvesting kale flowers
Farm in Dakota County cultivated by the Hmong Americans Farmers Association
Farm in Dakota County cultivated by the Hmong Americans Farmers Association
Wang Ger Hang harvesting tomatoes
Wang Ger Hang harvesting tomatoes

Turning Point

In 2014, through the support of a generous benefactor, HAFA secures a 155-acre incubator and research farm in Vermillion Township (Dakota County).

Chronology

2011

Pakou Hang receives a fellowship grant from the Bush Foundation to research Hmong participation in sustainable agriculture and the local food movement.

November 2011

Pakou and her brother, Janssen Hang, form the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA).

September 2012

HAFA launches its Alternative Markets Program (AMP), a marketing co-op that trains farmers on food safety and post-harvest handling and aggregates produce. Minneapolis Public Schools and the Best Buy headquarters in Richfield are its first customers.

December 2013

The Hmong American Farmers Association is granted 501(c)(3) status.

April 2014

The HAFA farm opens with twenty-one families farming five- or ten-acre parcels. It operates much like a land and equipment cooperative, with farmers paying a “deposit” and then sharing operating expenses accessing infrastructure, services, and equipment.

2014

HAFA receives a community innovation grant of $199,100 from the Bush Foundation.

September 2015

HAFA receives a United States Department of Agriculture Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program grant of $712,500 to develop and execute a bi-lingual and bi-cultural farmer training curriculum for Hmong farmers.

November 2017

HAFA receives a Bush Prize for Community Innovation from the Bush Foundation worth $247,425.

November 2018

HAFA’s food hub records over $340,000 in sales, with Hmong farmers’ produce going to health clinics, natural-food co-ops, 19 workplace community-supported-agriculture (CSA) drop-off sites, 170 individual schools, childcare learning centers, and restaurant