“I do a little bit of everything,” Yao Yang says. Whether she’s meeting with Hmong Farmers, doing outreach, conducting trainings, meeting with buyers, organizing community-supported agriculture (CSA) pickups or entering data, Yang bustles about to support members of the Hmong community who want to continue their cultural tradition of working on the land.
Formed in 2011, HAFA is a Hmong-led organization supporting Hmong farmers. The organization runs a 155-acre farm in Dakota County where member families from the Twin Cities lease land, get training and sell their products through the HAFA Food Hub, which includes a CSA program, institutional sales (such as to schools) and wholesale outlets (including Birchwood Café, Lunds & Byerlys, Mississippi Market and Seward Co-op).
From farm hand to organizer
When she was in college at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, where she graduated in 2014, Yang majored in Environmental Studies, with a minor in Japanese. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I definitely knew I wanted to be working on a farm … or be a part of the food and sustainability movement in some way,” she says.
She knew Pakou Hang, HAFA’s executive director. “I sent a message to her asking her if she knew anybody I could connect with about working with farmers,” Yang says. “I knew her parents were farmers … so I thought if she doesn’t know anybody, maybe I can just connect with her parents and shadow them for the summer.”
Hang responded that instead of shadowing her parents, Yang could do an internship with HAFA. That summer, Yang worked as a farm hand, doing grunt work like mowing and cleaning the barn. From there, she was hired as an organizer.
One of her main jobs is to help make communication easier for farmers. “Many of our farmers don’t have time to meet with people and say, ‘This is my story and this is why you should buy my products,'” Yang says. So Yang becomes that key person who connects farmers with buyers, coordinates the CSA, and distributes CSA boxes throughout the metro area.
Yang sometimes fights the misconception that someone who doesn’t know English well must not be educated. “That’s just not true,” she says. “A lot of our Hmong farmers are very smart. They might not be literate in English, but that doesn’t mean that you should undermine their competency.” She also runs up against the idea that because some of the farmers she works with don’t read English, they must be misusing pesticides and chemicals. “There’s this stereotype about Hmong people that they don’t know how to do certain things because English is such a barrier, which is true to an extent, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not good farmers.”
The Hmong families and couples that Yang works with were for the most part farmers before they came to the U.S. “Everybody would farm for themselves to live,” she says. “When they came to the United States, many of our farmers fell back onto farming because that’s the only way they knew how to live and put food on the table.”
Besides her work with HAFA, Yang also sits on the board of Minnesota Grown and is a part of the Governor’s Pollinator Protection committee.
“Without pollinators, we wouldn’t be able to be farmers, so it’s something to gracefully remind ourselves that this is work that we have to uplift,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know that Hmong people are also beekeepers, too.”
When she was training as a beekeeper through the University of Minnesota, she learned from her mother that Yang’s grandfather used to bring home honey and bees. “It was so interesting to hear about those kinds of stories, that I’m continuing some of these legacies that my family had lost.”