Oct 16, 2009
Mhonpaj’s Garden

It’s a long way from the tropical highlands of Southeast Asia to the temperate prairie of central Minnesota. But while the physical climate is a lot frostier in Minnesota, the political climate has been warmer for the 50,000 or so Hmong people who have settled there over the last 30 years.

This year, a Hmong farm family came into the spotlight. May Lee and her family became the “farm family of the year” in Ramsey County.

The University of Minnesota names one family every year from each of Minnesota’s 73 counties, and has been doing that since 1980. That’s more than 2,100 families. So that’s not a unique honor in Minnesota.

But this was special for a woman who came to this country as a refugee.

May Lee grew up in Laos, a farmer since childhood. She left Laos in the late 1970s, along with hundreds of thousands of other Hmong who had sided with the United States in the Vietnam War and who were oppressed after the war ended. She spent a year in a refugee camp in Thailand and came to the St. Paul area with her husband Chu and two children in 1981.

The Hmong community in Minnesota is the second largest in the United States; there is a larger number in California and others have settled in Wisconsin and North Carolina.

“We were not just immigrants, we were refugees,” said May’s daughter Mhonpaj. “We were fleeing persecution then. We were a group of unwanted, indigenous people.”

Mhonpaj, now 25, was born in this country, the “middle child” in a family of 10 children. She has become an important “face” of the Lee family and of Hmong people in general. The Lees operate Mhonpaj’s Garden, which produces about 8 acres of 30-plus vegetables that are marketed in several ways in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

The Hmong had traditionally been farmers, and they number some 5-10 million. A distinct ethnic group living in China, Laos, Cambodia and Burma, historically they kept to themselves, living in mountain communities, speaking their own language, living in a clan and tribal social structure that emphasizes the wisdom of elders, the extended family and relationships among the 18 clans. Those traditions continue in the United States.

Because access to farmland in Minnesota was a challenge, May Lee rented land wherever she could. But about two years ago, the Lee family was able to take a step beyond subsistence gardening and become more commercially oriented.

Under the name Mhonpaj’s Garden, the Lee family sells produce through four farmers’ markets and two CSAs and sells some produce wholesale as well.

When Mhonpaj describes her CSAs, you realize that the phrase Community Supported Agriculture can be more than just a marketing gimmick. Members and relatives volunteer and work in the gardens. It really does get community support.

Finding help

Since 2007, May and her daughter have farmed with help from the Minnesota Food Association (MFA).

“The Minnesota Food Association is the only organization we know of that would help us,” Mhonpaj said. “But there seems to be something special about Minnesota. There’s a lot of interest in small farms and in being sustainable. And for Hmong, sustainability has real meaning. In time, the importance of culture may diminish. But for right now, we want to keep the things that are familiar and important to us.”

The organization has helped her learn more about how to farm organically and how to market what she grows in a more businesslike way, gaining access to wholesale as well as direct markets.

Glen Hill, the executive director, said MFA started in 1983 as a coalition of people protesting the proposed closure of the St. Paul Farmers’ Market.

“It developed into one of the initial advocacy and networking organizations working on local foods and farms in Minnesota,” he said. “In 1999, it took on a new direction and approach with its New Immigrant Agriculture Project.”

While the Hmong and Latinos have been the two biggest groups MFA works with, the association is also working with farmers from Kenya, Burma and Cambodia. It’s looking to work with more farmers from Burma, as well as East African and Bhutanese communities. Most of these are refugees, and for some reason, Minnesota has become the modern-day Ellis Island for refugees.

The Hmong were rural people, Mhonpaj said, so they didn’t go to the big cities. “Farming is a skill they know,” she said, “and Minnesota has land. Almost every family grows food and grows some to sell.”

These new immigrants needed food, and who was to grow the traditional foods they wanted to eat? In 2005, MFA leased land in the Wilder Forest and started the May Farm CSA and Agriculture Training Center. The idea was that the immigrant farmers would be able to use the land to grow food for themselves and CSA members and also learn organic farming methods through MFA-run workshops and demonstrations.

In 2007, the growers gained access to wholesale markets ¬– Chipotle, H. Brooks and others – so they could grow and distribute for these markets as well. In 2008, MFA integrated the training program, the CSA and the wholesale distribution into one program and brand called Big River Farms. BRF consists of nine small “farms.”

“Mhonpaj’s Garden is a significant contributor to the Big River Farms CSA run by MFA,” Hill said. “We have 118 member shares.”

MFA is a nonprofit organization that focuses on training new farmers and promoting the building of a more sustainable food system, Hill said. About 70 percent of its budget comes from grants and donations and the rest from sales of produce and fees for service. Farmer participants pay a fee for training, for marketing and for infrastructure and land use, and they also get land preparation and cultivation, use of the produce coolers and washing facilities, fencing and liability insurance.

Hmong foods

“Many of the Hmong are small farmers,” Mhonpaj said. “At first, they tried farming like American farmers, using chemicals and herbicides. But organic methods have worked out a lot better for them.”

The Lees are the first Hmong farmers to be certified organic in Minnesota.

Hmong food, Mhonpaj said, is “bland,” not like the peppery-hot foods of most Southeast Asian countries. Instead of cooking with peppers, the Hmong make hot sauces that are served on the side.

Hmong vegetables include bitter melon, Thai peppers, bok choi, eggplant and turnips of several kinds.

Besides growing a variety of vegetables including bell peppers, cucumbers, sweet corn, tomatoes, onions and peas on their MFA land, the Lees recently rented other land, and May also uses a greenhouse in Mahtomedi, where she grows traditional herbs.

While born in the United States, Mhonpaj takes keen interest in Hmong culture and isn’t the only one in her family who functions as a cultural liaison. She finds time to work outside the farm. She is a medical interpreter at Hennepin County Medical Center, helping Hmong communicate about their health concerns. And she focuses attention on food rituals surrounding Hmong special occasions, likes births and deaths.

Each year, May and her family plan cooking shows to demonstrate to others how to prepare the Hmong postpartum diet. As part of the Mill City Museum’s Hmong cultural celebration, they show others how to cook Hmong greens, and at the Roseville Arboretum, they have demonstrated preparation of a Hmong herbs/chicken diet.

For the first month after a baby arrives, Hmong women eat a special postpartum diet of herbs, with chicken as the only meat, Mhonpaj said. And Hmong funerals last three days and include special foods.

According to Mhonpaj, winning the Farm Family of the Year award for Ramsey County is nice, but the family’s satisfaction comes from successfully running a farm operation each day and from serving their community.

“It’s a way of life. This is how we grew up,” she said.

One unmet goal is land ownership.

“We’re still waiting to buy land ¬– land that has a house so that we can sustain our lifestyle,” she said.

It’s a lifestyle that Mhonpaj sees catching on. The tough economic times have led to a revitalization of backyard gardening.

“I see more vegetables in yards,” she said.

While enjoying the traditional life, Mhonpaj was able to get higher education. Her college years were spent at Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter. She was a triple major in health education, health fitness and political science, and worked a number of jobs to get through school.

Mhonpaj has been approved as a Ramsey County master gardener. She’s aware of the resources available to farmers and others through University of Minnesota Extension, and people there are aware of her and her family as well.

“I stay very well connected to the University of Minnesota,” she said.

Current Issue

VGN-Dec. 2023 see all current issue »

Be sure to check out our other specialty agriculture brands

produceprocessingsm Organic Grower