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Preparing the next generation of Hmong farmers

Dimitri - stock.adobe.com

Visit a Wisconsin farmers market, and chances are there are products grown by Hmong producers. But like other agricultural groups, the population is aging and outreach specialists hope younger Hmong farmers get the support they need to succeed.

Wisconsin has the third-largest Hmong population in the U.S., according to data from the University of Wisconsin. Only 2% are officially employed in agriculture but researchers suspect the number is underreported.

Yimmuaj Yang, community director for the Groundswell Conservancy, senses a changing of the guard with older Hmong producers nearing retirement. Some of their adult children express interest in taking over but have not been as vocal. She added their mindset is different from their parents.

"Older Hmong farmers, farming is therapeutic for them," Yang explained. "They're making a little bit of money, but also, farming and gardening makes them happy. The difference is that these younger farmers, they want farming to be financially sustainable."

She noted aspiring producers are also bilingual and multicultural, allowing support organizations to adjust their outreach. Yang acknowledged land access is a major challenge for emerging Hmong farmers and her group is working with partners like the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute to create funding solutions to address this problem.

Yang would also like to see policy adjustments dealing with how long a farmer can rent land. There is a new federal program helping with land access but Yang said more support is needed. She feels giving younger Hmong farmers peace of mind might inspire them to further explore what they grow and sell.

"Unlike Minnesota and the Twin Cities, where there's a big concentration of Hmong consumers; in Wisconsin, the Hmong community is, sort of, scattered throughout the state," Yang pointed out.

It means farmers have to focus more on marketing mainstream fruits and vegetables to non-Hmong customers. Yang suggested if groups like hers get more bandwidth to boost technical support, the next generation of Hmong producers will be in a better position to grow culturally specific food.

Mike Moen is a radio news reporter with nearly two decades of experience in the field. He has covered much of the upper Midwest, including Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Many of his stories have aired nationally, including several public radio programs.
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