Immigrant farmers look to move from markets to grocers

Farmers May Lee (right) and her daughter Mhonpaj plan to talk with possible new customers, including a few school districts in the coming months. They'll also spend the time investigating how to build season-extending hoop houses.
Image courtesy of Mhonpaj farms

Immigrant farmers are fixtures at many Minnesota farmers' markets, particularly in the Twin Cities, but they are not nearly as well represented in other parts of the local food scene.

Supplying restaurants and grocery stores and offering direct sales to consumers through community supported agriculture represent potentially significant opportunities to expand operations, but in Minnesota there have been barriers that Hmong, Latino and African farmers face as they try to make a living off the land.

For the past four years, Glen Hill and the Minnesota Food Association have been helping immigrant farmers break through those barriers.

On a recent day, Hill climbed over a snow bank to get into a cooler shed that held onions, beets and carrots. Immigrant farmers who grew some of that produce learn to farm the American way on Minnesota Food Association land near Marine on St. Croix.

One way farmers can be more profitable is to find more outlets for the food they grow, Hill, the association's executive director, thinks.

"Just doing farmers markets in my opinion is not going to work," he said. "Not giving up the farmers markets, but going into other markets, grocery stores, corner stores, restaurants, farm stands, direct sales."

The Minnesota Food Association provides land and training to 10 immigrant farmers in everything from record keeping to safety regulations.

Beginning in 2007, it started selling produce on behalf of its farmers to wholesale and retail markets, like restaurants, food cooperatives and other retail stores. But then, Hill said, it realized that meeting the safety requirements was taking too much time for an organization devoted to education and training.

So now the Minnesota Food Association turns to brokering relationships between immigrant farmers and customers.

"Recently we've just turned over our whole Chipotle account to one of our farmers in our program. And this helps them to build up their own direct markets."

Not everyone believes the jump to full-time farming is possible. May Lee farms with her daughter Mhonpaj, partly on land rented from the Minnesota Food Association.

Though she's farmed her entire life, May Lee calls growing vegetables on seven acres near Stillwater a hobby. Mhonpaj Lee said there are practical reasons why part-time farmers hesitate to shut off other income sources.

"You can't transition to full time because you don't have health care," Mhonpaj Lee said. It's also high risk, if all your plants that year don't grow that's basically your future income."

May Lee grew up farming in Laos, and the Lees were the first organically certified Hmong farmers in Minnesota. Growing organically is labor intensive and time consuming. And the Lees depend on volunteers to help them grow the 150 varieties of produce.

Not only that, May Lee explains, it's hard to find land that's organically certified close enough to the Twin Cities to continue working.

But by far the most difficult challenge is competing with all the other farmers who have the same produce the Lees have to sell at the same time. Mhonpaj Lee thinks about selling produce to wholesale distributors or to retail stores. But the produce has to look exactly right.

"I tell my mom it's like modeling. The person has to look like a doll to sell, same with the produce. You can't have any scratch marks, it has to be a certain size. You know and probably out of the whole farm you're maybe gonna get 50 percent top-notch quality."

Despite the challenges, the Lees hope to continue expanding beyond selling at farmers markets and the 10 community supported agriculture shares they sold to consumers this past season. They're hoping to find more schools and restaurants to buy their produce. Even with that expansion, they don't see a time when Mhonpaj can afford to give up her two jobs.

But May Lee hopes one day farming will become more than a hobby for people of her daughter's generation. When she visits schools May Lee asks kids where they think food comes from. "...they say the refrigerator." she said. "Children don't know what to eat. They just eat whatever really sweet or really salty. They think that's good food but it's not."

When she was in Laos, May Lee, like many Southeast Asian and African farmers, worked land on the small scale in vogue among some in the United States now. But it's hard to make a living on small scale.

That's where Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin comes in. He works with Hispanic and Latino farmers around Northfield as director of the Rural Enterprise Center. After researching how to take farmers with no money and find a profitable crop, he hit on raising free-range chickens.

"Poultry is the easiest and most compatible with the primarily Hispanic families that we work with because of the nature of their socioeconomic conditions," he said. "Living in poverty without access to credit and lending and all that. Poultry is one of those livestocks that we can easily redesign in terms of productions systems to match the conditions of the families we work with."

The families run the Hillside Farmers Co-op, which at its peak employs 25 Latino farmers. Though still at an experimental stage, the co-op sold 35,000 chickens direct to the public.

Latino farmers are paired with two Anglo farmers who are more established. Together they raise chickens that spend most of their time outdoors eating grass and sprouts. Surrounding the flock's enclosure is a crop of hazelnut trees.

The chickens fertilize the trees and other perennials, the hazelnuts could be a source of biofuel. In December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded the Hillside Farmers Coop a $113,000 grant.

Haslett Marroquin hopes the co-op will turn a profit this year.

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