Hmong farmers adapted to cold climate, unwelcoming people and thrived

May Lee picks Bitter Balls.
Farmer May Lee picks a bitter ball on her family farm in Andover, Minn. on Sept. 16, 2016. While Hmong farmers have found success at farmers markets today, in the 1980s many farmers struggled to adapt to growing in America.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2016

Throughout 2017, Minnesota Public Radio will celebrate 50 years on the air by sharing highlights from our archives, connecting Minnesota's past to its present. | This story by longtime Twin Cities reporter Jim Ragsdale aired on April 29, 1983. It focused on Hmong farmers in Minnesota.

Hmong-American farmers grow most of the beautiful, fresh and delicious bounty found at farmers markets around the Twin Cities. But when Hmong refugees first arrived here they had a lot to learn about adapting their farming techniques to regional agricultural practices.

In 1983 ten Hmong men were selected for a farm training project with the hope that they would settle with their families on a plot of farmland near Homer, Minn.

The fields in Homer are a lot different from the mountainous farming regions in Laos. Farmers in Laos enjoy a 10-month growing season, with few frosts, and when the ground was ready all the farmers needed to get started was seeds and a sharpened planting stick, said farming instructor Brian Schlottman in a 1983 interview with reporter Jim Ragsdale.

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Farmers in Laos would work the land for a few seasons and then move on. The land didn't belong to anyone; there were no taxes and few operation costs. "It actually sounds like a nice way to live," Schlottman said.

The training project helped the farmers new to Minnesota learn how to deal with the changes in technique necessary for successful farming here, as well as how to survive in a market-driven business world.

And while the machinery was foreign at first, Schlottman said the farmers learned quickly.

"They may be even more sensitive to the living plant than many farmers are today because they are so much closer to it, as opposed to from the seat of the tractor," he said.

At that time, there was an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Hmong living in the Twin Cities, and most of the men were fighters as well as farmers — having been recruited by the CIA to combat the Pathet Lao, a communist political movement. But when the war against them was lost in the 1970s the Hmong fighters were forced to flee, leaving all their livestock and property behind.

The plan to get the farmers to settle in Homer didn't succeed. The small community was struggling economically and didn't welcome the new immigrants.

Ragsdale, who spent most of his career with the Pioneer Press, died of pancreatic cancer in 2014 at the age of 64.

To listen to the original report, click the audio player above.