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St. Paul, Minn.-Area Hmong Farm Culture Fades to Social, Economic Concerns

BY: By Lee Egerstrom - July 16, 2000, Sunday

Stop by most local farmers' markets and you'll see Hmong family members selling produce freshly picked from their fields around the metro area. Their vegetable stalls are part of the urban landscape now, but may not be in the future as an agrarian way of life faces serious challenges.

The Hmong must conquer both cultural and economic pressures if they are to continue in urban agriculture, says Blong Xiong, who is completing a Ph.D. this month at the University of Minnesota.

Half of Twin Cities Hmong farmers may lay down their hoes and tillers and leave farming within five years, predicts Joseph Hang, who graduated from high school in June. What's more, Hang doubts that any more than a third of the 100 to 150 Hmong families now farming in the metro area will stay in the business into a second generation.

Hang has grown up working the fields and farmers markets with his family. He says most of his second generation contemporaries coming through Twin Cities high schools are ready to forfeit the green fields of truck farming for the halls of ivy.

Experts on urban agriculture cite three reasons why they suspect the college-bound Hang is right:

--Hmong farmers grow crops that are not protected or supported by federal farm programs. As a result, they do not receive payments from the large federal emergency farm aid programs Congress has approved to help farm families survive for the past three years.

--The strong Twin Cities economy keeps encouraging business and residential development on the fringe areas of the Twin Cities. This pushes the Hmong, and other truck farmers who rent land, further into the country. It adds to their cost of commuting to fields and bringing fresh produce to metro area farmers' markets.

--The cultural assimilation of second-generation Hmong into the dominant Twin Cities community is severing the historic Hmong ties to agriculture that date back centuries to the mountains of Laos.

In earlier times, immigrants moved to this area in response to policies that promised free or inexpensive land to settlers. These policies helped develop the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, but they disappeared as federal farm aid changed.

Public support for agriculture now centers on the major commodities, or so-called "program crops," which include corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, peanuts, barley and sorghum; or trade protections for sugar beets, sugar cane, milk and certain citrus crops.

Without greenhouses and permanent land for perennials, the Hmong primarily grow annual vegetable crops that include varieties of lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, onions, new potato varieties, cabbage, tomatoes, radishes, several varieties of peppers, celery and ethnic Asian specialty crops such as bok choy.

Vegetable growers such as the Hmong do receive technical support from the government, but not income support. The federal government's help comes primarily through paying salaries for professionals working through the University of Minnesota and its Minnesota Extension Service county offices.

These offices are working closely with the Hmong and other new immigrant farming groups, such as Somali and Sudanese farm families; with U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development specialists; with Minnesota Agriculture Department personnel; and with the farmers' market groups in the Twin Cities.

But much of this collaborative work addresses technical issues of food production and finding land in the metro area to plant crops, not income support for the crops grown.

"This really is farming without a safety net,' as the farmers call it," says Nigatu Tadesse, a Dakota County Extension Service educator.

Tadesse and an Extension colleague, Jack Vang, operate a University of Minnesota Farm Incubator Program on university land in Rosemount, on the south edge of the metro area. Hmong and other new farmers are allowed to rent land at the Rosemount site for up to five years while taking classes and observing university demonstration projects.

After that period, Tadesse said, the farmers are to "graduate on" to farming their own land -- if they can find land within an economically feasible commute of the Twin Cities Farmers' Markets.

This education and training effort is made because the public generally supports the Hmong and new immigrants who grow and sell fresh produce at the 30 farmers' market sites in the metropolitan area.

The Twin Cities area isn't running out of food; it's not an economic necessity to have Hmong or any other area truck farmers, says Jack Gerten, manager of the St. Paul Farmers' Market. "But I don't know how anyone could argue that the Farmers' Markets and the Hmong aren't important for our quality of life," he adds.

As with family farming everywhere, the quality and way of life is under pressure from old-fashioned economics, Tadesse said.

Land within reasonable commuting distance is becoming scarce as the strong Twin Cities economy supports more industrial, commercial and residential growth on the fringes of the metro area.

A farmer near Lonsdale, a good hour's commute south of the Twin Cities, has made land available for Hmong farmers being pushed farther out. Other farmers have found new land around Hastings. But the problem will become greater next year when liability issues will close land for truck farmers on Koch Refinery property at Rosemount.

"We're all looking for land for next year," says Gerten.

Ma Yang, daughter of Rosemount area farmer Ge Yang, says her family has been fortunate in having secure land to lease for the past several years. But earlier, her family had to move as outlying metro land kept being developed for other purposes.

Hang, the student who helps his parents farm and also works part-time for Gerten at the Farmers' Market, says his parents have relocated their fields to land beyond Hudson in western Wisconsin.

