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Beyond the usual challenges of planting, tending and harvesting crops, farming has a whole new layer of complexity for many of Minnesota’s Hmong producers in a market season during a time of pandemic: Navigating online orders and payment.
For many of Minnesota’s Hmong population, farming was their livelihood long before they moved to the United States. Typically, language and information barriers that appear in other careers are less substantial on the farm, according Nancy Xiong, director of capacity building for the Hmong American Farmers Association.
“They feel more comfortable working on the farm, where no one is yelling at them for not understanding the language,” Xiong said.
Hmong farmers make up more than 50 percent of the vendors at Twin Cities farmers markets, according to HAFA. For many of these producers, selling at farmers markets is their only outlet for getting their produce to consumers.
At least 90 percent of Minnesota’s farmers markets already have or will open this summer, according to Kim Guenther, communications director for the Minnesota Farmers Market Association. The markets, however, will have new safety measures in place to limit contact and move consumers through faster.
MFMA issued a series of suggestions for farmers markets across the state. The suggestions include one-way traffic, masks, and handwashing stations. Many markets are also encouraging producers to offer electronic payment, pre-orders, and delivery options.
Wa Kou Hang raises two acres of organic vegetables in Washington County. He grew cash crops in Thailand prior to moving to the United States in 2004, and started taking classes on farm management in 2018. He’s in his third year of a beginning farmer program at Big River Farms, an incubator farm that helps farmers get their businesses started.
In response to COVID-19, Hang is implementing online payment with PayPal and an online ordering system. He’ll pay about $35 per month for his own page on Online Farm Markets, a website designed to manage farm sales direct to consumers. Hang’s customers will be able to pick their orders up at the Fulton and Kingfield farmers markets where he sells his produce, or Hang will deliver to them. If all goes well this season, Hang plans to keep using these online methods.
Hang likes the idea of online payment and orders because they’re largely contactless. The challenge, he said, is that “you have to run the online store, prep your produce, and get ready for the farmers market.” It’s a lot of work, especially for a small farmer who manages most aspects of the business alone.
Guenther thinks a lot of producers like Hang will keep using their online payment and ordering systems. She also thinks markets will keep up with some of the new measures they’re implementing this season. Options like pre-orders and drive-through pickups are convenient for consumers, and likely something they’ll continue to want. Besides, the online systems that make these options possible require significant investment to get started, so it makes sense to continue using them once they’re in place.
Not all farmers are able to make the transition to online orders and payment. Hang knows older Hmong producers, especially, are having trouble moving their business online.
Xiong says that the transition to online business has been challenging for many of the producers who work with HAFA. “A lot of the farmers are not as tech-savvy,” she said. HAFA is providing resources and training to farmers and their families about online ordering and payment, but there are still language and technology barriers.
“I think they’ve come to terms with the realization that they can only do so much,” Xiong said.
Some Hmong producers also have come to Xiong and other HAFA staff with questions about crop planning. They’re not sure whether to expect greater demand as more people show an interest in local foods, or less demand if they can’t offer the online payment and ordering that many consumers want.
However, for many of HAFA’s members, farming is a family business that bridges generations, and by extension, technology barriers. In some cases, Xiong said younger family members are able to step in and help their older relatives navigate the technology behind online orders and payment.
The state farmers market association isn’t sure whether farmers who don’t implement online ordering and payment will have less business than they did pre-virus. “That’s one of the things we’re really looking at and tracking right now. I think over the course of the season we’ll be able to tell,” Guenther said.
Consumers’ heightened interest in local foods is apparent, even if some producers don’t have the capacity to tap into it. Interest in HAFA’s summer Community-Supported Agriculture — a program in which consumers buy a share at the beginning of the season to receive weekly boxes of produce throughout — reached record levels this year. It sold out by mid-May, with more than 600 shares sold, about 100 more than last year. Xiong was surprised by the high numbers and how quickly people signed up. It’s a positive situation; the farmers who produce food for HAFA’s CSA come out better on the produce they sell to the CSA than at markets.
“It’s more assuring to know where your food is coming from,” Xiong said, the main reason she suspects HAFA’s CSA was so popular this year.
“People are starting to understand the importance of local foods and supporting your local farmers,” Guenther said. While she says some of those people are probably just turning to local foods out of fear of food shortages, she hopes that many will continue to buy local even after the COVID-19 crisis has subsided.
Even if more people continue to buy local, Xiong says “there’s still just so much uncertainty.” The greatest challenge for many producers will be staying hopeful. Although CSA shares went over well, markets are just getting started for a lot of farmers. Xiong says they’ll have to keep communicating with and supporting each other, and see what the season brings.