Like many Hmong farmers, Teng Thao's family has sold vegetables at Twin Cities farmers' markets for years. Now they also sell leeks to Lunds & Byerlys, sweet potatoes to Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-ops in St. Paul and broccoli to public schools in Hopkins.
Thao, 32, said he and his mother, who doesn't speak English, could never have brokered the deals on their own. The institutional customers came through his membership in the Hmong American Farmers Association. The 4-year-old St. Paul nonprofit runs a farm in Dakota County and is aggregating produce grown by more than 30 Hmong member farmers to sell to grocery stores, wholesalers, caterers and schools, as well as directly to consumers through weekly deliveries.
"They try to get us as close to the price that we sell at the farmers' market as possible," Thao told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "We were looking for alternative markets. But who do you talk to? None of us really knew how to approach that, so we never did it. We didn't know where to start."
And yet relaying on patrons at farmers' markets to pay the bills was not working.
"It's harder and harder for small farmers in Minnesota to make it," said Hilary Otey-Wold, executive director of the Minnesota Food Association, a nonprofit that runs a 150-acre training farm for mostly immigrant farmers in Marine on St. Croix.
The Hmong American Farmers Association is an example of small, immigrant farmers in Minnesota combining produce and resources to gain a foothold in an industry dominated by out-of-state mega farms and distribution systems, with long-term contracts, accustomed to dealing in large volumes.
"The model that HAFA has come up with is spot-on," Otey-Wold said. "It's trying to find the sweet spot through efficiencies and shared resources and improvements in training that can increase production."
Despite the buzz about "buying local," most vegetables sold in Minnesota grocery stores or served in cafeterias are trucked in from California, Mexico and elsewhere, where vast farms grow cheap produce. A U.S. Department of Agriculture census shows a decline in the number of farms in Minnesota growing produce: in 2012, 2,620 farms growing vegetables, 100 farms fewer than in 2007. The number of acres planted in vegetables has also dipped slightly.
Other farmers are also finding new markets by banding together. A group of mostly Latino farmers have formed Shared Ground Farmers' Cooperative to sell to wholesalers, hospitals and through deliveries to consumers boxed up on St. Paul's East Side. Eight Hmong farmers renting land in Dakota County recently formed the Minnesota Hmong Agricultural Cooperative. A new nonprofit, the Good Acre, is opening a location on Larpenteur Avenue in St. Paul this month where small urban growers can wash and pack produce.
The Hmong American Farmers Association is among the most successful, largely because of its energetic and well-connected founder, Pakou Hang. The second of seven children, Hang grew up helping her parents grow and sell produce for farmers' markets.
"We used to joke about how we hated farming because it's so much work," said Hang, 39. After earning an undergraduate degree at Yale University and working in socially sustainable investing, Hang returned to Minnesota, where she worked for the Latino Economic Development Center in Minneapolis and became interested in the challenges facing immigrant farmers. She formed HAFA in 2011 with support from a Bush Leadership Fellowship.
Hang talks a mile a minute about topics ranging from the benefits of bees and cover crops to the scant handful of Hmong farmers who own their own land.
"Our mission is to uplift and support Hmong farmers," Hang said.
HAFA's criteria include working with farmers who grow on at least 3 acres, have farmed for at least three years, sell at farmers' markets and carry liability insurance. The association provides access to new customers, training in Hmong and grants and loans for equipment such as tractors.
"We want to attract people who want to do something better with their farm," she said. "If farmers don't adapt, they're not going to stay in business."
Many Hmong farmers barely eke out a living, and it's been getting harder. The number of farmers' markets in the state has nearly tripled over the past 10 years, to 182 this year from 64 markets in 2005, including more than 60 in the Twin Cities area. At the same time, competition increased after some Hmong who lost manufacturing jobs during the recession turned to selling vegetables.
"The idea of local foods is really hot right now, the recession is over and I'm like, 'You're at the forefront of the local-foods movement,' " Hang said. "What's going on? How can we be prosperous?"
Hmong farmers surveyed by HAFA three years ago averaged sales at farmers' markets of $5,000 per acre, compared with non-Hmong farmers who averaged $8,000 per acre, and up to $20,000 per acre for organic and specialty crops.
"It's challenging for farmers' market growers right now," said Paul Hugunin, who promotes local food as the Minnesota Grown program coordinator at the state Department of Agriculture. "Many are struggling with the fact that they have to go to more markets now than they did five years ago to make the same dollars in sales."
