Mhonpaj Lee picks cilantro at her family's farm in Hugo on June 24. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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The crops at Mhonpaj’s Garden in Hugo are feeling the heat.  

Cucumbers are yellowing and zucchini is shriveling in the parched soil on the farm about 20 miles north of the Twin Cities, where the Lee family grows a wide range of vegetables and herbs.

“This year has been really hard,” Mhonpaj Lee told Sahan Journal. “Our plants started yellowing because they are so hot.”

Farmers like the Lee family are up against an early summer drought that is being felt across Minnesota, combined with a record-setting June heat wave that sent temperatures above 90 degrees 11 times this month. Hot and dry summers are becoming more common in Minnesota due to climate change, experts say, meaning these hard farming conditions are likely to continue. 

June is typically the wettest month of the year in Minnesota, averaging about four inches of rain. But many parts of the state have received about a third of the month’s average rainfall, according to MPR meteorologists. 

Nearly 75 percent of Minnesota is now experiencing moderate or severe drought, according to the most recent report from the U.S. Drought Monitor. The remainder of the state is classified as “abnormally dry.”

Hot, hard conditions 

Mhonpaj’s Garden has been growing vegetables and traditional Hmong herbs for 23 years. The farm is operated by the mother-daughter duo of May and Mhonpaj Lee. The family has two plots of land. It manages nine acres that are leased along the St. Croix River at Big River Farms, where the family studied to become certified organic farmers, and a new 20-acre farm in Hugo that has about five acres in operation. 

The family farm sells its goods at Mill City Farmers Market on Saturdays and the Downtown St. Paul Farmers Market on Sundays. It also offers Community Supported Agriculture memberships with 100 households receiving fresh produce. Mhonpaj’s Garden has also contracted directly with restaurants over the years. This year, the family is concerned the heat and drought will make it hard to donate to Twin Cities food bank Second Harvest Heartland and The Food Group. 

May Lee is now the manager at Big River Farms, formerly known as the Minnesota Food Association, which helps people of color, who are vastly underrepresented among state farmers, become certified organic. Mhonpaj’s Garden was the first certified organic Hmong farm in the state. 

Farmers in Minnesota are 99 percent white. Many immigrant families and people of color who do farm have entered the field by being small-scale produce farmers, selling fruits and vegetables through CSAs, farmers markets, and directly to restaurants. 

Instead of the normal June rain, farmers got a brutal, record-setting June heatwave. 

Heat makes lettuce bitter. Plants like bok choy and herbs like cilantro can bolt, or flower prematurely. In a normal year, Mhonpaj’s Garden doesn’t worry about water because it rains so much in May and early June, but “this year it’s a struggle,” Mhonpaj Lee said. 

Intense heat like Minnesota has experienced this June can be tough on plants such as bok choy, which can flower early and bolt in hot conditions. Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Vegetables are sensitive to water and heat, according to Natalie Hoidal, a produce specialist with University of Minnesota Extension. Crops in the brassica family like broccoli, kale, and bok choy are cool weather plants that Minnesota farmers try to grow in the spring.

“We had this really cold weather and it was so hot all of a sudden and a lot of farmers lost crops to bolting,” Hoidal said. 

Plants haven’t been getting as much of a break overnight, either, with evening temperatures frequently hovering over 70 degrees. That nighttime heat has a big impact on crops, Hoidal said. 

Minnesota summer nights are getting warmed due to climate change. Average nighttime temperatures are up 4.2 degrees since 1970, according to the nonprofit meteorological firm Climate Central. 

Summer nights in the Twin Cities are considerably warmer than 50 years ago, which puts a strain on crops. Image courtesy of Climate Central.

The heat also makes it harder to do the labor-intensive work of vegetable farming. The hands working Mhonpaj’s Garden start earlier than ever this year, around 4 a.m., and have to take lengthy breaks at midday when the sun is strongest. 

“Just from a basic farmer and worker safety perspective, heat is a really big deal,”Hoidal told Sahan Journal. 

People who shop at local farmer’s markets or who receive vegetables from CSAs should be considerate of the tough conditions when examining their produce, Hoidal said. Potatoes may have hollow centers and tomatoes may have yellow shoulders, but it’s all safe and good to eat. 

The heat, dryness, and subsequent need for frequent irrigation leads to one more big problem: It creates ideal conditions for insects. Bugs are worse than ever for the Lee family, and it’s a concern for farmers statewide, Hoidal said. 

Changing climate challenges farmers

Minnesota’s changing climate has put organic produce farmers like the Lee family through the ringer this year. The family worked quickly this spring to wrap up plants in protective cloth when a late-season frost arrived in May. Now they are fighting to water their crops to prevent the sun from cooking them alive. 

“People are seeing global warming and there’s a reason it’s happening, and it’s our fault,” Mhonpaj Lee said. “It’s a wake up call, it’s a warning.” 

Mhonpaj Lee stands in the field at her family farm, Mhonpaj’s Garden in Hugo. The heat and drought conditions have been hard on farmers like the Lee family this season. Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Broadly speaking, climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas is causing Minnesota to become warmer and wetter. While that warmth causes more precipitation in the winter and spring, it can lead to dry summers, especially when temperatures rise above 90 degrees, according to Heidi Roop, a climate scientist with the University of Minnesota. Overall, climate change makes extreme weather more common. 

“This is sort of on brand for climate change, we are expecting to see wet, wet periods and dryer periods,” Roop said. 

The trend of wetter springs and drier, warmer summers is a bad combination for farmers, Roop added.  Much of her research is on climate adaptation, and it’s clear that farmers in Minnesota are needing to change their strategies to be sustainable. 

At Mhonpaj’s Garden, the Lee family is considering putting more herbs and vegetables into greenhouses. They are looking into using more manure and fish waste to get better nutrients into the soil. 

“There are lots of growers experimenting with adaptation,” Roop said. 

One way to adapt is already in practice at Mhonpaj’s Garden: boosting soil health by using methods like cover crops to improve organic matter in the soil. Cover crops are commonly planted in organic farming fields that aren’t in use to help enrich the soil for next season. More experimentation with different types of cover crops could help farmers make the key adjustments to ensure food production can thrive in Minnesota going forward, Roop said. 

She believes the key is to make it as easy as possible for farmers to share knowledge with one another, so that successful adaptation strategies can be widely distributed.

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...