What the Hmong Farmers Can Teach Us about Climate Resilience

The Hmong American Farmers Association in Minneapolis was founded in 2011 by a family of farmers, and today is led by sister and brother Pakou Hang (executive director) and Janssen Hang (farm manager). For those unfamiliar with the Hmong people, they originated in China and migrated to Laos. Hmong men and boys were contracted by the CIA in the 1960s during the Vietnam War to guard the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. It was called the Secret War because the United States wasn’t supposed to be performing any political activity in Laos at that time. After the war in Vietnam ended, there was a coup in Laos and communists came to power. Because the Hmong had been working with the US, the communists put them into re-education camps. Many tried to flee across the Mekong River into Thailand. Many died.

The Hmong who managed to make it to Thailand were put into refugee camps and later resettled all over the world. Many of them came to the United States, settling in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California. The Twin Cities has the highest concentration of Hmong people in the United States and Hmong farmers make up a large part of the vegetable-farming sector in the region.

The mission of the Hmong American 
Farmers Association (HAFA) is to advance the prosperity of Hmong farmers through cooperative endeavors, capacity building, and advocacy. My boss, Pakou Hang, has a background in political leadership and is passionate about community organizing. As the food hub director at HAFA, I oversee the program running a 400-member collective that sells wholesale to the Twin Cities markets.

Point of clarification and some background on me: I’m white. I’m not Hmong. It’s really important for me to say that I am not speaking for Hmong farmers. I’m speaking from my own experience. I call myself very fortunate to work in the Hmong community and to learn from its farmers as I focus on supporting Hmong leadership and the leadership of people of color. I’ve been on a long journey to understand my privilege and place in a system of white supremacy. I will always be on this journey; I make mistakes all the time and I really strive to bring a spirit of humility and curiosity to my work.

I want to talk a bit about agriculture’s contribution to climate change. Agriculture contributes about 13 percent of global carbon emissions in the world—that’s second only to the energy sector. So we’re a huge contributor to climate change, with plant debris and decomposing biological activity releasing carbon into the atmosphere. The more open ground there is, the more carbon that’s going into the atmosphere. As well, tractors release carbon into the atmosphere. Conventional fertilizers are very energy intensive to produce and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It’s well known that animals contribute a huge amount of methane into the atmosphere, and rice also produces methane. So, there are all these ways that conventional agriculture contributes to climate change. It’s a very extractive system and requires a lot of fossil fuel to keep it going.

The real travesty of our agricultural system is that it has the potential to be carbon neutral or even carbon negative. Because the super power of agriculture is that plants pull carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it into the soil. If you leave plants on a landscape and you’re not disturbing them all the time, they’re actually taking more carbon out of the atmosphere than they’re releasing. So pursuing animal-based agriculture that’s grass-based rather than feedlot-based is something that we should be looking at as a way to mitigate climate change.

When your livelihood depends on getting rain at the right time, not getting too much rain, getting the right weather, and dealing with pests, the reality of climate change is clear. It’s disruptive.

There’s an idea I like to share that basically says every system is perfectly designed to get the result it gets. Agriculture has been designed to be the way it is. We have this myth in our society that agriculture broke in the 1950s with industrialization, and tractors, and chemical agriculture. It’s really not true. It’s not broken—we designed it this way. American agriculture was built on the backs of slave labor. It was built on land stolen from Indigenous people. Really, in moving into a conventional system of agriculture that we have now, we’ve traded huge human cost for a huge environmental cost.

I believe the same forces that created the climate crisis also created the system of racial and gender oppression we have right now. It’s really not an accident that most of the food we eat is harvested by people of color and people from marginalized communities, and that most of the farmland in the United States is held by white farmers. A full 96 percent of the land in this country is owned by white people; only one percent is owned by black Americans even though black people founded our agricultural system.

Why is there not more representation? Everybody eats, and lots of other cultures have agrarian backgrounds. In fact, all cultures are agrarian if you go back far enough.

Going back to my work with the Hmong farmers at HAFA, what’s really important to know is that these farmers are experiencing climate change right now in ways that most of us are not really aware of. When you’re out on the landscape—when your livelihood depends on getting rain at the right time, not getting too much rain, getting the right weather, and dealing with pests, the reality of climate change is clear. It’s disruptive. Last season was incredibly difficult for HAFA farmers because we had a long period of really dry and really hot weather. Our farmers come from a subsistence agriculture background, so they’re not using a lot of irrigation methods. They’re putting the crops in the ground and hoping they get enough water. That’s really challenging right now.

In Laos, the Hmong were subsistence farmers who used the slash-and-burn method of agriculture. That’s basically going into an area, cutting all the trees, burning them, and then growing on that land until it’s no longer fertile, after which you move to a new piece of land. This works fine in an area that’s not very population dense. Basically, it’s not sustainable anymore because we have so many humans on the planet.