Last year was the association's first full season on its new 155-acre location, a former corn and soybean farm that straddles U.S. 52 in Dakota County, tucked into a curve of the Vermillion River. It was purchased for HAFA in 2013 by an anonymous benefactor interested in sustainable agriculture and was leased for ten years to HAFA.
"The land was critical," Hang said. "If you don't have land tenure, you don't have certainty. If I don't know I'm going to have this land for several years, how can I plant perennials or invest in organic practices and get certified?"
HAFA raised grants to dig a well, set up irrigation and erect a fence to keep deer from wandering up from the river. The group renovated a pole barn to create an outdoor washing station and indoor cold storage where farmers rent pallets. Half the farmer members rent 5- or 10-acre plots on the farm, and about half rent elsewhere.
HAFA has helped its farmers diversify sales. Over the past three months, HAFA delivered boxes of fresh produce to 140 people who signed up for its community supported agriculture program. Deliveries were dropped off at various worksites, including St. Paul City Hall.
HAFA broke into institutional sales in 2012 when the new food service director in Minneapolis Public Schools wanted more local, fresh foods on the menu. The district asked its vendor, Russ Davis Wholesale, to buy some produce from small, immigrant local farmers, including HAFA.
"Our first year was quite the challenge," said Cricket James, who manages school accounts for Russ Davis. The company arranged for a food-safety consultant to help Hmong farmers free of charge to establish the protocols to sell commercially. HAFA installed hand-washing stations in the food-packing area, built chilled storage and taught its farmers to fill out paperwork, keep pests out of the fields and regularly clean vehicles. After an initial delivery of cucumbers arrived in a jumble of boxes and came up short on weight, Russ Davis ran a class to show farmers how to pack standard commercial-sized cases of vegetables.
"Now, I can't say enough good things about HAFA," James said. "They're passionate and committed. And they provide great produce. Part of why they taste different is the freshness. I hope they continue grow."
Minneapolis aims to buy one-third of its produce from local growers, said Andrea Northup, the district's farm to school coordinator. Local produce costs on average 5 percent to 10 percent more, she said, and there are still challenges working with small suppliers. But the payoff is in the fresh, healthy food, such as HAFA's cauliflower roasted with olive oil.
"We didn't know if the kids were going to like it, but it literally flies off the line," Northup said. "It tastes so much better than the cauliflower that has been sitting on a truck for a week coming from California, which is a variety that is grown for storage and for whiteness and for beauty. The varieties that HAFA grows are for flavor. It's completely different."
HAFA this year has also sold produce to local food co-ops, Lancer Catering, South Washington County Schools and the Head Start programs run by Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties. Head Start preschoolers even took a field trip to the farm to see where their lunch came from. Lunds & Byerlys is also a major customer.
"Over the last four or five or six years, people have really wanted to know more about the story of their food, who is growing it, where and how many miles has it traveled," said Rick Steigerwald, vice president of fresh foods at Edina-based Lunds & Byerlys, which has bought Asian long beans, Brussels sprouts and leeks from HAFA. "We've tried to expand our network of local growers. If it's Minnesota grown, we call that out in the description in the store signage."
Friday evenings at dusk have a party vibe at the HAFA pole barn, as farmers trickle in from the fields to wash produce on the concrete pad.
"Before, we took everything home and washed it outside our house in St. Paul," said Pa Thao, 24, as she swished bunches of baby mustard greens in a black plastic tub the size of a high-sided bathtub. "This is a lot easier and we get done a lot faster. It used to take us four to five hours. Now, it only takes two to three hours, and we can go to bed at 11 p.m."
Nearby, her mother, Soua Thao, rinsed beets and bunches of lemongrass. Xeng Thao, 27, who works in a Target electronics department during the day, washed magenta sweet potatoes. Two other brothers loaded vegetables into two cargo vans they would drive to the Saturday morning markets in Burnsville and Apple Valley.
The Thao family, which farms 10 acres on the HAFA farm and rents 5 acres nearby, sells produce at eight farmers' markets during the week and contributes to the association's commercial orders. By the end of this season, HAFA estimates that member farmers like the Thaos who also sell to institutional customers will average $7,200 in sales per acre, a couple of thousand dollars more per acre than they sold just three years ago and close to the sales of non-Hmong vegetable farmers.
"That's a total success," Hang said.
Teng Thao wants to sell even more through HAFA next year.
"We're all still trying to figure out how all things work, and they're still trying to figure out how to distribute," he said. "But it's going good."
An AP Exchange feature by Maja Beckstrom, St. Paul Pioneer Press