Laura Yuen
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As kids, Janssen Hang and his older sister, Pakou, would pick produce in the ruthless summer heat. As their little hands worked the field, they'd listen to their aunties swap tales and join in when their siblings sang songs, toiling until just about sunset.

Janssen didn't appreciate those long days, especially when he learned how his friends spent their summers.

"They were like, 'We took a trip Up North. What did you do?' " he recalls. "Oh, we were on the farm under the scorching sun, prickling our hands while picking cucumbers, wearing rubber gloves that went to our forearms!"

But decades later, the Hang siblings say the physical labor of keeping up the family business taught them the dignity of work. Now, they're about to close in on a vision they've shared ever since they joined forces to advocate for Hmong farmers.

Judy Yang and her husband farm on 10 acres of land leased from the Hmong American Farmers Association.
Judy Yang and her husband farm on 10 acres of land leased from the Hmong American Farmers Association.

David Joles/Star Tribune

Last week the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), the nonprofit they co-founded with other families in 2011, raised the final chunk of money needed to buy a 155-acre Dakota County farm that the association has been renting for the past several years. The association plans to continue subletting smaller plots to Hmong farmers, providing families with a shot at stability and security for generations to come.

"We are ecstatic," said Janssen, HAFA's executive director. "This is truly a historical moment. Reaching this goal is a milestone for us, not just for HAFA but for Hmong farmers and our community."

Hmong growers are an essential engine driving Minnesota's local food movement. They comprise more than half of the vendors at Twin Cities area farmers markets, producing and selling locally grown peppers, tomatoes and baby bok choy that the rest of us enjoy.

"If we care about local food, we've got to care about Hmong farmers," Janssen told me.

Yet over the years, many of the farmers were barely making it. The fieldwork was typically done on someone else's property, on someone else's terms, throwing into doubt whether they would have continuous access to affordable farmland.

Some farmers also lacked pathways to capital and credit, which meant they couldn't buy machinery that would make their operations more efficient. And without long-term land leases, they couldn't look too far ahead and commit to innovative business models that could help them build and pass down wealth.

HAFA and its bilingual staff started to fill in those gaps, training farmers on everything from sustainable farming techniques to crop insurance. The group connected farmers to contracts with schools and restaurants, helping them expand their markets.

This summer, Doua Vang harvested cherry tomatoes in a greenhouse on land he and his wife, Judy Yang, lease and farm.
This summer, Doua Vang harvested cherry tomatoes in a greenhouse on land he and his wife, Judy Yang, lease and farm.

David Joles/Star Tribune

In 2013, a West Coast anonymous benefactor (even HAFA doesn't know her identity) bought those 155 acres in Vermillion Township, about 20 miles south of St. Paul. The association began leasing the land and subletting it to individual farmers with the intent of one day buying it. Last year, the state Legislature kicked in $2 million, and HAFA committed to raising an additional $500,000 to complete the purchase.

By the end of the year, it looks like the so-called "HAFA farm" will be truly its own. And that's giving the Hang siblings something to be extra grateful for this year.

This week their family will celebrate both Thanksgiving and the Hmong New Year, which, in accordance with agrarian tradition, commences after the end of harvest. The potatoes, kale and bitter melon that their parents grew will be on the table. The family will burn spirit money and ask their ancestors for blessings and protection as they head into yet another pandemic year.

The drought diminished this year's yield, and the Hangs' parents, now in their 60s and 70s, are hoping to scale back their operation next season — giving the holidays a bittersweet nostalgia.

Pakou, who stepped down as HAFA's executive director two years ago, said she was motivated to start the nonprofit because she wondered what would become of Hmong American farmers after the first generation aged out of fieldwork.

In 2014, Pakou Hang walked the 155-acre property in Dakota County that a benefactor bought and leased out to the Hmong American Farmers Association.
In 2014, Pakou Hang walked the 155-acre property in Dakota County that a benefactor bought and leased out to the Hmong American Farmers Association.

Brian Mark Peterson, Star Tribune

That's something that stuck with her since her undergraduate days at Yale University. She remembers having dinner with Leonard Lauder, the son of Estée Lauder. He told the students that as a child, he would accompany his mother as she made cold calls to salons selling her homemade cosmetics. Lauder, of course, went onto become a billionaire, philanthropist and CEO of the company his parents founded.

It occurred to Pakou that a failure of imagination was holding back her generation.

"I was thinking, 'We don't dream big enough,' " she said. "Many Hmong farming families saw it as a chore, and they just wanted to get out of it. We never dreamed that one day we could be a Fortune 500 company, or on the S&P 500 or on NASDAQ. And that's what success meant to me was: to be able to offer a Hmong farming family space to dream that large."

Pakou is now chief program officer with the group Vote Run Lead, a training program for women to run for office. Yet she still keeps tabs on the lives of the farm organization's 100-plus members.

Her voice catches with emotion when she recalls the passing of an old friend — his family operated the farmers market stall next to her parents'. He died last winter.

"His kids had written in his obituary that his proudest endeavor was that he was a farmer — a member of the St. Paul Farmers Market, where he sold produce for 25 years," she said. "Before HAFA, this was not a story we would have told. Shedding light on Hmong farmers and Hmong families, it made it be something people could be proud of."