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Last winter, they met at an organic conference in Wisconsin.

By spring, they'd formed a group, Minnesota African Immigrant Farmers Association (MAIFA).

On Sunday, they feasted and danced.

A whirlwind inaugural year for a group of 60-plus farmers dedicated to networking and advocating for African immigrant farmers in Minnesota culminated this weekend in a Maple Grove hotel ballroom, with vats of flat bread, kohlrabi, managu, roasted chicken, colorful attire and plenty of music.

"We are not the big fish with big lands," said Jane Windsperger, a Kenyan immigrant who farms a small acreage near Ogilvie in the woods of central Minnesota. "We are starting, emerging farmers."

Immigrants farming in Minnesota is a storied tradition. The Hmong American Farmers Association owns a spread of small farms on land west of Hwy. 52 in Dakota County. Latino farmers — sometimes after working for larger dairies or livestock processors — are increasingly seeking opportunities at landownership.

And, in keeping with centuries-old traditions in this region, Indigenous people continue to cultivate land and animals for food, particularly in recent years alongside the food sovereignty movement.

Earlier this year, Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith held a roundtable for minority farmers at the Good Acre in Falcon Heights, highlighting the diversity of Minnesota's agricultural scene.

But in the sea of voices, many in the African immigrant community felt their stories — and challenges — could be lost.

"The diversity of people who come from Africa in itself is a good thing," said Vitalis Tita, who grew up farming in Cameroon and now lives in Buffalo, farming in both Montrose and Medina. "But it presents a unique challenge for us."

About 1 in 5 Minnesotans is a person of color. But, according to the latest agricultural census conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 99% of the state's farmers are white.

MAIFA formed in the spring. Today, the alliance boasts some 60 farmers — possibly more after Sunday's feast. And they have many plans for the year ahead.

In farming, like many industries, associations lobby for resources. The ongoing negotiations over the federal farm bill reauthorization and recent state funding for new and emerging farming initiatives are just two examples of troves of potential dollars for cash-strapped producers.

Such funding is good, Tita said. But sometimes programs aren't tailored for the smallest farmers. He described one grant for $100,000 that requires a $25,000 contribution from the grantee.

"That's not for us," Tita said. "The wheel has been spinning, but not for people like us."

Agricultural subsidies promote exports or food price stability. But this only benefits farmers who are familiar with grant applications or can navigate government portals. New dollars can buy new equipment, such as high tunnels to grow vegetables, or be used toward a down payment for land.

Those farmers who attended Sunday's feast are hungry for all of the above.

Windsperger, who just harvested her second crop on the Kanabec County farm, was able to secure a cooler to store her veggies earlier this year. She said not only farmers but also representatives from state government and the region's global agribusinesses stopped by on Sunday.

"Even a family from Ogilvie came down," said Windsperger, who described her new friends as surprised when she first began farming in 2021. "Now they are so impressed, [saying] 'Hey, we can eat food from here.'"

Sunday's festival — based on a traditional end-of-harvest celebration in Africa — was meant to be a signal to other African immigrants in Minnesota, encouraging them to pick up farming as they may have farmed in their birth country.

"It doesn't matter where you are coming from. You're coming from Cameroon. I'm coming from Kenya. Some are coming from South Africa," Windsperger said. "Wherever you're coming from, your voice needs to be heard."