A Hmong farmer uses a harvesting bag while working on their plot of land at the Hmong American Farmers Association farm on Sept. 2020. The organization would get a funding boost to help more Hmong people enter the farming field under a proposed bill. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Growing up in Minnesota’s Hmong community, Representative Samantha Vang was surrounded by people who knew how to farm. But very few of those people had access to the land and resources needed to use their skills to make a living. 

“When Hmong refugees started coming here, the only skill we had was farming,” said Vang (DFL-Brooklyn Center). 

Now, Vang has authored a bill aiming to diversify Minnesota’s aging and overwhelming white farming population by improving access for people of color. 

The bill, House File 2298, would provide the Department of Agriculture with $300,000 to establish an emerging farming office to help people of color and immigrants access the industry. 

Vang was inspired to write the bill by a report by the Emerging Farmers Workgroup, which was formed by legislation passed in 2019.

“This is really about putting dollars behind our values,” she said. 

Today in Minnesota, 99 percent of farmers are white, though white people make up about 80 percent of the state’s population. Farmers are getting old. The average farmer in Minnesota is 56, lower than the national average of 58. 

‘It would be game changing’

The bill would give the Hmong American Farmers Association and the Latino Economic Development Center $500,000 each in grant funding to support new farmers. An additional $400,000 in grants would go toward smaller organizations helping new farmers of color. 

Fields of flowers and food on the HAFA farm in Minnesota on Sept. 2020. Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“It would be game changing,” said Aaron Blyth, agricultural program manager with Latino Economic Development Center

The Latino Economic Development Center was founded in 2003 by a group of immigrant entrepreneurs who purchased Mercado Central on Lake Street in South Minneapolis. The group began to focus on agriculture in 2011 as it expanded from the Twin Cities to a statewide organization.

Today, the group helps immigrant farmers launch their own operations.  It offers $250,000 in loans each year through the state’s Rural Finance Authority. The maximum amount of $20,000 per loan “is certainly not enough to buy a farm,” Blyth said, but it does help buy tractors and livestock, and can be used to leverage larger loans. Other grant funding from the United States Department of Agriculture comes in sporadically. 

The bill would allow the Latino Economic Development Center to have a larger staff and expand its footprint across the state. Having more people would help them get on the land and help new farmers be successful, Blyth said. 

An amendment to the bill provides $10 million for urban agriculture projects led by people of color aiming to address food deserts. 

Historical racist practices in American agriculture have limited access for farmers of color. The Homestead Act of 1862 gave free land to 1.6 million white farmers. The United States Department of Agriculture has a long history of discriminating against Black farmers, a practice the newly passed American Rescue Plan tried to address with $4 billion in funding for disadvantaged farmers

New legislation in Minnesota needs to take that history into account, Vang told Sahan Journal. 

“We cannot continue to pass bills without looking at the race and equity impacts,” she said. 

Vang is optimistic about the bill’s prospects. A divided Legislature means it has better odds of passing the House than the Senate as a standalone bill, but the legislation could be inserted into the larger omnibus spending package.  

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Minnesota’s demographic data.

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...