Hmong American Farmers Association
What has been most instrumental to your progress?
In 2015, the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) purchased a tractor and a series of implements that could be attached on the tractor to simulate how an equipment cooperative might operate. This activity was instrumental in moving the conversation forward about whether or not the farmers on the HAFA Farm should create a land cooperative. Up to this point, the discussions were mostly philosophical or hypothetical, but with the purchase of the new equipment, and as a result, the assigning of dates and time that all the farmers had to pitch in to mow the lawn and help take care of the landscape on the farm; suddenly, the discussion became very real. Farmers had to weigh their own time and labor against what was needed for the common good. Many farmers did not understand why they had to do this. This was eye opening for the HAFA staff and revealed that more education about cooperatives was needed.
In addition to HAFA’s work with our farmers about how a land cooperative might actually operate, HAFA staff has also been working with other organizations that are concerned about land access and land tenure. These activities have been instrumental in moving the conversation forward about whether or not the farmers on the HAFA Farm should create a land cooperative because HAFA staff has been able to learn about different forms of land ownership and the benefits and the challenges with each. This learning is being added to the cooperative curriculum for the Hmong farmers.
Key lessons learned
So far, one key lesson that was learned is that organizing matters. HAFA staff had not checked in with some of the farmers who were absent at past gatherings. As a result, the organizers were not prepared for the huge push back from those absent farmers about why everyone had to pitch in and help mow the lawn or perform other communal tasks. The naysayers created an air of selfishness that eroded a lot of the progress that had been made.
Another lesson that was learned is how important it is to consider past experiences and how they influence current and future possibilities. More specifically, HAFA is running a marketing cooperative along with educating Hmong farmers about land cooperatives. This marketing cooperative or food hub is another way to actualize the cooperative discussion. The interesting thing is that when it comes to the food hub, the farmers were very open to staff suggestions since the farmers had no experience with that form of organization. In fact, farmers were willing to give up 20% of their sales to pay for the food hub operation. But when it comes to the mechanics of the land cooperative, farmers were much more rigid. They have been renting land for a long time, and in those instances, the land owners often took care of the maintenance of the field and other communal tasks. As a result, farmers had a very hard time getting their heads around doing that work as a member of a cooperative. It seems that the past is not really in the past.
Understanding the problem
This process has led the HAFA staff to do more research and exploration about traditional Hmong farming practices and times when cooperative principles were present in those practices. This was unexpected work but it has shed a lot of clarity on how we can communicate the principles and mechanics of a cooperative so that our farmers can make the best decision.
If you could do it all over again...
If the HAFA team could go back and give one piece of advice, it would be to make participation at some discussions mandatory. Group dynamics are so important in these types of discussions; when one person is not present it makes a difference, and when one person misses an interaction that occurred at a previous meeting, it makes a difference.