In Laos, as soon as the first rain falls in April, farmers rush to sow their seeds in the ground. The terrain is sometimes rocky and very hilly for these farmers who have worked the land for hundreds of years, growing crops to feed their families.
On a 155-acre plot of land in Hastings, Minnesota, the knowledge of learning to read the land and weather as they did in the old country has been passed down through generations of Hmong farmers at the HAFA (Hmong American Farmers Association) Farm, founded in 2011 by siblings Janssen and Pakou Hang. Minnesota’s climate is vastly different from Laos, and these farmers have traded taro for raspberries and many other varieties of produce, but some, such as potatoes and corn, remain the same.
As allies to the United States during the Vietnam War in the ’60s and ’70s, the U.S. took in refugees when Laos fell under communist rule in 1975; many were relocated to the Twin Cities and the Midwest in the late ’70s and early ’80s through the help of Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities. Being dropped into a foreign country with a barrier in language was difficult for many Hmong families, so the refugees turned to farming for work in the mid-’80s and were at the forefront of the local food push. Farmers markets opened up opportunities to earn living wages, and what followed was a revitalization of Minneapolis–St. Paul farmers markets and an introduction of diverse produce to local consumers.
The goal of HAFA is to differentiate the casual backyard farmer from the advanced farmer that relies on farming for their livelihood. HAFA requires their members to meet the following criteria: they must farm on three or more acres, have been farming for three or more years, be affiliated with an established farmers market system, provide a million dollar liability insurance, and identify that they are advancing their site.
In return, HAFA caters specifically to Hmong farmers by establishing a support system that addresses a disparity in money generated through crops. Where the average producer was making between $6,000–$8,000 an acre, most Hmong farmers were barely reaching $5,000 an acre. The member-based nonprofit stepped in to advocate for these farmers. They also provide training to their farmers on sustainability methods, including composting, succession planting, installing grass roadways, laying down erosion blankets, planting waterway pollinator habitat, and restoring oak savanna.
HAFA’s reach impacts much of Minnesota’s local food community. Close to 70% of the crops grown at the farm go to farmers markets, while the remaining 30% goes to an alternative market program: CSA, Farm-to-School, Veggie RX, small boutique shops and retailers, and restaurants. The farm even caters to small vendors, providing habaneros to hot sauce specialists Cry Baby Craig’s, for example.
HAFA’s co-founder and farm manager Janssen Hang’s days are long during the growing months, leaving him little time for anything outside the farm, but he knows he’s racing the clock. His trade-off is creating a better world for the Hmong community that he is so proud of. “This organization was founded in 2011,” he shares. “In my eight years here, the best satisfaction is seeing the mindset of each farmer and how they went from farming as a practice to something with a long-term vision. Because they’re looking further down the line, they are building community. Now we have farmers that are putting in perennial crops. Farmers are invested and becoming a better steward of the land as opposed to earlier when they didn’t have land and were at the mercy of the landowner. That’s the most rewarding thing, changing the quality of life for our farmers—something that wasn’t offered before.”