NEWS
Training for Sustainability
Todd Neeley DTN Staff Reporter
Mon Aug 24, 2015 11:20 AM CDT
(Page 1 of 2)

VERMILLION, Minnesota (DTN) -- Years of traditional row-crop farming have taken their toll on 155 acres now operated by the Hmong American Farmers Association in southeast Minnesota.

Farmers in the Hmong American Farmers Association use a variety of conservation measures designed to improve soil health on a 155-acre vegetable and flower farm just 15 miles southeast of Bloomington, Minnesota. (DTN photo by Todd Neeley)

What may have been productive corn and soybean land for decades is undergoing a transformation.

One year after leasing the land from a buyer, the association is creating a real-life laboratory for Hmong farmers -- producers who immigrated to the United States following the Vietnam War.

The farm southeast of Bloomington, Minnesota, in Vermillion, which was one of five stops on the Conservation Technology Information Center tour Aug. 12, is designed to teach the Hmong how to farm sustainably.

Much of the ground is as hard as a rock.

"This land was in conventional farming," said Janssen Hang, senior organizer of the HAFA.

"Prior to us -- we went through tests on compaction. It had been depleted of minerals. It had heavy compaction. We used 40 tons of compost and cover crops (to begin restoring the soil.) We started asking, how do we become a sustainable farm? The answer is through cover crops. Practices are part of our training program."

Now, some 20 vegetable and flower farmers who work at the farm plant oats, buckwheat and other cover crops in the summer. Last year the farm planted a mix of six to eight cover crops, expanding to between 10 and 12 acres this year.

These days a number of growers who are a part of the cooperative often walk the fields scanning for compacted ground. It's not uncommon to find three to four acres at a time where compaction is the likely culprit for soil under-productivity.

In many of those areas farmers expect to deep-rip and follow up with cover crops to begin to create a healthy soil.

Since the soil quality and type varies from field to field, Janssen Hang said it is a challenge for association farmers to find the right crops to fit the soil.

Hmong farmers are using a variety of conservation practices. The HAFA farm is taking part in a multi-year study on cover crops. Farmers in the association rent 5- to 10-acre plots and take part in inter-cropping by planting rows of different vegetables and flowers side by side.

POLLINATOR HABITAT

During the past year the HAFA farm has taken five acres out of crop production to create a bee habitat. Included in the five acres are about three acres of mixed native plants to promote pollination and drive away "bad" bugs.

Yao Yang, an organizer with HAFA, said the farm recently installed two bee hives and next year plans to train farmers on how to keep bees.

Marla Spivak, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota bee laboratory, said Hmong farmers are working to strike a balance between using needed pesticides and protecting pollinators.

"But as we're learning more and more we understand putting habitat for bees is the best way to help them," she said.

"Nutrition is at the core of all of their problems. With good nutrition they can detoxify pesticides. They can get overwhelmed by insecticides in particular. My mission in our ecosystem is how can we have our pollinators and use pesticides judiciously."

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