In the wake of the Vietnam War, thousands of Hmong refugees from Laos and Thailand settled in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Since then, the Hmong-American community has become part of the cultural fabric of the Upper Midwest, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the farmers’ markets of the Twin Cities. Just a generation or two ago, many Minnesotans would have been hard-pressed to find locally grown long beans, bitter melon, or even bok choy. Today, cooks and chefs can find all that at farmstands run by Hmong-Americans.
Xang Vang, who served in the Vietnam War as a footsoldier for the CIA, became the first Hmong produce vendor at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market in 1983. Soon, he was joined by fellow Hmong immigrants, many of whom had farming experience that they could bring to the table even if they weren’t fluent in English. Today, Hmong-American farmers make up about a third of the members of St. Paul Growers’ Association, the organization that operates the St. Paul Farmers’ Market.
Just a generation or two ago, many Minnesotans would have been hard-pressed to find locally grown long beans, bitter melon, or even bok choy. Today, cooks and chefs can find all that at farmstands run by Hmong-Americans.
“About 50-60% of our produce growers are Hmong,” says director David Kotsonas. “You can attribute the growth of farmers’ markets to them—over the last twenty, thirty years, individual markets have gotten bigger and stronger, and there are also more farmers’ markets in general.”
The majority of Hmong-American growers sell exclusively to farmers’ markets, which makes them vulnerable to shifts in consumer buying patterns—especially in the COVID era, as many people have been limiting their movements. The Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) has been working to change that dynamic via the HAFA Food Hub, which collects members’ produce to sell to institutions and businesses, as well as directly to consumers via CSAs.
Providing access to alternative markets is just one of the ways that HAFA aims to support Hmong-American farmers, who face common challenges including long-term access to affordable land, difficulties accessing capital, and limited opportunities for continuing education. HAFA’s holistic, community-based approach includes managing a 155-acre farm just south of St. Paul where members can lease land. While not certified organic, the farm incorporates sustainable growing practices such as composting, crop rotation, and planting pollinator habitat. HAFA also provides members with business development assistance, agricultural training, and information on the latest farming techniques.
Over the past few decades, Hmong-American farmers have revitalized Twin Cities farmers’ markets, becoming a crucial ingredient in the region’s vibrant local food scene—and now, supported by HAFA, they’re expanding beyond farmers’ markets to help build a sustainable and fair food economy in the Upper Midwest.