Twenty minutes south of St. Paul on Hwy. 52, the sea of golden cornstalks is interrupted by multicolored ribbons of crops — rows of purple and green beet leaves, collard greens, Brussels sprouts.
Dozens of high school students wearing tool belts and toting screw guns were scattered Tuesday throughout the patchwork of plants that is the Hmong American Farmers Association farm. The organization is wrapping up its second season at the 155-acre site in Vermillion Township and its infrastructure is growing with the help of volunteers. The students, for example, spent this week building 10-foot-by-10-foot sheds there.
Development has been slow as the association tries to work with a tight budget and avoid cultural conflicts and misconceptions, which have cropped up elsewhere over the years. Even the new sheds have been carefully thought out.
“If they weren’t beautiful, if they weren’t uniform, if they weren’t well-designed, people would say, ‘Oh, that farm and those Hmong farmers, we don’t want them in our neighborhood,’ ” said Pakou Hang, director of the Hmong American Farmers Association.
But the nonprofit association and its 17 low-income farming families — who each have a 5- or 10-acre plot at the site — did not have the money to add nice sheds right away.
When Vang Moua needed a break from tending her crops in the summer heat, she had to find a tree for shade. When it rained, she had no option but to pack up and go home. Every day she had to haul some of her equipment home.
The new sheds will save her time and money, Moua said through an interpreter Tuesday, surrounded by sweet potatoes she had just pulled.
“The past two years, our farmers, honestly they have just been suffering,” Hang said.
There was not a secure place to store the fruits and vegetables they picked. Watermelons, peppers and tomatoes were stolen, Hang said.
To develop the much-needed farm infrastructure without much money, the association started cold-calling groups, including the Carpenters Local Union 322 and City Academy in St. Paul, to ask for help.
The requests worked.
Union members built a wash station for cleaning produce. And teens from across the state, who are members of the federal YouthBuild program, are building 25 sheds this week.
Around noon Tuesday, William Schweisberger, a senior at River Valley Academy in Kellogg, Minn., watched his classmates finish the base of a shed. The group is learning fast and working hard, he said.
“It makes you passionate because you’re helping out the community,” said Bravors Moua, another student carpenter and a senior at City Academy in St. Paul.
He said he is getting more comfortable multi-tasking and working with a team.
“When these guys came to me they could barely read their tape measures,” said Dave Wolner, a carpentry instructor at City Academy who helped organize the construction project. A few weeks later they are making “really clean, good-looking little sheds.”
In the spring, students will paint the buildings white with hunter-green roofs and trim, Wolner said.
Those sheds could help farmers avoid problems that have occurred elsewhere, when neighbors were frustrated by dilapidated sheds, Hang said.
“People were really upset. They were like, ‘These things look so ugly,’ ” she said. “It really created bad tension between residents in the rural communities and our farmers.”
In May Township in Washington County, shelters used by Hmong farmers were one of several points of contention in 2012. Officials had passed an ordinance with tighter regulations on growers. It limited the hours they could work and required on-site toilets and buildings that are up to code. Hmong farmers contested the changes and the town board later repealed them.
The Hmong American Farmers Association has taken other steps to get Vermillion Township residents acquainted with their farm, Hang said. Each September, the group has held an open house with tours, children’s activities, a free lunch and a musical performance.
“So much of Vermillion Township and Dakota County is made up of small family farmers,” Hang said. “We want them to see that we may not look like them, and we may not be growing the same things they’re growing, but we actually have more in common than people may think.”