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Hmong Farmers Improve Minnesota Food Economy

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In the American state of Minnesota, Hmong farmers are working together to grow their farming businesses.

The Hmong are an ethnic group from East Asia. They have never had a country of their own. They moved to Vietnam and Laos from China in the 18th century.

After the Vietnam War ended, many Hmong settled in the United States. This has given the U.S. the largest Hmong population outside of Asia. The northern state of Minnesota is home to more than 60,000 members of the community.

The Hmong have worked in agriculture for hundreds of years. So when they reached Minnesota, they began farming there. By the late 1980s, they were helping to re-energize local farmers markets, especially in the city of Saint Paul.

But the Hmong found that, as immigrant farmers, they faced barriers to buying land, getting financing, getting access to markets and building family businesses. They were struggling.

Then, in 2011, a group of Hmong farmers launched the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), a non-profit group.

Pakou Hang is one of the group's founders.

She said, "One of the reasons why HAFA was created was because the Hmong farmers were experiencing so much uncertainty. They didn't always have access to land."

She said that lacking guarantees on land use makes it difficult to invest in things that bring higher profits, such as organic fruits and vegetables.

At the center of the HAFA is a 63-hectare farm outside of St. Paul. There, member farmers can use two to four hectares of land for long periods to grow vegetables and flowers.

How HAFA helps

On a recent Friday, Mao Moua and her husband were harvesting vegetables on their plot of land for a farmers market.

The Mouas were among the large number of Hmong people who fled Laos for Thailand and eventually the U.S. in the 1970s. Since their arrival, they have been farming in Minnesota and, in recent years, on the HAFA membership farm.

Mao Moua says she enjoys working with the other farmers.

"I like farming on the HAFA farm because this is a Hmong association," she said. "There are Hmong workers who help us. They are like our hands, eyes and ears. I like there is also water, electricity and the Food Hub.'

The Food Hub is the name for HAFA's alternative markets program. It gives local businesses the chance to buy produce directly from HAFA farmers.

Kou Yang is the Food Hub's operations manager. He said the hub sells fruits and vegetables to schools, restaurants and other businesses. They also have a community supported agriculture program with around 350 members. Each member receives a weekly supply of produce.

And if the farmers need small loans to buy farming equipment, HAFA's business development programs are there to help. Pakou Hang said they are interested in creating wealth for the current Hmong community and for future generations.

Community wealth

Today, Hmong American farmers make up more than 50 percent of all produce growers selling at farmers markets in the St. Paul area.

David Kotsonas is a director with the Minnesota Farmers' Market Association. He said the Hmong have brought a lot of life to local farmers markets.

The Hmong are also at the center of a local foods economy that has changed the way Minnesotans eat.

Hang said Hmong farmers are a major part not just of the local food economy, but the state's overall economy.

"Studies have shown that they produced over $250 million in sales," she said.

Hang was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and came to the U.S. with her parents in 1976.

But when the Vietnam War ended and the communists took power in Laos, they began targeting Hmong soldiers, she said.

Hang has big dreams for the HAFA farm. In addition to helping farmers, the association does agricultural research and builds ties with the local community.

I'm Dorothy Gundy.

June Soh wrote this story for VOA News. Alice Bryant adapted the story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Words in This Story

migrate – v. to move from one place to another, often for work or other economic reasons

accessn. permission or ability to enter something or communicate with someone

uncertainty – n. something that is unknown

organicadj. relating to the production of food or plants without the use of chemically based fertilizers, antibiotic drugs or pesticide products.

plotn. a small piece of land or planted ground

hubn. center

produce – n. fruits and vegetables

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