On May 18, 2019, the American Humanist Association's Center for Education hosted the latest in its open lecture series, "CLIMATE JUSTICE: A BETTER FUTURE FOR US ALL" Held at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, the event featured Minnesota state and regional experts on sustainable agriculture and energy, as well as those working in the fields of health and environmental policy. The overriding theme was the intersection of climate change with poverty and ineguality, along with a focus on resilience and action. Six keynote speakers, as well as a panel of inspiring high school climate activists, presented Minnesota as a model for climate policy and action that prioritizes social justice. The keynotes have been adapted for this special issue.
WHAT THE HMONG FARMERS CAN TEACH US ABOUT CLIMATE RESILIENCE
By Bailey Webster
The Hmong American Farmers Association in Minneapolis was founded in 2011 by a family of farmers, and today is led by sister and brother Pakou Hang (executive director) and Janssen Hang (farm manager). For those unfamiliar with the Hmong people, they originated in China and migrated to Laos. Hmong men and boys were contracted by the CIA in the 1960s during the Vietnam War to guard the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. It was called the Secret War because the United States wasn't supposed to be performing any political activity in Laos at that time. After the war in Vietnam ended, there was a coup in Laos and communists came to power. Because the Hmong had been working with the US, the communists put them into re-education camps. Many tried to flee across the Mekong River into Thailand. Many died.
The Hmong who managed to make it to Thailand were put into refugee camps and later resettled all over the world. Many of them came to the United States, settling in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California. The Twin Cities has the highest concentration of Hmong people in the United States and Hmong farmers make up a large part of the vegetable-farming sector in the region.
The mission of the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) is to advance the prosperity of Hmong farmers through cooperative endeavors, capacity building, and advocacy. My boss, Pakou Hang, has a background in political leadership and is passionate about community organizing. As the food hub director at HAFA, I oversee the program running a 400-member collective that sells wholesale to the Twin Cities markets.
Point of clarification and some background on me: I'm white. I'm not Hmong. It's really important for me to say that I am not speaking for Hmong farmers. I'm speaking from my own experience. I call myself very fortunate to work in the Hmong community and to learn from its farmers as I focus on supporting Hmong leadership and the leadership of people of color. I've been on a long journey to understand my privilege and place in a system of white supremacy. I will always be on this journey; I make mistakes all the time and I really strive to bring a spirit of humility and curiosity to my work.
I want to talk a bit about agricultures contribution to climate change. Agriculture contributes about 13 percent of global carbon emissions in the world--that's second only to the energy sector. So we're a huge contributor to climate change, with plant debris and decomposing biological activity releasing carbon into the atmosphere. The more open ground there is, the more carbon that's going into the atmosphere. As well, tractors release carbon into the atmosphere. Conventional fertilizers are very energy intensive to produce and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It's well known that animals contribute a huge amount of methane into the atmosphere, and rice also produces methane. So, there are all these ways that conventional agriculture contributes to climate change. It's a very extractive system and requires a lot of fossil fuel to keep it going.
The real travesty of our agricultural system is that it has the potential to be carbon neutral or even carbon negative. Because the super power of agriculture is that plants pull carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it into the soil. If you leave plants on a landscape and you're not disturbing them all the time, they're actually taking more carbon out of the atmosphere than they're releasing. So pursuing animal-based agriculture that's grass-based rather than feedlot-based is something that we should be looking at as a way to mitigate climate change.
There's an idea I like to share that basically says every system is perfectly designed to get the result it gets. Agriculture has been designed to be the way it is. We have this myth in our society that agriculture broke in the 1950s with industrialization, and tractors, and chemical agriculture. It's really not true. It's not broken--we designed it this way. American agriculture was built on the backs of slave labor. It was built on land stolen from Indigenous people. Really, in moving into a conventional system of agriculture that we have now, we've traded huge human cost for a huge environmental cost.
I believe the same forces that created the climate crisis also created the system of racial and gender oppression we have right now It's really not an accident that most of the food we eat is harvested by people of color and people from marginalized communities, and that most of the farmland in the United States is held by white farmers. A full 96 percent of the land in this country is owned by white people; only one percent is owned by black Americans even though black people founded our agricultural system.
Why is there not more representation? Everybody eats, and lots of other cultures have agrarian backgrounds. In fact, all cultures are agrarian if you go back far enough.
Going back to my work with the Hmong farmers at HAFA, what's really important to know is that these farmers are experiencing climate change right now in ways that most of us are not really aware of. When you're out on the landscape--when your livelihood depends on getting rain at the right time, not getting too much rain, getting the right weather, and dealing with pests, the reality of climate change is clear. It's disruptive. Last season was incredibly difficult for HAFA farmers because we had a long period of really dry and really hot weather. Our farmers come from a subsistence agriculture background, so they're not using a lot of irrigation methods. They're putting the crops in the ground and hoping they get enough water. That's really challenging right now.
In Laos, the Hmong were subsistence farmers who used the slash-and-burn method of agriculture. That's basically going into an area, cutting all the trees, burning them, and then growing on that land until it's no longer fertile, after which you move to a new piece of land. This works fine in an area that's not very population dense. Basically, it's not sustainable anymore because we have so many humans on the planet.
When the Hmong got to Minnesota, many of them couldn't read or write. They didn't speak English. They had limited skills that could be applied to jobs here, so they took to farming as a way to support their families. They slowly got into the farmers' markets. Anybody who's been to a farmers' market in Minneapolis knows that about half of the farmers there are Hmong. They've been really successful there, but as I've said, they face some challenges too.
The birth of HAFA came about after a finance and opportunity conference that Hmong farmers were invited to in 2011. After the conference these farmers met together to debrief. One woman stood up and basically said: we need to stop waiting for someone to save us. We can save ourselves. Pakou Hang was there in conjunction with the Bush Fellowship to interview Hmong farmers and understand what challenges they were facing. Five days later she filed for 501(c)(3) status, and the rest is history. Today we're a robust organization with nineteen families that farm on our land. We do $400,000 a year in sales through our food hub, and we have a really strong training program.
Since Hmong farmers came to the United States, they've learned more sustainable methods of agriculture and tend to stay on the land longer. They've slowly been incorporating cover crops, integrated pest management practices, and crop rotations--all the things that contribute to a more resilient and robust agricultural system.
Long-term land tenure really means more sustainable practices. Before HAFA was founded, the Hmong farmers we worked with were leasing land year to year from mostly white farmers. This would be a handshake lease because they didn't know English. It was on the landowner's honor, and Hmong farmers didn't know from year to year if they would still be able to farm there. (I heard from a farmer back in March who was still wondering if he was going to have access to his parcel off of the HAFA farm.) This means you're not going to invest in fruit trees, or asparagus, or strawberries, or things where the soil doesn't need to be disturbed every year because it's a big upfront investment and you need to be on the land for multiple seasons to recoup that investment. HAFA gives ten-year land leases. This is really essential. We have farmers planting raspberries, fruit trees, and asparagus. I think we have 6,000 crowns of asparagus going in this year, which is really exciting.
I want to stress how important it is to prioritize local food supplies and also to see the connection between climate justice and social justice. I recently read a statistic that by 2050, California's yield in some crops could be reduced by 40 percent because of climate change. This is going to be hugely impactful for our country, and food-insecure communities are going to be hit first and hardest. So, where I've come to in my work is an understanding that climate justice and social justice are really two sides of the same coin. You can't address one without addressing the other.