Two hundred and fifty farmers, educators, advocates, agency officials, and volunteers gathered this past weekend for the 10th Immigrant and Minority Farmers Conference on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul Campus. The two-day event is free to farmers and includes breakout sessions designed to address the needs of immigrant and minority farmers. Workshops are focused on helping farmers to improve and strengthen their farming practices and include topics such as organic farming, how to sell at markets, loans, and fair pricing.
This year’s theme, “Honoring Legacy: Farmers Moving Forward,” demonstrated how our farmers are progressing. With the popularity of urban farming and community gardens, our younger generation is starting to take an interest in the conference and there are young farmers-in-training on the planning committee. Volunteers and sisters, Dorothy and Dolly are great examples of youth taking leadership roles both in their communities and in the conference. They told me about the community garden they are planning in an effort to feed their neighbors, especially children and the elderly, who don’t always have access to fresh healthy produce. Their enthusiasm is contagious and their youthful influence was evident in the acts selected for conference lunch performances.
I usually attend a breakout session or two. Even as a non-farmer I learn a lot. But this year’s Immigrant and Minority Farmers Conference was most informative for me during lunch.
Our plates overflowed with good Thai noodles and curry from Sen Yai Sen Lek (the folks at this NE Minneapolis diner support our farmers with their local and sustainable sourcing) and we tapped our toes to bluegrass performers “The Moonlight Duo.”
Then Hmong poet Kevin Yang took the stage. “Who is this guy?” I asked my dining companion as Yang began his piece “My name is Kevin.” Kevin speaks with the strength of a master slam poet, and his voice caught me off guard. His poetry embodies the pain of an immigrant experience, the humor behind our cultural differences, and the wisdom of a young man who understands that he is connected to the land he stands on regardless of which country he is standing in. Kevin Yang blew me away.
Lunch ended with a performance by half a dozen Hmong girl dancers. You have to have a heart of stone not to love cute little girls dancing. As the girls promenaded off stage and the farmers headed to their afternoon breakout sessions, I thought, "How can we top this? Tomorrow’s lunch will be dull and sad compared to this." I had no idea that Kabzuag Vaj was coming to town.
Over lunch on Sunday (curry, chicken skewers, and salads catered by Shirley Yang), Kabzuag Vaj told us the story of Freedom, Inc. She spoke about a group of teen Hmong who gathered in the parking lot after school to talk about their problems. Eventually the group began meeting indoors, and the black teens in the neighborhood joined them. From those informal meetings a grassroots community in Madison, Wisconsin grew. Freedom, Inc. promotes an end to violence through the empowerment of low- to no-income communities of color, women, and the gender non-conforming. They have created healthier living through joining forces, urban farming, and a commitment to one another. Watch members of the community tell their story here (they tell it much better than I can): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFeiN_3J1iU
A community gets its strength from its diversity, and from the experiences and knowledge we share. Those of us far removed from an immigrant experience or a farming community have much to learn from our new immigrant neighbors. Something magical occurs when those exchanges take place in a vegetable garden, or in a freshly plowed field, or over lunch at a conference in St. Paul.