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NERSTRAND, MINN. — Up a gravel road, shaded by the overhang of bushy oaks, Kue Lor comes into sight, riding a lawnmower through a row of vine-ripened tomatoes.

It's the first crisp day of September after heat loosened its grip on Minnesota.

"First day," he said, pointing to his black hooded sweatshirt and gray puffy vest. "You like tomatoes?"

Lor gestured to his crop, 100 yards long.

Unlike most southern Minnesota farms with their tidy rows of a single crop stretching to the horizon, the Lors' diverse cornucopia stuns — squash, red tomatoes, green runs of kale, tall stalks of sugar cane, even cigarette trees and peanuts.

Of Minnesota's tens of thousands of farms, only a fraction grow vegetables for human consumption. There aren't many immigrant farmers, either.

The Lors — with the help of Renewing the Countryside (RTC), a Hammond, Minn.-based nonprofit that has provided technical assistance to farm families in transitioning land to other farmers — were able to exit the tenant-farmer cycle of landlords. In 2022, the family purchased this former goat dairy atop a hill that buttresses Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

It's hard to imagine that, come harvest, they'll have more produce than they can sell.

"The [farmer's] markets aren't enough," Lor said as he inspected the field. "We have too much."

Small farms need bigger markets

The reason? Smaller-scale producers don't often apply for specialty crop insurance through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as the program is geared toward larger farms, said Theresa McCormick, executive director of The Good Acre, an urban food hub in Falcon Heights that buys from the Lors.

Instead, they grow extra crops as self-insurance, assuming they'll lose some to poor conditions.

The resulting surplus is a common problem for the farmers selling to Good Acre, McCormick said. The food hub contracts with 130 farmers and many could fill a contract twice as big.

"What has been efficiencied out of our food system has felt like a community that's not talking to each other," McCormick said. "Hunger relief is real, and there are farmers, like the Lors, who can provide it. We need to rebuild this missing middle."

The excess occurred even as Minnesota farmers toiled through the third consecutive year of drought.

The Lors' green shocks of rice never tasseled. Bees have been missing in action. Some tomatoes, heat-worn, are scattered on the ground. They've seen some crops shrivel from neighbor's pesticides.

They toil from sun-up to sun-down, sometimes wearing headlamps to keep working at night, hand-weeding or picking crops until midnight.

At least now the Lor family's harvest comes from land they own.

"We'll be okay because we've good, heavy soil," said Lor, inspecting fat, green jalapenos drooping from leaves near the edge of his field. He put his fingers together in the scuba diver's sign for copacetic. "It's okay."

A hard-fought path to independent farming

Lor's daughter, Chong, lives with her children on the farm. Pigs grunt behind fencing. A truck with "Fresh Veggies" printed on the side waits for its weekend outing, when Kue Lor and his wife, Bao, will ferry produce to a farmer's market beneath the light rail stop on Lake Street in Minneapolis.

The beauty and peace found on the bucolic acreage was hard fought. Kue Lor farmed in Laos and spent 10 years in a refugee camp in Thailand. The family arrived in Minnesota on a wintry day in February 1990. Soon they were farming in the U.S., but on someone else's land. Landlords sometimes evicted them with only weeks to plan.

In August of last year, tragedy struck the family when Kue and Bao lost one of their daughters, Ka, to intimate partner violence. Ka's five children were in the home. "The kids now live with my eldest daughter," Lor said, walking past some chickens.

Lynne Reeck, the farm's former owner, could've sold to a developer who might've used the rolling landscape as a hunting reserve, or to a wealthy retired couple from Northfield for a weekend home. But she wanted farmers working the ground.

"I always used to say Singing Hills [Goat Dairy] is the most beautiful farm in Minnesota," said Reeck, still using her name for the farm.

"When you get fewer and fewer people in the countryside, the countryside dies."

Fewer than 2% of Minnesota's 111,000 farmers are people of color, according to the most recent agricultural census. This spring, the Minnesota Legislature invested $2 million into land-buying assistance for emerging producers — defined as young, female, veteran, LGBTQ, Indigenous or farmers of color, historically marginalized groups.

Kue Lor and his wife continue to make the drive down from the Twin Cities; they'll keep farming through October this year. Already temperatures are dipping as leaves turn from green to auburn and vegetables pile up in buckets.

The Lors will freeze what they can for the winter, only grocery shopping for meat. There's still surplus. This week, tomatoes and cucumbers sat on the ground. Bags of peanuts sat on a work bench, dirt speckled on the shells.

"The pigs eat good," Chong said. "We've also donated some to our church."

From a long row of eggplants, Kue Lor plucked a purple gourd with a quirky growth, holding it up to his face.

"He's my little friend," he joked.