Phenhli Thao explaining issues around renting land and how CSA programs give farmers added support.
By Sarah Goodall, Program Coordinator, Farm-Faith Project
Phenhli Thao is a first-generation American. His parents came to the United States as Hmong Refugees in the 1980s and started farming first in Wisconsin, then Minnesota. Although he grew up with farming in his blood, it wasn’t always his chosen career path. “I worked inside for years, and I could never wait to take my break. I needed to get my hands in the dirt. I like being able to work outside every day.”
Phenhli has been farming alongside his parents for four years. In 2013, he started the Minnesota Hmong Agriculture Co-op, a cooperative of eight Hmong farmers who grow fresh produce for local schools as well as form a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program through its partnership with Interfaith Action. Pooling their resources, the farmers gain more financial security than they would have had farming on their own.
All eight of the cooperative members farm on rented land. Although this affords the opportunity to grow sellable produce, it is not a sustainable option in growing a farm business. Many rural areas are being overtaken with new development, and as the price of land rises, the option to sell becomes increasingly enticing to land owners. Pointing to a small subdivision at the south end of his fields, Phenhli’s face turns somber, “Last year, none of those houses were there. Not knowing when they’re going to turn [the land] into housing makes it hard to invest in anything like irrigation. The produce would grow better, but I don’t want to spend money on something then lose it when we have to move again.”
CSA members pay an upfront fee in exchange for weekly boxes of produce. Having financial backing in the beginning of the season helps offset the costs of planting and helps farmers like Phenhli save for beneficial irrigation systems, pest control solutions, or the purchase of their own land. Becoming a CSA member means you invest in local agriculture through the good and bad. Sometimes, a single storm can wipe out an entire field. The loss is disappointing, but the CSA provides a cushion. And when the weather cooperates, both CSA members and farmers are rewarded with bountiful, fresh produce.
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