An association representing Hmong farmers is planning to buy 155 acres in Dakota County, a monumental land purchase for a group that wants to ensure that the metro area's pioneering small farmers have a place to grow fruits and vegetables for years to come.

The Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) has been leasing the land in Vermillion Township for more than six years, allowing 100 farmers to grow fruit and vegetables just 15 minutes south of St. Paul. But leasing left the farmers with a sense of uncertainty, especially because suitable farmland near Minneapolis and St. Paul is increasingly scarce.

"I'm just ecstatic about it," said Janssen Hang, HAFA's executive director and co-founder. "It's almost surreal."

The nonprofit leases plots to its members and uses several areas to conduct research and demonstrations to train members in sustainable agricultural practices.

HAFA is able to purchase the land with $2 million included in the state's $1.9 billion infrastructure borrowing package. Gov. Tim Walz signed the measure into law on Oct. 21 and toured the land a week later. The group must come up with $500,000 to complete the purchase.

Access to land is a huge challenge for small farmers, said Rep. Samantha Vang, DFL-Brooklyn Center, chief sponsor of the purchase proposal. Finding and buying affordable land is especially difficult for Hmong farmers, who face financial and language barriers, Vang said.

Funding for the farmland purchase came out of $30 million specifically set aside for projects to benefit communities of color, she said.

An anonymous benefactor bought the property in 2013 and leased it to HAFA, hoping the farmers could eventually buy the land themselves.

Allowing the farmers to own the land not only supports their livelihood, Vang said, but provides consumers in the metro area with fresh, healthy food. Half the produce sold at local farmers markets is grown by Hmong farmers.

"It's a smart state investment," she said. "I know for sure that we're changing lives."

Hang said the group hopes to have the sale completed by spring or summer of 2021.

'A way of life'

On Friday, just a few farmers were in the fields, cleaning up their plots and preparing the land for next spring. Some were planting garlic, which is typically done in the fall, said Dao Yang, the farm's manager.

The association offers farmers training in areas such as managing agricultural pests and disease throughout the cold winter months.

Yang said HAFA farmers grow more than 125 varieties of produce, with vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, asparagus and snap peas the most prevalent crops. Though less common in Minnesota, Asian greens, okra, bitter eggplant, sweet potatoes and peanuts are also grown.

In addition to selling produce wholesale and at farmers markets, the farm this year produced enough fruits and vegetables to sell 1,200 shares of Community Supported Agriculture, an arrangement that allows customers to regularly receive boxes of seasonal food directly from farmers for a fee, Yang said.

Because they would now have guaranteed long-term access to land, farmers can invest in planting more perennials such as rhubarb, strawberries and plum trees, Yang said.

The farm's site is ideal because of its proximity to the Twin Cities, where many farmers live, and because it's large enough for each farmer to have several acres.

"It really fit the profile of what Hmong farmers were looking for," Hang said.

For hundreds of years, Hmong families worked together as subsistence farmers in Laos and Thailand. When they came to the United States, some continued to farm not only to make a living but also to connect to their agrarian roots.

Ultimately, the farming association's goal is to create self-sufficiency for Hmong families through agriculture.

It means a lot to the farmers, who are mostly in their late 50s and early 60s, to be able to say they own the farm, Hang said. Farming, he said, "is a way of life for them."

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781