Growing a Future
Hmong farmers deepen their roots in Minnesota with a land purchase.
Amid the vast farmland of southern Minnesota, a 155-acre farm is not an especially big spread, especially when it’s shared by many growers. But for the members of the Hmong American Farmers Association, or HAFA, the piece of land that they work in Vermillion Township south of the Twin Cities means so much, providing a path to agency and self-sufficiency. And this spring, for the first time since HAFA farmers first planted at the site in 2014, they’ll sink their seeds and seedlings into land that’s owned outright by the association.
In the decade or so leading up to HAFA’s October 2022 purchase of the parcel, the group leased the land with the help of an anonymous investor. However, there was always a chance the lease could be terminated, leaving the farmers with nothing to reap for what they’d sown. Ownership adds a measure of security for HAFA and its 100-plus growers, who lease 5- to 10-acre plots.
“I want us to build the next generations of Hmong farmers,” says Janssen Hang, HAFA’s executive director. “There is so much culture in farming that connects us to our Hmong heritage.”
The farm was purchased with funds from a HAFA capital campaign and an additional $2 million from a state infrastructure bonding bill.
Janssen co-founded the association with his sister Pakou Hang in 2011 to address a need in the local Hmong community. Minnesota had become a hub for Hmong refugees, some of whom were farmers who sold their yields to markets around the Twin Cities. With the introduction of cilantro and green-top onions, among other vegetables, Hmong farmers changed the produce landscape of Twin Cities farmers markets. But many Hmong farmers did not own their land, and thus were unable to transfer their assets to future generations.
Janssen and Pakou’s sister, Lillian Hang, a HAFA member who specializes in herbs and flowers, recalls farming with their parents. “My family has been hardcore farming—not sophisticated farming, but labor farming—through our whole lives. We would spend summers picking cucumbers,” she says. “My parents did it because they were adamant about us going to private school. We would come back years later and they were still weighing the same cucumbers for $300. Nothing changed.”
HAFA gives farmers the opportunity to grow their business and encourages its members to use sustainable agricultural practices such as composting, succession planting, planting waterway pollinator habitat, and restoring oak savanna. HAFA also hosts workshops on topics like soil health and has begun experimenting with organically certified pesticides.
“I want us to innovate in how we educate ourselves and how to generate revenue in different ways,” says Janssen. “That’s what owning the land means to all Hmong farmers.”