A Hmong farmers collective is worried that a road project could eat up valuable acreage at its farm in rural Dakota County, a haven for small farmers who grow produce for many of the metro area's farmers markets.

The Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) farm, which sits on 155 acres in Vermillion Township, near County Road 66 and Hwy. 52, a key connection between the Twin Cities and Rochester.

And as the highway is "evolving toward a freeway-like corridor," Dakota County and Minnesota Department of Transportation officials are weighing whether to expand the increasingly busy intersection to improve safety. By 2040, Hwy. 52 could see an additional 7,500 vehicles per day, said Doug Abere, senior project manager for Dakota County.

"We think that over time there will be a more demonstrated need to do something at that intersection," Abere said. "As you get more traffic, you get more delay, more pressure on drivers and more risk of making bad decisions."

Dakota County officials are studying the area to see if building a bridge interchange makes sense. The ramps for the interchange, however, could encroach on up to 10-20 acres of HAFA farmland.

"Absolutely there's concern," Susan Stokes, HAFA's attorney, said about the project. "Even if you take just 5 acres ... that's a big impact on the farmers."

Dakota County is leading the study, which will continue through 2022, and working with MnDOT.

"This is not a for sure thing," said Bryant Ficek, MnDOT south area engineer. "We are at the very front end of a process."

Janssen Hang, HAFA executive director, emphasized that officials are in communication with the county and other players and trying to find a "workable approach."

"We share many of the same goals, including protecting the safety of those who use Highway 52, including our farmers who use those roads multiple times a day," he said in a statement.

The HAFA farm gives the Hmong Americans who farm there predictable access to undeveloped land near the metro area.

Members sublease and farm their own plots, together growing more than 125 varieties of produce sold throughout the Twin Cities, HAFA officials said. There are about 23 Hmong families farming 5-10 acres each.

The association, founded in 2011, is in the process of buying the land, which it had previously leased. In 2020, the Legislature gave HAFA $2 million toward the purchase, with the requirement that the group raise additional funds. HAFA officials say they recently raised the final $500,000 needed.

But as that milestone grows closer, the interchange project looms large.

The intersection where Hwy. 52 meets County Road 66 requires drivers to make a U-turn to turn left, which can be dangerous, Abere said.

"It's a location that's at risk for severe crashes," he said.

The county is also studying the intersection of Hwy. 52 with County Road 62, about a mile north of County Road 66, Abere said.

Options for changes at one or both intersections include upgrading the existing roadways, closing access to the highway or installing bridge interchanges, he said.

"We believe that it makes sense to really look hard at maintaining the connection and seeing if it can be engineered to make it work more safely," he said.

Abere said the county is communicating with HAFA and other landowners, officials from the city and township of Vermillion and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, since the project is near the Vermillion River.

He said the county doesn't plan to push the project through quickly but wants to "make sure everyone is comfortable with the decision making."

The farm's leaders are still assessing potential impacts, Stokes said.

"We believe the county is being honest and transparent," she said. "We are working with them to make sure those concerns are heard."

Abere said HAFA's worries about losing land are valid. The changes could also affect the farm's irrigation system.

"HAFA is a remarkable resource," he said. "We appreciate that, and yet we have to also look at how others would be impacted as we develop and evaluate alternatives."

Stokes, who co-wrote a policy manual for lawmakers about the importance of preserving farmland near cities, said those properties are often thought of as placeholders by developers and public officials.

Stokes said farmland should be protected, like wetlands, because losing acreage would affect more than just the farmers who work those particular plots.

"It's a whole local system that has a ripple effect," she said.