'I don't think people realize how much work you put into the field'

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mhonpaj, with her baby Evelyn, 4 months, visits her mother May at the family-operated organic produce stand at the St. Paul farmers market. - Photo by Paul Dols

Farmers market vendor specializes in organic veggies
by Julie Kink
Contributing Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010 12:38 PM CDT
STILLWATER — Since she was a young girl, the soil and the plants that grow from it have been a source of fascination, inspiration and just plain hard work for Mhonpaj Lee.

The 26-year-old St. Paul resident is passionate about sustainable agriculture and the health benefits of organic farming. Together with her family, she operates two small community supported agriculture (CSA) plots, three acres in Stillwater and two in Marine; sells organic produce at several farmers markets; and educates the public through classes and presentations on Hmong vegetables and cooking.

Locals may know her by the produce she sells at both the White Bear and Mahtomedi farmers markets and the eggrolls, fried rice and bubble tea she’s been peddling at Marketfest.

Lee grew up working on farmland cultivated by her parents May and Chue Lee, who emigrated from Laos via a Thai refugee camp in 1982. When they arrived in the U.S., the Lees rented land and grew cucumbers for pickles which they sold to a local company. “It was so laborious,” she said. “I was so annoyed by it, I told my mother I’m not going to ever farm again.”

But a volunteer position as youth coordinator at the Science Museum at age 14 helped her fine-tune her widely varied interests and brought her back to what she knew. “It was a phenomenal experience. Everything I learned there revolved around the weather, agriculture, everything engineering-wise with the soil and sediments,” she said. “As much as you want to stray away from it, it goes in a circle.”

Lee became interested in sustainability and its implications for community health, as well as politics. Before entering college, she raised money to go to Thailand to do personal hygiene education and see how people lived in refugee camps. Though she and five of her siblings were born in the U.S., two of her sisters and her parents had spent time at a refugee camp before emigrating. “It was an eye-opener for me,” she said. “I’m very grateful for what I have but I thought, how can I share it with them, what is it that I have to offer?”

At Gustavus Adolphus College, she majored in health education, health fitness and political science, working a number of jobs to get through school. After graduating, she took a close look at her goals and decided to return to her roots, literally. “I said, here are these skill sets that my parents are really good in. It’s a lifestyle for us to have to farm — that’s how we made it when we were younger.”

The death of her grandmother, who was somewhat of a “medicine woman,” right after Lee graduated from college inspired her to apply for a grant through the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program to study Hmong herbs and their medicinal uses. She persuaded Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), where she works as a medical interpreter for Hmong patients, to let her grow a little herb garden so patients can request herbs that have been found beneficial for postpartum uses. Now North Hennepin is asking her to start a garden for them, she said.

“You never really consciously think about what you’re doing. I just keep going out of passion,” she said. For her, that means continuing her education by way of pursuing a Masters in Leadership at Augsburg College, which she attends Tuesday and Thursday evenings. She works at HCMC Monday through Thursday mornings, works in the garden in the evenings and, in addition to her White Bear Lake gig, sells produce at the Mill City and St. Paul farmers markets.

The first Hmong-owned certified organic CSA in Minnesota, her garden has more than 30 varieties of vegetables: cucumbers, chard, potatoes, green onions, cabbage, leeks, zucchini, fennel, radishes — “everything you’d find in the grocery store.” The CSA has about 15 members, and most of her family members help out, if they’re not away at college — she comes from a family of eight brothers and sisters. Though her parents are retired, they still help on the farm. The Lee family was named the 2009 Farm Family of the Year for Ramsey County by the University of Minnesota.

What isn’t purchased is donated to food shelves like Second Harvest or Neighborhood House, she said, which last year amounted to $10,000 worth of produce. “It’s still fresh because we just picked it the night before.”

Though her goal isn’t mass production, she would like to eventually purchase farmland (she now rents), and perhaps open a restaurant to serve traditional Hmong cuisine. She will be hosting a class for the Minnesota Horticultural Society in 2011 on how to cook with exotic greens. She’s excited about having an intern, a nutritionist, helping at the garden. And she would like to back away a bit, to be able to spend more time with her husband and their 4-month-old daughter. “I love being able to work for an institution and also work for myself and my family. I have the best of two worlds and I’m grateful for my experiences.

“We’re not advanced. We’re still using the rototiller, weeding by hand. It’s very rewarding at the end of the season to see everything you have,” she said. “I don’t think people realize how much work you put into the field.”


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