“If you ate today, thank a farmer”
I believe that getting to know the farmers who supply our food is imperative. It heightens our respect for the dedication and hard work that they put into what we consume. These interactions make the ingredients on our plates even more meaningful.
Two weeks ago I visited the 155 acre Hmong American Farmers Association Farm (HAFA) in Vermillion Township. This is an area that is heavily rooted in agriculture. The farm is located approximately 15 minutes south of St. Paul.
I learned of HAFA and the variety of programs they have been implementing while listening to Pakou Hang (Co-Founder and Executive Director of HAFA) speak on the panel at a Future of Food Tour event. This was hosted by Kerry Diamond, Editorial Director of Cherry Bombe. The event was held at the Lynhall in June and was part of their ongoing Wisdom Series. Shortly after the event I reached out to Pakou to hear more about the organization. Following our discussion I expressed interest in visiting the HAFA Farm.
The Hmong community in Minnesota is the second largest in the United States. There are approximately 66,000 Hmong people living in MN and most reside in the Twin Cities. ~ Pakou Hang
“In 2011, a group of Hmong American farming families formed the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) because we believed the best people to support Hmong farmers are Hmong farmers themselves and that we are all lifted up when those who are affected by an unfair food system lead the change we seek. We formed with the mission to advance the prosperity of Hmong American farmers through cooperative endeavors, capacity building and advocacy” ~HAFA Website”
This has been actively farmed land since the mid 1800’s. Prior to HAFA obtaining it in 2013, the land was leased out to neighboring farmers. Since the inception of this combination research and incubator farm, Hmong farmers have been creating their own pathway to individual and community health & financial success.
Land is subleased in at least 5 acre plots to HAFA members, who are also experienced farming families.” ~HAFA Website
Hmong farmers have piqued the palates of Minnesotans with the unique and vibrant varieties of produce that they are growing and selling ( Chinese bok choy, Thai chili peppers, a variety of herbs and bitter melon are just a few examples, see photos below). There are over 100 farmers markets in the Twin Cities and Hmong farmers sell from at least 50% of them. They currently grow 166+ varieties of produce and 5,000 perennials on the farm. The perennials are cut and sold at the markets but are also used on the farm as natural “wind breakers” to protect produce and soil from wind erosion.
My tour was led by Janssen Hang (Co-Founder and Senior Organizer of HAFA)
Janssen shared 4 challenges that Hmong farmers face:
- Lack of land access.
- Lack of credit and capital access because some lenders do not have the proper knowledge regarding agriculture and its potential profitability.
- Lack of access to training and research.
- Lack of access to alternative markets (as a supplement to seasonal farmers markets, which are very dependent on factors that cannot be controlled such as weather and consumer attendance) The need to expand into new markets was identified in order to increase revenue and have more consistent profitability.
HAFA has been meeting the above challenges through the implementation of numerous unique programs.
“Through collective farm business development, education and advocacy, we are building paths to wealth creation, not just income generation, toward a sustainable, fair food economy for all” ~ HAFA Website
HAFA provides education on the most efficient and productive farming techniques, an IDA matching program that allows for farm equipment purchases, innovative research projects and collaborations as well as strategic approaches to sustainability and business in a multitude of ways. Click here to learn more specifics regarding the programs that are currently in place.
The High Tunnels (see images below)
High tunnels allow for protected growth of produce and maintenance of soil quality in the absence of challenges that often include pests, weather fluctuations, irrigation issues etc…In a single season they were able to grow over 5,000 lbs of tomatoes utilizing the high tunnels with 95% being harvest-able. Additionally, they used the tunnel to grow 5 pound individual watermelons. The melons were started inside the tunnels and when the appropriate outdoor temperature was reached the walls were opened up to allow them to root outdoors. They were harvested in July which was ahead of schedule.
The new outdoor washing system and cooler space are recent additions. They allow for more produce to be stored for a longer period of time. This is advantageous because the farmers are aren’t under pressure to harvest and deliver the same day. The ability to safely store the produce provides a more consistent revenue stream by allowing the farmers to penetrate and sell to alternative markets. This includes local grocery stores, businesses, hospitals, schools, co-ops and many restaurants around the Twin Cities. HAFA also has a CSA program. I just reserved my Thanksgiving vegetable share this week!
We have an amazing number of chefs/restaurateurs throughout MN that are dedicated to sustainability and buying local. Here are a few of the restaurants/organizations that are currently sourcing products from the HAFA Farm: The Birchwood Cafe, Common Roots Cafe and Appetite For Change. There are many more and I would be happy to request a broader list from HAFA if anyone would like to know more about this.
Pictured below are the cleaning table and the cooler where potatoes, peanuts and onions were being stored on the day of my tour.
The IDA (Individual Development Account) financial matching program was started 4 years ago. Since that time, $200,000 in asset purchases were made by HAFA farmers with the funds from this account. These purchases are for equipment that increase the speed and efficiency of farming. This includes things like tractors, necessary farm equipment, cargo vans etc.
Listed below are just a few of the many additional agricultural studies/activities in progress on the farm:
- HAFA is currently collaborating with the U of MN on a study involving white dust cover crops.
- The HAFA farm pollinator friendly grass waterway is the first of its kind in the country.
- There are 14 bee hives on the property (with 4 active at this time)
The seriously amazing art on this silo was created by ArtCrop. This organization supports Hmong artists and farmers.
As a registered nurse who is passionate about food democracy, sustainability and all things culinary, the opportunity to visit the HAFA farm and learn more about their work was an extremely valuable opportunity. I found the tour to be educational, inspiring and thought-provoking. Thank you to Janssen and Pakou for the invitation and to Cindy Koy (Executive Assistant and Office Manager for coordinating my visit!
Coming soon to the Empty Nesters Kitchen Blog:
- Fall Desserts
- Photo Gallery of Japan
- Part 2 of the HAFA farm series focusing on the Veggie RX program