When the Hmong got to Minnesota, many of them couldn’t read or write. They didn’t speak English. They had limited skills that could be applied to jobs here, so they took to farming as a way to support their families. They slowly got into the farmers’ markets. Anybody who’s been to a farmers’ market in Minneapolis knows that about half of the farmers there are Hmong. They’ve been really successful there, but as I’ve said, they face some challenges too.

The birth of HAFA came about after a finance and opportunity conference that Hmong farmers were invited to in 2011. After the conference these farmers met together to debrief. One woman stood up and basically said: we need to stop waiting for someone to save us. We can save ourselves. Pakou Hang was there in conjunction with the Bush Fellowship to interview Hmong farmers and understand what challenges they were facing. Five days later she filed for 501(c)(3) status, and the rest is history. Today we’re a robust organization with nineteen families that farm on our land. We do $400,000 a year in sales through our food hub, and we have a really strong training program.

Since Hmong farmers came to the United States, they’ve learned more sustainable methods of agriculture and tend to stay on the land longer. They’ve slowly been incorporating cover crops, integrated pest management practices, and crop rotations—all the things that contribute to a more resilient and robust agricultural system.

Long-term land tenure really means more sustainable practices. Before HAFA was founded, the Hmong farmers we worked with were leasing land year to year from mostly white farmers. This would be a handshake lease because they didn’t know English. It was on the landowner’s honor, and Hmong farmers didn’t know from year to year if they would still be able to farm there. (I heard from a farmer back in March who was still wondering if he was going to have access to his parcel off of the HAFA farm.) This means you’re not going to invest in fruit trees, or asparagus, or strawberries, or things where the soil doesn’t need to be disturbed every year because it’s a big upfront investment and you need to be on the land for multiple seasons to recoup that investment. HAFA gives ten-year land leases. This is really essential. We have farmers planting raspberries, fruit trees, and asparagus. I think we have 6,000 crowns of asparagus going in this year, which is really exciting.

I want to stress how important it is to prioritize local food supplies and also to see the connection between climate justice and social justice. I recently read a statistic that by 2050, California’s yield in some crops could be reduced by 40 percent because of climate change. This is going to be hugely impactful for our country, and food-insecure communities are going to be hit first and hardest. So, where I’ve come to in my work is an understanding that climate justice and social justice are really two sides of the same coin. You can’t address one without addressing the other.

Albert Einstein had a quote: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” I think a lot of the players at the agricultural table are similar to the ones who were there when we created this system. We need more marginalized voices at the table. That’s part of why I’m so proud to work for HAFA, to put my energy behind Pakou, my boss, and my Hmong co-workers. I think that, especially for white people, figuring out how we can put our egos aside and support other types of leadership that have more to offer in terms of understanding what true resilience looks like is really important.

We also need more farmers and owners on the landscape if we’re going to have a sustainable agricultural system. You can’t have just one farmer for 20,000 acres and think that it’s going to be sustainable. One of the big challenges here is that rural America is very challenging to people of color, minorities, even women. (I’m farming forty minutes outside of the city and I get flak all the time.) So, this needs to be addressed. We need to make rural America safer for people of color. I don’t know how to do that, but it’s important.

So, what can you do to help? First of all, invest in female leadership and leadership by people of color. Find organizations that are led by somebody who’s different from you, who brings a different perspective to the table. Fund them. Volunteer for them. Volunteer to do some of the grunt work. If you’re going into an organization wanting to help and you’re not willing to be the person who makes the coffee and does the dishes, you want to look at that. There’s room for everybody to bring their gifts and talents, but I think bringing a sense of humility and a true desire to help people means freeing people up to do what they do really well.

Something else you can do: go to farmers’ markets. My main piece of advice about this is to go when it’s raining. This is important because farmers are showing up regardless of the weather, and they’re taking half to three quarters of their produce home on rainy days. They usually have tents; there’s really no excuse for us to not go and purchase fruits and vegetables from local farmers.

Something else you can do is join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. At HAFA, we run a Veggie Rx initiative as part of our CSA program, where we’re partnering with hospitals. Participating doctors will identify patients who are food insecure or who have specific health conditions like chronic diabetes, and sign them up for this program. These patients receive a totally subsidized box of produce every week that they can bring home and cook for their families. Many of the families that we serve in this way are Southeast Asians, and they know how to cook the vegetables our farmers are growing.

The last point I want to make is that Hmong farmers have a lot to teach us about resilience. They’ve been through so much going from Laos to Thailand and being in refugee camps. Coming to this country without knowledge of the language, they’ve really built amazing lives for themselves. Likewise, we should also listen to Hmong kids who grew up farming with their parents, and who might not be interested in going into agriculture themselves but have a lot to say about climate resilience.

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