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Urban agriculture becomes increasingly difficult task for Hmong farmers

By LEE EGERSTROM, Saint Paul Pioneer Press - August 12, 2000, Saturday

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, said Blong Xiong, who was completing a Ph.D. last 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, predicted Joseph Hang, who graduated from high school in June.

Hang has grown up working the fields and farmers' markets with his family. He said 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.

Second, 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, farther into the country. It adds to their cost of commuting to fields and bringing fresh produce to metro area farmers' markets.

Third, 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.

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.

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

Also, 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, said 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 added.

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.

The importance of land cannot be overstated, said 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 said. "The Hmong are at a great disadvantage."

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, added 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 an hour working in the family fields, but Hmong teen-agers are getting wages like that working other jobs."

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 had brought 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.

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.

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.