For Song Yang and other Hmong farmers in Minnesota, finding markets for the fresh produce she grows near Hastings is key to her success.
It’s a difficult business, with last year’s drought and this year’s heavy rains taking a toll on crops. And deciding where to sell the produce can be a challenge, as well.
But a unique collaboration last year allowed Yang and other Hmong farmers at Holy Apostles Episcopal Church in St. Paul to sell 23,000 pounds of produce to the church, which in turn donated it to food shelves.
The program, called Fields to Families, has become more self-sufficient this year with one food shelf buying the food, and two markets added for the farmers – one at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in St. Paul and another at two public housing sites in St. Paul.
“It’s been exciting to see that this project has inspired other similar projects and is helping more people,” said Pa Lor, 23, who serves as a liaison between the farmers and their new markets. “I’m really grateful to be part of the team that’s moving this project along.”
A Program with Deep Roots
You might say that the seed for Fields to Families was planted about 150 years ago.
That’s when the family of Lee Miller, a member of Holy Apostles, fled the famine in Ireland and moved to a farm on the border between Virginia and Maryland. Miller grew up in those fields, working the soil and selling vegetables at the market in his youth.
“About 8 or 10 years ago, when I went to farmer’s markets, I realized the Hmong farmers knew how to merchandise it just like we did,” he said. “They were doing it like we did, with back-breaking labor on the farms, with most of the work being done by hand. And then they go to the farmer’s markets and set it up attractively, just like I did when I was younger.”
When he joined Holy Apostles a few years ago, he wondered: could there be two good deeds done – employing the Hmong farmers to produce food and providing that food to people who need it?
So last June, he organized just that. Fields to Families, with donations of almost $18,000, provided money to the farmers and donated the food to four food shelves in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The question this year was how to make the program more self-sufficient and increase the markets available to the Hmong farmers. And because of the success last year, Merrick Community Services has become a financial partner this year, purchasing the food instead of accepting donations.
“Our food shelf serves a lot of Hmong, Asian and Latino families,” said Courteney Roessler, director of emergency services at Merrick. “Getting fresh produce is really great for these families who don’t choose our canned vegetables. We are trying to get food in that people from different cultures will eat.”
Last year, the community that uses the food shelf knew what day the fresh produce came in – and waited in line outside the food shelf to get it. Buying fresh produce is cheaper than getting canned vegetables, as well, she said.
The purchases from the Hmong farmers from Holy Apostles will provide about 80 percent of her food shelf’s fresh vegetables this year, Roessler said. The rest will come from a food rescue pick-up three times a week at Cub and Target food stores, which saves produce that is reaching the end of its shelf life.
“It’s huge for us to be able to offer this consistently,” she said. “What’s great, as well, is that it’s supporting local farmers. We are also now able to choose the vegetables our families like and the quantities we need.”
The growth into another new market for the Holy Apostles farmers was nurtured last year at a summer picnic.
A New Collaboration
It was the joint worship service and picnic for St. John the Evangelist and Holy Apostles, two faith communities in partnership in eastern St. Paul. Their relationship initially formed about four years ago around the area of youth ministry, which includes shared retreats, mission trips, and confirmation preparation. The two parishes also worship together once a year at the annual picnic in the summer and support other social events and mission areas.
A collection was raised at the picnic for Fields to Families – almost $600 – and members of St. John’s started talking.
“We thought, maybe we could have a market,” said Shirley Sailors, who helps coordinate St. John’s efforts. “That would help with income for the farmers, and provide another outlet for their sales.”
Before they knew it, though, spring was upon them.
“We had an opportunity for publicity and we blundered ahead and said, yes, let’s do it,” she laughed. “Then we backtracked and went to the vestry for their official approval, which they were happy to provide.”
The market proposal came at a perfect time, said the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson. Vestry had been brainstorming ways to strengthen the relationship with Holy Apostles, as well as reach into the neighborhood around the church. The farmer’s market met both needs.
The market started in mid-June, and the church has reached out to the community through signs, word of mouth, a Facebook page and a blog. A postcard mailing to nearby residents will happen soon. The later coffee hour for St. John’s will be outside at the market this summer, weather permitting.
And the faith community seems to be having fun with the market idea as well.
“For the past two weeks, I wrote about the vegetables that were going to be coming in,” said Sarah Goodall, an organizer for the farmer’s market and the author of its blog. “One week, I picked kohlrabi to write about because I heard that people didn’t know what to do with it.”
Working with the market appealed to her because of the relationships, she said.
“You have a connection to the farmer – they are right in front of you,” she said. “I love when you can support your community and know where your money is going.”
This past Sunday, members from St. John’s came, as well as nearby residents. A neighborhood cat provided color, walking through the tents and tables periodically.
“I am one of those big believers that you should keep your money local and don’t send it out to a company in California,” said Charles Stander, who lives on nearby Summit Avenue and walked to the market. “It’s nice to be able to walk across the street, but it’s more an ideological thing because I would like to help local businesses.”
The stands at the Holy Apostles-St. John’s Farmer’s Market were full of family members. Women were helped by their grandsons, and sons sold vegetables while fathers were away.
Pa Chang said it was nice to have another market, in addition to the others she does every summer in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Shoreview and Savage. She said she was grateful to Lee Miller for helping her sell to food shelves last summer.
Moving the market to the customers
The farmers from Holy Apostles will venture into new markets even more starting in July.
The St. Paul Public Housing Authority will be working with Ramsey County to provide farmer’s markets at the Hamline Highrise and Mount Airy Homes Development, said Alicia Huckleby, special projects coordinator and human resources manager. It’s part of a larger initiative in the area of nutrition, active lifestyles and reducing tobacco use, using state money set aside for health improvement.
Because the residents at these public housing sites include senior citizens, farmers have been experimenting at the Holy Apostles-St. John’s Farmer’s Market with smaller plates with vegetables suitable for one person, instead of larger baskets that might be more than one person can eat, Miller said.
“We’ve been talking to them about unraveling what they’re offering and meeting people’s needs,” he said.
With the Fields to Families program becoming more sufficient and new markets being added this year, Miller still wonders if one more seed could be planted this year.
“If each Episcopal church sponsored a farmer’s market and developed a relationship with several farmers, it could go a long way toward lifting their boat,” he said, “as well as putting food into the community around the church.”
Donate to Fields to Families by sending a check to Holy Apostles Episcopal Church, 2200 E. Minnehaha Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota 55119.