Hmong Farmers Association
An Act of Self-Determination. A “Whole Food” Model for Equity and Justice in Farming
Executive director of Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) Janssen Hang calls the organization’s founding “an act of self-determination.” Hmong farmers in Minnesota had long experienced considerable discrimination and barriers to accessing land, credit, markets, and training. In 2011, a small group formed an organization dedicated to working together to confront those barriers to their livelihoods, increase their self-efficacy and, ultimately, build community wealth.
Minneapolis/St. Paul boasts a large Hmong immigrant population. Many arrived in the United States as political refugees in the 1970s, fleeing persecution after the Vietnam War. As Hmong refugees resettled in the Twin Cities region, they turned to farming, drawing on a long history with agriculture, a deep understanding and respect for the land, and an ethic of hard work. Hmong farmers quickly became integral to the Twin Cities food economy, revitalizing the area’s once moribund farmer’s markets. Hmong farmers provisioned the staple crops that sustained the city and even introduced new specialty crops into the foodways.
Hmong farmers reaped fewer benefits than they sowed. It was common for Hmong farmers to have only oral leases, which made them vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of their landlords and prevented them from getting access to capital to expand or develop their businesses. Income from farmers’ markets could be uncertain. On average, Hang says, Hmong farmers paid more than four times per acre for their land relative to white farmers and made between one half and one quarter of the dividends.
HAFA takes a holistic approach to farming reform. Their “whole food” model is focused on making the four pillars of farming (access to land, credit, markets, and training) freely and simultaneously accessible.
The HAFA’s primary mechanism for addressing land accessibility is its farm, which also serves as a training ground for many members. A 155-acre property leased for minimal cost by an interested supporter, the HAFA farm boasts 125 acres in active production, subleased in 5-to-10-acre plots to HAFA members. The organization uses the remaining acreage for growing cover crops and modeling other sustainable farming practices. While not large enough to provide desired acreage to all members, the HAFA farm does allow the organization to offer members long-term affordable access and promote better stewardship of the land.
Additionally, HAFA has developed programs to help make the other three prongs of the “whole food” model more accessible to its members. Chief among these programs is the Food Hub, which develops alternative markets for Hmong-grown foods. HAFA secures contracts with local institutional buyers and arranges to sell CSAs directly to consumers, and HAFA farmers then fulfill these orders. Farmers who participate in the Food Hub gain access to new markets as well as valuable exposure to trainings on food safety and agricultural sales.
Expanding access to credit and capital is another major aspect of HAFA’s work. Its core learning curriculum helps farmers to build farm business plans, which they can leverage to acquire lending for essential farm asset purchases. In the past, HAFA has been able to offer one-to-one matching Individual Savings Accounts to help farmers save more for those purchases. For longtime career farmers stuck in a cycle of subsistence, these programs can make the difference between mere stability and success.
HAFA has also recently begun working towards systems change through advocacy work. After urging the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to offer more support for immigrant and minority farmers, the organization joined a recently announced working group to research best practices for addressing those farmers’ needs. They see such efforts as necessary counterparts to their direct service and capacity-building work with members.
Indeed, the organization can show no better proof of concept than the farmers themselves. HAFA farmers have cultivated considerable material and community dividends in the short time they have been working together. Not only has HAFA “able to bring most farmers to parity [in per-acre income] with mainstream white farmers,” Hang says, but also all HAFA farm cultivators have embraced cover crops, crop rotations, and water conservation measures. For HAFA farmers, that means sustainable livelihoods and sustainable farming.
Hang says HAFA is a cooperative enterprise with a culture built on shared knowledge, growth, and mutual respect, where “everybody is an educator, everybody is a learner.” At the HAFA farm, the community has built a place of belonging and a farming culture to carry them into the future.