CSA — with a twist — aims to create 'deeper understanding' of Hmong art, farmers

Mao Moua ties rosemary at Hafa Farms.
Mao Moua ties together freshly picked rosemary from her fields at the Hmong American Farmers Association compound near Hastings, Minn.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

Art and farming join forces this fall when the Hmong American Farmers Association and a trio of Twin Cities artists add a new staple to the CSA produce box: art.

It may not seem like it makes much sense at first, but organizers behind ArtCrop are hoping to highlight the effort Hmong farmers make to get fresh, locally grown food onto consumers' tables, while also drawing attention to the importance that agriculture plays in the Hmong culture. The one-time share pairs produce from Hmong farmers with an original piece of Hmong art, inspired by their stories.

"It's just amazing that we can do it — with a little twist," said Yao Yaj, food hub director and organizer for HAFA. "Preserving art, preserving food, preserving this culture with our community — I absolutely thought it was amazing."

ArtCrop is also intended to underscore the parallel challenges that artists and farmers face: that despite cultural value in their work, both often struggle to thrive. The hope is that consumers will become more committed to invest in both.

Oskar Ly interviews Soua Thao.
Oskar Ly and Yao Yaj interview Soua Thao at the HAFA farm. Ly spent a summer residency at the farm gathering stories and inspiration for ArtCrop.
Courtesy of Teeko Yang

Teeko Yang, one of the artists involved in the project, hopes to create a "deeper understanding of Hmong farmers, Hmong artists and Hmong culture."

"And to relay the message that farmers and artists need to get paid for their work," she said.

Subscription sign-ups for the CSA — community sponsored agriculture boxes that consist of produce delivered regularly to local customers — are now being accepted. The shares cost about $50, and only 100 are available.

The brainchild and lead artist behind the project is Oskar Ly. In looking at ways to build engagement and economic opportunities for artists, she became interested in borrowing the CSA model to forge deeper relationships between the farming and artist communities. She pitched the idea last year to HAFA, where it was enthusiastically received. The project is supported by grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs' Artists Neighborhood Partnership Initiative.

Chao Tamoua and Mao Moua pick rosemary from their acre land at Hafa Farms.
Farmers Chao Tamoua and Mao Moua pick rosemary from their land at the Hmong American Farmers Association compound.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

Ly said farmers and artists have a lot in common, even though many people don't realize it.

"A lot of times their skills are overlooked, but they provide this very core, central piece to our daily lives and our culture and how we remember our culture and how we interpret the past and future," she said. "I felt like there was a lot of affinity, even though the two groups don't necessarily always interact."

Over the summer, she, Yang and Christina Vang spent a residency at the 155-acre HAFA farm, interviewing the families that cultivate the fields and gathering their stories as inspiration for Ly's art pieces. Those who sign up for a Thanksgiving CSA can expect to receive a textile piece that can grace the dinner table.

Ly said she and the others had made a deliberate decision to get to know the farmers.

Judy Yang picks up freshly picked lettuce to wash and put into CSA box.
Judy Yang picks up lettuce to wash and put into a CSA box.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

"It would be really easy to just create a random art piece, plop it in a box and call it a day," Ly said. "But by doing that, I would miss the opportunity to ever build a relationship with the farmers, to ever learn about what their day-to-day lives are, what kind of things they grow, what makes them passionate, what they feel creative about."

The three artists also heard some of the farmers' fears about the future.

Farming and agriculture are central to the Hmong culture and way of life — it has been a source of constancy throughout generations of upheaval and displacement. After the Hmong resettled in the United States following the Vietnam War, they continued to rely on their agrarian roots in order to make a living or feed their families. Today, the majority of produce vendors serving Twin Cities farmers markets are Hmong, according to HAFA.

Food hub director speaks to the Hmong farmers at Hafa Farms.
Yao Yaj, the food hub director for HAFA, helps Hmong farmers with their needs.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

But that is slowly changing, due to lack of access to land and as fewer Hmong-American children following their parents into the fields. The work is tiring and doesn't pay well. Farmer Judy Yang, for example, says she can only sell her spinach for $1 at one local market because of the competition. Nobody will even look at hers if she charges more.

Yaj and Ly call it a "critical" time for Hmong farmers. They said it's vital their stories be told, in hopes that they will inspire others in the community to keep the farming culture alive.

"A lot of our culture is disappearing," Ly said. "If we don't take direction action to engage with that, we could very well lose that."

The Thanksgiving share won't be the only way the team is trying to get the community invested in both art and food. The artists are finalizing the design for a mural to be painted on the HAFA silo. The public is invited to help paint the mural the evening of Oct. 6.

Yaj hopes to create a new culture that values the work of artists and farmers.

"If we don't have people appreciating it and putting effort into making it alive and thrive, it's going to die," she said. "I don't want it to die."