Daily commutes to fields and the markets cut into profits from selling fresh produce. The economic burden became worse this spring and early summer when gasoline prices soared to highs of nearly $ 2 per gallon.

"I doubt my parents will keep farming for more than another year or two," says Hang.

The importance of land cannot be overstated, says Vince Niemezyk of Niemezyk's Plant Co. at Hugo. Niemezyk sells bedding plants and patio flower baskets beginning early in the spring, before many Hmong growers start arriving at farmers' market sites. And he continues selling squash and pumpkins late in the fall, after killing frosts have ended the Hmong growing and marketing year.

"If you don't own land, you cannot build greenhouses and use new technology that extends the growing season," he says. "The Hmong are at a great disadvantage."

Modern horticultural technology, much of it imported from the Netherlands, makes truck farming less labor intensive and adds a month or more to the growers' marketing season. Without their own land, the Hmong miss the longer growing season, and they must use family members' labor to substitute for technology.

Equally important, the absence of greenhouse sites and newer technologies prevents most of the Hmong from diversifying into flowers and other crops that would also extend their growing and marketing seasons, Niemezyk said.

The strong Twin Cities economy also creates labor problems for Hmong families trying to farm the old ways, adds Gerten. "The younger Hmong can contribute more to the family fortunes by having jobs in the workplace than they can by working in the fields," he said. "It isn't easy to average $ 10 a hour working in the family fields, but Hmong teen-agers are getting wages like that working other jobs."

This labor bind partly reflects a flaw in the truck farmers' marketing strategy, says Xiong, the graduate student, who joins the faculty at Iowa State University in August. To assure continuing generations of area truck farmers and farmers' market fresh produce, local, state and federal farm experts must find ways to better utilize the farmers' crops, he said.

No farm or business can last long with a marketing strategy that hopes to sell about 50 percent of a day's production, Xiong said. But a day selling 50 percent of fresh picked vegetable crops is considered a good day at the market, he added.

For the Hmong, the growing and selling of vegetables is part of a long tradition. They were an ethnic group of mountain farmers in Laos that sided with the United States and its allies during the Vietnam War. Immigrants and refugees began arriving in Minnesota and Wisconsin during the 1970s and 1980s, either directly from Laos or from refugee camps in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. Like agrarian pioneers of earlier times, the Hmong began farming in the new land, employing the skills they hadbrought with them.

Now, job opportunities in the strong Twin Cities economy, the rapid assimilation of Hmong children into modern American culture and the strong appeal of education are pulling the second generation of American Hmong away from the farm.

"I may find places to grow things in the future, but it's safe to say I won't come back to farming," said Hang, 18, who graduated from Mounds Park Academy in Maplewood.

This September, Hang is following a sister to Brown University, while another sister recently graduated from Yale University.

"These kids are fantastic. They like farming and selling at the farmers markets, but they know that opportunities come from education. Like a lot of immigrant groups before them, the parents work hard and the children seek education," Gerten says.

Xiong, who is receiving his Ph.D. in family social science and is specializing in parent and adolescent relationships, says a cultural clash is occurring on the Hmong farms that needs research and help from social scientists.

To be sure, Hmong farmers echo the same attitudes heard around farm meetings everywhere. Farmers want to farm because they want the independence of running their own business, he said.

But there are not the same emotional ties to farming among the second generation of Hmong families that is found in other farming communities around the Midwest. The missing ingredient is land ownership.

On top of that, second-generation Hmong are going through what is probably the fastest assimilation into the dominant Upper Midwest culture of any historical immigrant group. This creates problems for internal relations within Hmong families while it weakens historic Hmong ties to farming, he said.

"The kids go through adolescence. This is a new concept for the Hmong. Back in Laos, you went from being a child to being a working adult. There are no Hmong models for adolescence, so if you are like the kids you go to school with, you might appear to be a delinquent to some of the parents," he said.

Education has strong appeal to many young Hmong because it is an acceptable cover for going through a "Western" adolescence, Xiong added. At the same time, his personal observations find that Hmong family farming practices can harm some young people by pulling them away from their studies and out of school at the start of each spring growing season.

Transitions

Xiong said community leaders, within the Hmong community and from the broader public, need to explore public policy options if the Twin Cities are to have a second, third and subsequent generations of Hmong farmers selling produce at Farmers' Markets.

Committees are at work on helping Hmong secure land for leasing. But Gerten, USDA development specialists in Minnesota, and University of Minnesota experts agree that more assistance may be necessary to help Hmong access land and technology to successfully farm in the metro area in the years ahead.

Niemezyk, the Hugo plant farmer, said models do exist in both North America and Europe for pooling land and greenhouse resources. "This could get them both the land and technology they need," he said.