Amid rows of corn and soybeans along Hwy. 52 in Dakota County, one farm looks more like an impressionist painting.
The 155-acre Hmong American Farmers Association farm is loaded with vegetables, herbs and flowers, including multicolored dahlias, zinnias, strawflowers and small sunflowers in rows hundreds of feet long.
A benefactor purchased the farm and leased it to the association this year with an option to buy it in eight years. The Hmong farmers who grow crops there think it could become a model for other immigrant farmers who want to own land but lack the resources to purchase it.
“We’re not just about renting land,” said Pakou Hang, the association’s executive director. “We are about helping families think long-term about community wealth creation, self-sufficiency and sustainability.”
Hang estimates that 500 Hmong families sell flowers and vegetables in farmers markets in the Twin Cities, and have been doing so for almost a generation.
They farm on rented land, she said, and the businesses help families to make a living — but not enough to purchase land or expand their customer base beyond farmers markets. In fact, she said, many Hmong farmers have been struggling because the popularity of local foods has caused the number of farmers markets to explode, and growers can’t make money in the smaller venues.
Limited markets and lack of access to land are familiar to John Flory, special projects director with the Latino Economic Development Center in Minneapolis.
“You can’t invest any money in a business if you don’t even know if you can get the same land the next year,” he said. “You can’t drill a well, you can’t put in an irrigation system, you can’t build a greenhouse, you can’t plant perennial crops, and if you buy equipment, you don’t know if you’ll have a use for it.”
Flory’s center encouraged Hang to launch the Hmong association in 2011, and provided some support.
“This is a model that could be a breakthrough for immigrant farmers all around the country,” Flory said. “I don’t think anyone else is saying, ‘Let’s buy land as a group.’ ”
The association, which is holding an open house on Saturday, has 36 members, and 16 of them grow flowers and vegetables on the farm’s 5- and 10-acre plots. Foundations and other donations provided $270,000 that was used to build a deer fence around much of the farm, dig a well for irrigation, install outdoor washing stations, and remodel a pole barn to include a cold storage facility.
Mai Moua, standing between rows of red, orange and yellow butterfly milkweed and eucalyptus plants, said she never had access to water in her previous 10 years of renting land, and is grateful now to have both irrigation and long-term access.
“You know the land, and you can work the soil and know which sections are good to grow which plants,” she said through an interpreter.
Moua said she grows 10 varieties of dahlias and about two dozen other types of flowers that she sells on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at farmers markets in New Hope, Bloomington and Eagan.
Moua and her husband have seven daughters and a couple of sons who spend evenings and weekends helping them.
Hang said that’s typical, and that many Hmong Americans who have full-time jobs and professions help their parents and siblings with farms.
Certainty about year-to-year locations also benefits vegetable farmers, who can grow perennials such as asparagus, blueberries and strawberries, said Hang. Some farmers are catering to ethnic tastes by growing African eggplant, Indian okra, tomatillos, and a wide variety of peppers and herbs.
The association also sells through a local community supported agriculture program that boxes up food for its subscribers. This week’s package includes watermelon, corn, ground cherries, sweet potatoes, banana peppers and lemon grass.
Members of the association also decided to plant about 12 acres with native flowers and grasses between some of the plots to benefit honeybees and other pollinators, Hang said, and to experiment with growing cover crops to keep soil in place during winter months. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture and state and federal natural resource experts have provided help and advice through the season, she said.
In addition to raising food and flowers, the association is training its members about soil chemistry, sound business practices, and food safety protocols and licenses required to sell in alternative markets such as institutions. So far the group has sold food to Minneapolis public schools, Lunds and Byerly’s, Ramsey County Head Start, St. Paul Public Housing, and the Minneapolis regional office of Bon Appétit Management Co. that serves Carleton College in Northfield and several corporate cafeterias.
Hang said she’s not sure how the association’s farm is viewed by its neighbors. Someone cut the deer fence and the garage has been vandalized, she said, but its members will continue to upgrade the farm buildings and welcome visitors.
“I don’t think anyone is opposed to us growing vegetables,” she said. “It’s having Hmong folks in the neighborhood that’s different.”
The association is just ending its first growing season, but Hang said there’s already a waiting list of members who’d like the group to start a second farm, preferably one that is certified organic.
Flory at the Latino Center said the Hmong association is off to a good start because it’s driven by members who want long-term, secure businesses rather than year-to-year rentals. Well-intentioned training programs devised in the past by others to help immigrant farmers haven’t gone far enough, Flory said.
“Access to land is an important first step, and access to markets is a very important additional step,” he said. “We’ll see how all of that works out.”