A Big Win for a Sustainable Farm
Photo: A Tractor at the HAFA Farm in front of an out-building. Credit: Mainhia Thao
By Mainhia Thao, Healthy Communities Advocate, St. Paul Office, May 15th, 2023
A Big Win for a Sustainable farm
In 2022, Dakota County announced it would build a new interchange on Highway 52 near Vermillion, Minnesota. The project was intended to alleviate traffic from the Twin Cities to Rochester and improve safety. But, the tentative location of the interchange posed significant harm to an existing farm and Minnesota treasure. This farm - the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) Farm - is the only Hmong-owned and operated nonprofit farming collective in the state. It’s also an important environmental steward thanks to its commitment to sustainable agricultural practices, a critical contributor to the metro-area’s local food economy, and a small business provider to the 20-plus Hmong families who comprise the collective.
If the County’s highway plans had been realized, the HAFA farm would have been devastated. The proposed interchange would have significantly disrupted the Farm’s hydrology and ecosystem; some HAFA farmers would have completely lost their entire farms; and the project would have closed off the existing access point between the two portions of the HAFA Farm, which straddle both sides of Highway 52, forcing farmers to travel 20+ minutes to get from one side of the farm to the other.
The project posed additional harms to the surrounding area, particularly the South Branch Vermillion River, an Aquatic Management Area (AMA). Recognizing the implications for environmental justice and the threat to such an important community asset, MCEA partnered with HAFA in hopes of finding a path to protect it.
HAFA and MCEA worked closely on legislation and lobbied legislators to halt the expansion project as proposed. Our powerful partnership resulted in increased visibility and public awareness of the potential impacts of the project on the Hmong American farming community and the local ecosystem. As a result of our joint advocacy, Dakota County announced in March that it had decided to not move forward with the interchange project.
HAFA also secured $2 million in legislative funding to build a box culvert under Highway 52. And in another bill, secured the use of $400,000 worth of appropriations leftover from a previous bonding bill to purchase more farmland. The culvert will make it easier and safer for farmers to access both sides of the Farm, which straddles the busy highway.
Continue reading to learn more about HAFA and MCEA’s partnership with the nonprofit.
HAFA Farm’s History and Impacts
In 2011, a group of Hmong American farmers came together to address the challenges they faced in accessing land, resources, and markets to grow their businesses. This is where the history of the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) began. Since then, the organization has been committed to supporting Hmong American farmers across the state. By leasing Hmong farmers land to farm on, and providing resources, training, and technical assistance, HAFA helps people develop their businesses while contributing to the local food economy.
The non-profit organization owns and operates a 155-acre farm in Dakota County, south of County Road 66 and bifurcated by Highway 52. Purchased in 2022 with a grant from the 2020 Bonding Bill, the HAFA Farm is the only Hmong American-owned and operated nonprofit farm in Minnesota.
Home to more than 24 small businesses, including vegetable and fruit growers, floriculturists, and beekeepers, HAFA farmers contribute fresh and nutritious produce to the local food system and foster economic development in the region.
HAFA is also a key community partner by providing educational farm tours and contributing fresh produce to local school districts, daycares and hospitals via the Veggie Rx program. In this way, HAFA is making a significant difference in promoting diversified horticulture education, community wealth, and healthy foods, in addition to its support of the local ecosystem.
The organization is also committed to promoting sustainable agriculture and preserving the environment. Through these practices and USDA-funded training and research programs, HAFA helps preserve the ecological balance of the South Branch of the Vermillion River, an Aquatic Management Area (AMA), which is located close to the farm. MCEA was excited to work with farmers who are managing food production sustainably, supporting both local economies and local ecology.
Why is MCEA partnering with HAFA?
MCEA understands the significance of forming robust partnerships to promote environmental justice. In addition to its commitment to environmental protection and public health, MCEA recognized the importance of collaborating with HAFA to help Hmong American farmers navigate complex legal and policy matters and protect a tremendous community asset.
By doing so, MCEA was able to strengthen the political power of the Hmong community in the State legislature, shed light on the challenges faced by Hmong American farmers, and advocate for policies that met their needs.
HAFA offered MCEA new insights about how to approach solutions to complex community problems and deepened our relationship to a key member in the agricultural community.
By working together and leveraging our respective resources and expertise, MCEA and HAFA built community strength, exemplifying the importance of coalition-building to create positive social change.