The next generation of Hmong farmers is poised to step into value-added product arena

Hmong refugees resettled in Minnesota from Laos and Thailand in the 1970s as political refugees following the Vietnam War. True to their heritage, many families relied on their agricultural backgrounds to make a living, growing produce and flowers for local farmers markets. By the late 1980s, Hmong farmers had revitalized the St. Paul and Minneapolis farmers markets.

Cultivating small parcels of just a few acres or less, the Hmong American farmers provided fresh produce like peppers, bok choy, cabbage and cut flowers that fueled exponential growth among farmers markets in both suburban and urban communities. But they faced challenges that made sustaining their farms and way of life difficult.

Pakou Hang authored a research project that showed Hmong American farmers made less per acre than other vegetable farmers. While other growers could return $8,000 per acre, Hmong farmers were only generating about $5,000 per acre. But that wasn’t the only challenge Hmong farmers faced.

“There was access to land near the Twin Cities, but there was no land tenure, no long-term leases so farmers couldn’t invest in planting perennials,” Hang says. “They also had difficulty accessing markets, like selling into public schools. They had no access to farm credit, capital or loan programs. They also lacked training and connection to research.”

To counter those challenges, the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) was formed in 2011 with Hang as its executive director. The group’s mission is to advance the prosperity of Hmong American farmers through cooperative endeavors, capacity building and advocacy. HAFA facilitates access to land, markets, loans and training.

“We serve as a thought leader and contributor to the local food conversation and fair food economy,” Hang says. “We’re lifting up those who are most marginalized.”

HAFA manages a 155-acre farm in Dakota County. There member families can lease land, hone their business and agricultural skills, and sell produce to the HAFA Food Hub, which aggregates and sells members’ produce through community-supported agriculture shares, schools, retailers and institutions.

Building the Next Generation

Like most of Minnesota’s producers, the population of Hmong American farmers is aging, and their numbers are dwindling. Hang estimates there are 250 to 300 Hmong farmers in Minnesota. She says many children of the state’s first-generation Hmong farmers are not pursuing farming, in part, because of a proliferation of farmers markets. Because there is a saturation of markets, the Hmong growers aren’t earning as much money.

HAFA is working to stem that tide by promoting value-added products as a new opportunity.

“The value-added cohort is our answer to dealing with the aging population and incentivizing our young farmers to stay in the business,” Hang says. “We are trying to build intergenerational wealth.”

Hang says value-added enterprises that market packaged foods instead of solely relying on fresh food markets helps to do more than just build potential profitability. Some produce has imperfections that make it less desirable to sell as fresh products. By further processing them into packaged products, farmers may be able to capture additional value. Value-added processing also opens the door for the next generation.

“The children of our first-generation farmers may not want to farm because they have jobs and families, but they can stay in the family business through value-added production,” Hang says.

Hang says there has been a pattern throughout history where farmers have turned to value-added products to stay profitable and keep the next generation involved.

“We’ve seen that in places like Vermont where dairy farms have kept their kids involved in the farm by making things like cheese and yogurt. In the farm economy, farmers have had to do value-added to diversify their revenue sources.”

“Further processed consumer products are something farmers can produce that enables them to go into a grocery store instead of relying on wash and sell products at a farmers market,” says AURI Senior Project Strategist Michael Sparby.

An Introduction to Value Added Agriculture

HAFA organized a curriculum and series of training sessions to help Hmong farmers learn about and better understand the many aspects of value-added production. Hang says the training is designed to help farmers navigate the most intimidating aspects of business development including product development, regulations, consumer trends, marketing, packaging and food safety. They’ve also conducted panel discussions with entrepreneurs who have made the leap.

“We try to help them address the scary parts, but let them see what’s possible by bringing in those who have done it,” Hang adds.

Through the process of developing their curriculum, Hang learned about AURI and recognized there would be value in partnering.

“We knew that our farmers will face some technical challenges, but we see AURI as a critical partner, providing valuable services and perspective for our farmers and their value-added success,” Hang says. “Their technical support and breadth of value-added knowledge gives us a much needed perspective.”

Sparby participated in HAFA’s curriculum, presenting information about AURI services, other resources that are available, and some of the challenges that come with entering the world of further processed products.

“This is fairly new for them, but I think it will grow in the future once one or two farmers are successful,” Sparby contends. “Success breeds success.”

Moving Forward

AURI Food and Nutrition Scientist Lolly Occhino met with HAFA members and provided technical insights to several farmers who are interested in bringing value-added food products to the market. The farmers are pondering products ranging from snack and health foods to traditional Hmong meals and beverages. Occhino has years of experience in the food industry, so she is able to provide perspective budding businesses need.

“The HAFA members I’ve met with are passionate around their ideas, but the process of getting a product to the market is all pretty new,” Occhino says, “but it’s not unusual for us to see that in our food clients. We’re here to help them think through things and offer up ideas to help them pursue their concept.”

Occhino says that although the concepts may be in their infancy, the potential is there for the farmers to move from relying solely on fresh products to adding prepackaged items that meet a market need.

“They’re all looking at products that cater to the Hmong community where there are needs that can be filled,” Occhino says. “That’s a good thing because these farmers know the community, know what people like and know how to use their products.”

Making a Mark

Minnesota is home to a long list of food industry giants including General Mills, Hormel, Land O’ Lakes and Schwan’s. The state also has a vibrant local foods culture that many Hmong American farmers appreciate.

“Minnesota has a real food-entrepreneurial spirit that includes big companies and smaller dynamic food enterprises,” Hang says. “Our farmers are being influenced by this culture and want to add their own piece.”

Hang says as the farmers work toward introducing value-added products to the market, partnerships with resources like AURI will be very beneficial.

Dozens of Hmong farmers have participated in the HAFA training. Sparby says a number of them have met with AURI and he expects several projects to move forward in 2018.

Hang says the next step for farmers and their children is to launch some prototype products that can be tested and sold in small batches to refine their process and learn what it takes to succeed.

“They need their food products to be safe, their business plans tight and their marketing plans dynamic,” Hang says.

Venturing into value-added products may be new, but Hang says, “our farmers want to add their stamp to Minnesota’s food culture.”

HAFA Receives Community Innovation Grant

HAFA advances the prosperity of Hmong American farmers through cooperative endeavors and facilitating access to land, markets, loans and training.  HAFA was one of seven organizations to be awarded the 2017 Bush Prize for Community Innovation. The Bush Prize celebrates organizations that are extraordinary not only in what they do but in how they do it.

“The Bush Prize recognizes organizations that are creative, fierce and dogged in the way they work and in what they accomplish,” says Bush President Jennifer Ford Reedy. “As models for problem solving, they consistently pick a path of innovation that drives profound results for their communities.”

Bush Prize winners receive a package that includes promotional support and materials, and an unrestricted grant. HAFA received $247,425 from the Bush Foundation.

The Foundation received 127 applications from Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and the 23 Native nations that share the same geography for the 2017 Bush Prize. Three panels of community members chose the winners from their respective states.

“The 2017 winners are unstoppable forces who show up every day determined to create collective solutions for their communities,” says Mandy Ellerton, Bush Community Innovation Director. “They push through challenges and hardship for causes they care about, stirring up and inspiring much-needed change in the places they call home.”

“We are humbled and honored by the Bush Prize because it recognizes Hmong farmers and their entrepreneurial spirit,” says HAFA Executive Director Pakou Hang.

HAFA advances the prosperity of Hmong American farmers through cooperative endeavors and facilitating access to land, markets, loans and training.