Editor’s Note:MayKao Fredericks is a Community Relations consultant for Wells Fargo in Minnesota. A version of this story also appears in the 2017 Wells Fargo Annual Report.
Throughout my career, I’ve seen firsthand that when you support nonprofits that serve as the voice of their communities, and they articulate exactly what they need to create solutions, it makes a huge and lasting difference.
As someone who grew up in a Hmong farming family, I know the Hmong American Farmers Association, or HAFA, is a change-maker for immigrant families like mine, in which agriculture, business acumen, and hard work are at the forefront. And now, as a Wells Fargo team member, I am proud my company is supporting HAFA through financial donations and volunteer efforts, demonstrating the benefits of investing in community solutions.
Farming is at the heart of Hmong culture, but when immigrants come to the U.S., they may not know how to best maintain their livelihoods. That’s where HAFA comes in. The membership-based nonprofit, which is located in the Twin Cities region in Minnesota, helps Hmong farmers confront challenges to farming by providing access to land and land tenure, exposure to markets other than farmers markets, and educational and financial support.
“HAFA has always been about the Hmong farmers,” said Pakou Hang, the nonprofit’s executive director. “Just like in the late 1970s, when many fled to the U.S. after leaving their small villages in Laos, the Hmong farmers decided to take a leap of faith again in 2011 and founded HAFA. They were not afraid to roll up their sleeves and create their own luck. That is the enduring spirit of the Hmong farmer, and it is the same enduring spirit of the American immigrants that built this great country.”
Hang also grew up in a Hmong farming family. Farming helped her parents pay tuition for their seven children to attend Catholic and private schools.
“My parents wanted us to get a good education and have a better life than theirs,” Hang said. “But the price we paid was farming, which was unpredictable, stressful, and physically taxing — for very little money. So I helped start the Hmong American Farmers Association in 2011 with the Hmong farmers because I wanted to improve the quality of life for Hmong farming families. I knew firsthand all of farming’s wonders and its hardships.”
Today, HAFA manages a 155-acre farm just outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, and subleases 125 acres to Hmong farmers and their families. HAFA uses smaller plots for research and demonstrations to provide continuing education to its farmer-members. Since 2011, more than 50 families and more than 250 individuals have participated in HAFA’s programs. The organization also operates a food hub, which trains farmers on food safety and aggregates farmers’ fresh produce and flowers for sale to individuals, families, schools, and businesses. As a result, more than 250,000 people have purchased some type of HAFA product, and its fresh produce is in 177 schools and 45 institutions, retailers, and restaurants.
Support for HAFA goes beyond providing a robust local food ecosystem or launching small business entrepreneurs. It’s about creating a generational investment for future farmers, and it’s about providing a wealth-generating model for other communities that similarly have an aptitude for agriculture.
“A small-scale, beginning farmer by himself or herself may not be able to purchase a large tract of land with cold storage and an irrigation system, or purchase a $75,000 tractor, or secure a contract with a nearby university to sell 10,000 pounds of potatoes. But as a member of a land cooperative, or an equipment cooperative, or a food hub, that opportunity is suddenly possible — and at a smaller risk and greater learning to the farmer,” Hang said. “Moreover, it’s not just the farmer that benefits, but the entire community as well.”
Wells Fargo’s support for HAFA’s farming cooperative aligns with our local charitable giving priorities to support minority-owned small businesses. In 2014, Wells Fargo awarded a $25,000 grant to HAFA to cover capital needs. In 2016, Wells Fargo’s Environmental Solutions for Communities program — administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation — awarded a $70,000 grant to HAFA for sustainable farming initiatives. HAFA was the first of its kind in helping local minority farmers formalize a pathway out of poverty — by creating access to land ownership, resources, and business opportunities. It was an unconventional proposal, but after looking at HAFA’s business plan, land sustainability plan, and letters from strategic supporters, it was the right decision for Wells Fargo to support it.
“Wells Fargo was the first to invest in the HAFA Farm, and we remain grateful for that investment because it laid the foundation for all the successes that came after,” Hang said. “With the initial grant, we were able to build a deer fence, which made it possible for us to launch the HAFA food hub because we didn’t fear contamination from nearby wildlife. The success of the food hub — and the extra sales our farmers earned from it — have allowed them to purchase over $200,000 in farm equipment to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their farming operations.”
Members of the Hmong community in Minnesota are no longer the poster images of the hustle and bustle of local farmers markets. They have dreams of being a part of the local food economy and providing produce for local schools and businesses where their children and relatives work. When we first met with the staff, HAFA was a small organization working on a shoestring budget. Now it has a $1.4 million budget and 14 full-time staff members. In communities like this, when something amazing like that happens, they’re going to talk, and they’re going to share that dream with their family members and communities and create a ripple effect. It’s incredible to watch, and I’m proud that my employer and I are part of this effort.