Neal St. Anthony
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This is a tough year for small farmers around the Twin Cities area.

Many are part of the community-supported agriculture movement, which accounts for around 2% of Minnesota’s farm output. They supply mostly organic produce and meat from plots as small as an acre.

These growers, who are chiefly new immigrants, will see their revenue fall in half this year, said Mai Moua, a consultant to Hmong American Partnership, which works with Hmong farm families.

Most couldn’t take advantage of the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Plan loans due to language barriers or because they didn’t know a banker, and they get none of the subsidies that go to large-crop farmers.

“A lot of farmers lease 1 to 3 acres,” Moua said. “We’ve worked with some of them for 10 years. There are literacy and technology gaps.

‘‘We saw the farmers markets and restaurants closing last spring. Our farmers have been harvesting and there is nowhere to sell. The system is fragmented. And this is a significant disruption.”

Some retailers are trying to help. Lakewinds Food Co-op is one of the several partners that have joined to form Local Emergency Assistance Farmer Fund (LEAFF), a $250,000 and growing initiative this year, to purchase produce from these farmers.

The partner-funders also include the Good Acre, Latino Economic Development Center, Mill City Farmers Market, Food Group and the Bush Foundation, the single-largest financial contributor to LEAFF.

“We need local, small-scale farmers to thrive,” said Dale Woodbeck, general manager of several-store Lakewinds Food Co-ops. “The history of Lakewinds and most Twin Cities co-ops was to create markets for these small organic farms. We buy as much meat and produce locally as we can. In addition, we invested $110,000 this year [and $500,000-plus since 2011] to help small farmers with infrastructure and the organic-certification process.’’

Some of the produce is donated to food shelves in the Twin Cities that are running lean amid a surge in demand caused by the COVID-induced recession.

David Van Eeckhout, grower-support specialist at the Good Acre, a St. Paul nonprofit food hub that’s a lead participant in LEAFF, said much of the 70,000 pounds of produce already purchased has gone to charter schools that benefit low-income families. Some has gone to Loaves and Fishes, which distributes food in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, and some to the Food Group, a Minneapolis distributor and promoter of locally grown food.

“We hope to continue raising money,” Van Eeckhout said. “We’ve paid [40-plus] farmers for cases of potatoes, okra and other vegetables. We pay market price of about $60 for 12 pounds of okra or $40 for 50 pounds of potatoes. It varies. All are farmers of color; mostly Hmong and some Latino and from East Africa. The plan is 50 by fall.”

It’s estimated there are about 400 small farmers within 90 minutes of the Twin Cities providing food directly to consumer buying groups, retailers and farmers markets.

Last year, 30 farmers’ and mini-markets operated in Minneapolis alone, selling food that traveled 40 miles or less to market, according to the city. Minneapolis markets grossed more than $13 million in sales from about 650 vendors, according to the most recent statistics. Market vendors supported approximately 3,500 employees and served an estimated 1.5 million visitors. An estimated 11,000 agricultural acres were owned, leased or managed by Farmers Markets of Minneapolis vendors.

Mao Lee, director of the two large Minneapolis farmers markets, noted the Nicollet Mall market didn’t open this summer because of the absence of downtown workers. And the market near International Market Square on N. Lyndale Avenue is doing only half its normal business.

“Anything the farmers don’t sell, we pay them a small amount and then give it to Food Group or churches and shelters,” Lee said. “We don’t want to see it thrown away. We also have a pay-it-forward program. Customers buy something such as a loaf of bread and vegetables. And pay for a second loaf or some vegetables and it’s given to a community partner in north Minneapolis. The vendor gets paid the full amount.

‘‘This is popular with many customers.”

More information is online at thegoodacre.org/leaff.