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Hmong Farmers Face Loss of Leased Land in Rosemount, Minn.

BY: By Nancy Ngo - November 6, 2000

Short of vegetables because of heavy storms this summer, Sor Vang didn't have any produce to sell at this weekend's St. Paul Farmers' Market, the last of the season. But that was a small setback compared with what the end of harvest might mean.

For him and dozens more Hmong farmers who lease 250 acres of land near the Koch Refinery in Rosemount, the days ahead are about cleaning up and closing out their history of farming on that land, if not of farming altogether.

A loss of Hmong farmers wouldn't affect St. Paul Farmers' Market business because of a long waiting list for sellers, said manager Jack Gerten. "But regardless of the market, I would like to see them stay," he said of the many Hmong friends he has developed over the years.

In 1998, citing liability and safety concerns, Koch announced it would no longer lease land after this year. About a third of the farmers were phased out the first year, and the rest are scheduled to leave by the end of this month.

Hmong farmers flocked to the area in the mid-1980s when farmer John Gill made his land available for lease. When he quit farming a decade ago, Gill sold the property to Koch, which was looking for land near the refinery.

In Minnesota, about a third of the state's 100 to 150 Hmong farmers are based on the Koch property. Of those, only a third have found land for next year, said Jack Vang with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, which is helping to relocate the farmers.

Many of the displaced farmers and their supporters -- including a task force formed four months ago -- have worked vigorously to find new space, but scarcity of land in the metro area has made for a difficult transition. Some face the decision to move from the metro area or find other jobs.

Farming is the main source of income for Sor Vang and his father, who together support his five sisters and his mother. He has farmed on 10 acres of Koch land for four years, close to his father and cousin. Like many Hmong farmers on the land, they shared equipment and helped each other.

Sor Vang also wants to stay near his St. Paul home and the Hmong community. He said the closest land he found was an hour away, and the property was more expensive to lease.

"We don't make a lot of money like other businesses," he said. "We just make enough to survive."

The Minnesota Food Association and task force members -- which include Koch representatives, the University of Minnesota agriculture department and extension service office -- say they have directed farmers to available land, but not necessarily within the metro area. They continue trying to secure land in Washington and Dakota counties.

Some farmers have had luck. Por Vang, who drove around last year inquiring if farmers had land to spare, has 8 acres lined up near Hastings.

Dennis Johnson, a hog farmer who owns 220 acres of farmland in Lonsdale, began renting land to Hmong planters two years ago, when the first group vacated from the Koch property. This year, he leased 62 acres to 26 Hmong farmers out of 160 acres suitable for leasing. But he said not all farmers want to plant there, because it is a 40-minute drive to St. Paul. "It's one thing to drive here to get hogs. It's a different story if you're going to come out here and farm every day."