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Immigrant farmers raise culturally specific crops with the help of MN Food Association

See Nay is a Kayan farmer currently growing roselle and other crops on certified organic land on Marine on St. Croix.

See Nay is a Kayan farmer currently growing roselle and other crops on certified organic land on Marine on St. Croix. Mecca Bos

See Nay is hovering over a crop of roselle, a five-leaved plant that he grew up farming with his mother and father in Burma.

“My parents were farmers, and I was addicted to my hobby. I loved my crops.”

After fleeing from civil war in the southeast Asian country and arriving in the US, Nay says he never thought he’d get the chance to farm again. But today he looks out over his crops in Marine on St. Croix, and thanks in part to the Minnesota Food Association, he can provide flavors of home to his family, friends, and anyone interested in trying something altogether new.

A sliver of roselle on the tongue is a neon jolt of lemon, and you can imagine using it in any recipe where citrus is called for. Delicious. It’s in the hibiscus family, and later, these plants will flower and fruit. If you’ve spent any time in the Caribbean, you might have had it in the ubiquitous jamaica or sorrel drinks there.

But Nay says that in Burma, it’s boiled and eaten as a soup. “I think it contains about a hundred percent Vitamin D. I think we eat a soup with greens in it every day." 

The Minnesota Food Association began about a decade ago as a grassroots effort to preserve the St. Paul Farmers' Market. Out of that original effort came the goal of facilitating better infrastructure and markets for farmers -- especially small and immigrant farmers and those falling outside the anglocentric Minnesota and Wisconsin farming tradition.

May Lee has been on this land for many years and she now works as a paid mentor for other farmers growing culturally specific crops as well as more everyday produce for the farmer's market and CSA.

May Lee has been on this land for many years and she now works as a paid mentor for other farmers growing culturally specific crops as well as more everyday produce for the farmer's market and CSA. Mecca Bos

On 90 acres of certified organic land, 17 farmers from nine cultures and their families are currently growing food, with the goal of eventually moving to their own land and becoming self-sustaining. In the meantime, the MFA provides washing and packing stations, and a Community Supported Agriculture and farmers market program to assist with creating more marketability for the produce.

May Lee has been on this land for eight years, and now works as a paid farm mentor for the program. She started in 2006 after the death of her mother. Her family was concerned about the safety of conventional food and felt motivated to grow their own.

“Every time I bought vegetables from the store, the spoon smelled like fertilizer all the time,” she says, her soil-caked hands struggling mightily against the wind to steady the sun hat upon her head. “When we plant our crops, we know that it’s good.”

Lee and her family focus on baby bok choy and mustard greens, and she’s growing 1,500 pounds of carrots for a large contract with The Good Acre, another organization that gives small and immigrant farmers greater markets for their produce. 

Like Lee, many of the farmers raise more traditional produce to sell at market — things like radishes, salad mix, and bell peppers. But thanks to a grant from the USDA they have the equipment and other resources needed to also grow specialty cultural crops: hot peppers, daikon, and anchote, an Ethiopian tuber with high calcium content.

The end goal, says Lebo Moore, manager of MFA, is a simple one: "to grow food that they want to eat, and food that will sell well.”

Farmers are also given instruction on how to set up a farmers market stall, how to draft a business plan and navigate tax forms, pesticide and organic pest management, and safe food handling. “We try to help cater to individuals and individual skill sets,” says Moore.

In addition to Kingfield Farmers Market and Mill City Farmers Market, you can find product produced by Nay, Lee, and other MFA farmers at Sen Yai Sen Lek Thai restaurant in northeast Minneapolis, Truce Juice Bar, and Seward Co-op Creamery. 

Or check out their upcoming annual potluck and harvest party, which is open to the public and includes live music, beer, a bonfire, wagon rides, fun for the kids, and of course, a market stand. Ask for the roselle by name. 

Sunday, October 16, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. 
Big River Farms 
14220 Ostlund Trail N., Marine on St. Croix 
mnfoodassociation.org