More than 30 Hmong families who farm on 100 acres in May Township could be uprooted before next year's growing season if the landowner doesn't seek a permit, which a town ordinance now requires for larger garden plots.
The town isn't looking to shut the farmers down this year, considering that they've already planted their crops, said board chairman Bill Voedisch. Without compliance soon, however, "next year might be a different story," he said.
Just how the situation plays out depends on whether the landowner, David Johnson, seeks a permit given that he was in violation the minute it went into effect. Voedisch is skeptical that will happen. The manager representing the farmers, Robert Lor, said he would resolve the matter himself if he could, and an attorney said the farmers have been good neighbors.
"Mr. Lor is doing a really great job in coordinating with the other farmers," said Susan Stokes of Farmers' Legal Action Group. "He's been their spokesperson. In addition to farming, he's doing a lot of work being an ambassador for everybody."
The new ordinance, enacted in March, requires that garden plots exceeding five acres need a permit and can't be more than 40 acres or 15 percent of a property, whichever is less. Any such operations must have on-site toilets and any buildings must meet town code. The ordinance prohibits activity from half an hour after sunset until 7 a.m., and it limits where and how vehicles are parked.
Stokes views the ordinance as excessive and said it unfairly targets vegetable farmers in the town of about 3,100 residents north of Stillwater.
Why vegetable growers?
"What was perplexing to me is why there was so many restrictions on raising vegetables, but not on farmers engaging in other types of agriculture," she said. "Why ... not corn or cattle? That's restrictive and constraining a person's ability to make a living as a farmer."
"It isn't anti-gardener at all," Voedisch said. "It's to protect the gardeners. ... We want to protect what we have."
The gardens can be seen from Paul Avenue and by nearby neighbors, he said. Other operations in May Township -- such as an immigrant farm maintained by the Minnesota Food Association that is inside Wilder Forest -- are practically "invisible," Voedisch said.
"We treat it more like a small business," Voedisch said of the Hmong operation because it operates much like the nearby immigrant farm. Eighty of the 100 acres of the plot are used for "commercial produce," and the remaining 20 acres for "traditional family farming," according to minutes from a June 7 town board meeting.
Lor, who lives in St. Paul with his wife and nine children, said farmers begin work early in the morning -- sometimes before 6 a.m. -- to pick fresh produce for farmers markets and to work their gardens before it gets too hot. Some return in the evenings when it's cooler.
"Sometimes we have more than 10 cars and they don't like too many cars on the property," Lor said. "We are still poor people and we don't have enough to buy a big tractor where we only [harvest] one time. We're poor and we only do it by hand and with small machines. We have to come in every day."
After consulting with his lawyer, Lor declined to say how much the farmers pay for the land.
Primary income for some
Lor immigrated to the United States from Laos in 1979 and became a citizen eight years later. Many of the farmers are immigrants like him, he said, and farming means they can feed themselves and send their children to school.
"Sometimes the people don't speak the language good and it's hard to find a job," Lor said. "[They] get income in the summer, so they can survive in the winter. Like myself, I have a lot of kids, then after work I have to come and do it. The crops come in, then I get paid vacation to help my wife so we can sell the crops."
Lor said the landowner, Johnson, has been difficult for him and others to contact, and hasn't sought a permit application under the new ordinance. Lor said he would do it if he could.
The town board has had a history of concerns with Johnson's properties, such as the "neighborhood eyesore" and safety hazards caused by dozens of junk cars in plain sight, said Voedisch, who has been pushing Johnson to clean them up for several years.
The town has recently drafted a lawsuit against Johnson to clear out the junk, said David Snyder, the town attorney. The suit is also meant to "bring him into compliance" and have him apply for the gardening permit on his property, "one of many invitations," Snyder said.
Landowner is silent
Johnson, reached by phone, declined to comment on the township allegations.
"The town has worked with him to try to achieve voluntary compliance," Snyder said.
"At some point the landowner's participation in that process ended, so that the town was left with no option but litigation."
Voedisch said he handed Johnson two copies of the garden ordinance -- one when the Planning Commission passed it and another before the town board approved it -- but said Johnson didn't notify the farmers. "David Johnson never told them anything," Voedisch said.
Lor said he found out about the new rules from a newspaper article that another resident gave him.
"A lot of [the other farmers] are asking me, 'How about next year?' And I say, 'I don't know,'" Lor said. "They only allow for 40 acres, not 100. We worry about that, but a lot of people like it here."
Kaitlyn Walsh is a Twin Cities freelance writer.