Organic Broadcaster

 

Mhonpaj Lee, pictured here with her mother, May Lee, has joined the MOSES on-farm organic specialist team. Photo submitted.

Mhonpaj Lee joins MOSES organic specialist team

By Bailey Webster

I caught up with Mhonpaj Lee, MOSES’ newest on- farm organic specialist, on a 20-minute phone call in which she talked a mile a minute. My furiously typing fingers could barely keep up and, by the end, my head was spinning with her many accomplishments and the roles she juggles simultaneously. Mhonpaj (pro-nounced môn-PAH) is a mother of five, realtor, farmer, farm advocate, conference organizer, Land Access Navigator, interpreter, and all-around badass.

Relevant to her new role at MOSES, she has a life-time of experience growing vegetables with her parents, May and Chue Lee, who are Hmong immigrants. As with many Hmong families in Minnesota, farming was a way of life for the Lee family when Mhonpaj was growing up.

Mhonpaj laughed when she says she “didn’t really like farming as a kid.” After graduating from high school, she attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, where she majored in political science. Living in the dorm and eating cafeteria food, she gained 15 pounds in the first semester. “My stomach was in food shock,” she said. “I wasn’t used to eating pizza and pasta.” At home, her mom always cooked traditional Hmong foods with lots of fresh vegetables and herbs.

After that first semester, she realized she needed to make some changes to stay healthy. She switched to eating mostly from the salad bar and became a “gym rat.” She also added a second major in health education and health fitness. This was the first of several wake-up calls about the unhealthy aspects of American culture that eventually led her back to farming.

In addition to the shock of such a dramatic dietary change, she started to experience anxiety. “My spirit was depressed,” Mhonpaj said of her college days. With the addition of her second major, she was taking a lot of difficult biology classes, and while she was doing ok academically, the stress was having negative health impacts.

To counteract the anxiety and stress she was experiencing, Mhonpaj started taking yoga and meditation classes. She also sought out a deeper understanding of her Hmong heritage, learning more about the Hmong genocide that her parents had fled by coming to the United States.

The Hmong people are a large and diverse ethnic group from Southeast Asia (with large populations in Laos and Vietnam), with roots in China. Hmong men living in the jungles of Laos were engaged by the United States government during the Vietnam War to fight the North Vietnamese Army. This operation was kept secret from the rest of the world, and is now known as the “Secret War.” When the war ended, the Laotian communist government launched a genocide against the Hmong people, in retaliation for assisting the U.S. government. Many Hmong families fled Laos in the late 1970s and early 80s to seek refuge in the United States and elsewhere around the globe.

As a group, the Hmong people have been through unspeakable horrors, which makes their vibrant presence in Minnesota a testament to their resilience and tenacity as a community. They are largely responsible for the vital farmers market scene in the Twin Cities metro area, and Mhonpaj’s family is a prime example.

Learning about what her family and her people had been through, Mhonpaj was inspired to advocate for her community. She found a calling in activism. When she graduated from Gustavus, she took an Americorps internship with Hennepin County. This eventually led to a 6-year career as a medical interpreter.

At the Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), she worked in the trauma center. There, she helped people of more than 70 different languages and dialects navigate the healthcare system. This training allowed her to develop a deep understanding of people of various cultures and has informed all of her consecutive work.

During her time as a medical interpreter, her favorite part of the hospital to work in was the alternative health department. She became increasingly frustrated by conventional doctors quickly prescribing medications for every ailment her clients had. She knew, based on her cultural upbringing and college experience, that so much more goes into the health of a human being than the pills they pop every morning.

Mhonpaj was seeing unhealthy patterns playing out in many of her clients’ lives. Trapped in a cycle of poverty, parents would be at work all day, leaving their children to fend for themselves when they got home from school. Families increasingly abandoned traditional foods and lifestyles in exchange for more convenient options. It was a predictable cycle brought on by their inability to lift themselves out of poverty.

Becoming more and more distressed by the stories she was hearing, Mhonpaj started having panic attacks. She herself ended up in the hospital for an EKG because she thought she was having a heart attack. She knew that something had to give.

She left her work at HCMC feeling that she was unable to continue to support a system that just wasn’t treating the whole person. Having come full circle, Mhonpaj now wanted to help families get out of poverty. She believed that the root of the problem for so many families was financial, so she and her husband started teaching families how to improve their financial situation. They helped families look at their finances holistically, with a cultural sensitivity that took into account partnership dynamics and personalities.

Through it all, she had kept her connection with her parents’ farming operation, which is named Mhonpaj’s Garden. In addition to helping with day-to-day operations, she took on responsibility for the marketing and administrative side of the business.

Fifteen years ago, Mhonpaj’s Garden transitioned to organic production, becoming the first Hmong certified organic farm in Minnesota. They received their organic certification as part of Big River Farms, a nonprofit immigrant farm incubator program in Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota. Big River Farms is dedicated to supporting immigrant and refugee farmers by developing their skills to farm organically. Mhonpaj supports her parents with their organic certification paperwork.

Mhonpaj’s mom, May—an activist herself—didn’t stop at getting her own farm certified. She has been engaged as an educator at Big River Farms, supporting other immigrant farmers and screening new farmers to incubate with the organization. She also volunteers her time as a Ramsey County Master Gardener.

Through her work with her parents, Mhonpaj also began working for Big River Farms as a farm specialist. For 10 years, she has assisted with their food shelf program, supporting immigrant and refugee farmers, and helped organize the annual Emerging Farmers Conference, which is put on by the Minnesota Food Association (the umbrella organization of Big River Farms).

At the same time, Mhonpaj was again looking for more balance. Like any true activist, she was spreading herself too thin between all of the things she was passionate about, and her family was feeling the strain.

As parents of five young kids, she and her husband began to dream of owning a farm and living a less hectic lifestyle. Mhonpaj researched property, with the help of a realtor. She looked at many properties but never purchased anything. “Eventually I was fired by my realtor,” she laughed.

Mhonpaj took it upon herself to figure out how to buy land herself, which led to her becoming a full-time realtor. Ever the activist, she now helps others (particularly immigrants with limited English) to access land through her real estate work. She also has a contract position with Renewing the Countryside as a Land Access Navigator, helping farmers to pursue their dream of farming and being on the land.

Mhonpaj and her husband are still looking for the right farm for their own family, and have recently decided to take the leap and sell their house in the city to finance their dream. She will be leaving full-time work as a realtor to focus on a better quality of life for her family and putting more of her energy towards living sustainably.

When MOSES approached Mhonpaj about joining its on-farm organic specialist team, she took some time to think about the job before realizing it was a no-brainer. While she acknowledges that she’s not an “organic pro” yet, she already spends countless hours connecting people with resources and helping them figure out how to turn their dreams into reality. As a cultural bridge between the immigrant farming community and local agricultural institutions, she’s constantly taking calls about soil fertility, crop quality, land access, and financial management. She’s an expert at figuring out what resources people need and how to help them access them. Taking the job with MOSES is a way to formalize work she has already been doing for a while.

Mhonpaj’s unwavering commitment to helping others achieve their dreams (and identifying the practical steps to help them get there) will undoubtedly be a major asset to MOSES.

For help with your farming dreams or vegetable production questions, contact Mhonpaj through the Organic Answer Line (888-90-MOSES) or email mhonpajlee@mosesorganic.org.

 

Bailey Webster writes about farming issues from her farm in Prescott, Wis. She also is an Organic Certification Specialist at MCIA.

 

From the July| August 2020 Issue

 

Back to Current Issue

Comments are closed.