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Village Agricultural Cooperative helps provide healthy food for southeastern Minnesota immigrant communities

A collaboration that started three years ago between Kim Sin and Amanda Nigon-Crowley has turned into a nonprofit venture that's now serving at least 15 immigrant communities in the city of Rochester.

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ROCHESTER, Minnesota — For recent immigrants and first-generation individuals in America looking to deploy their indigenous farming practices, oftentimes there's nowhere to turn.

But in Rochester there's the Village Agricultural Cooperative, which creates opportunities for area communities to grow culturally relevant foods. Most of the growers for the Village Cooperative live in housing where they cannot grow food, or they wish to grow food to sell in local markets but can't find farmland access.

Kim Sin, founder and president of the Village Agricultural Cooperative, realized around 2018 while working with elderly members of the Cambodian community in Rochester, that many of them weren't eating healthy. The produce they were accustomed to in Cambodia was too expensive to buy in Minnesota, said Sin, especially in the winter.

"The cost of food for them during the winter, to eat their culture's food, goes for double or triple," said Sin. "And so I asked them, what if there was land access for them to grow and feed themselves during the summer, and save that money during the winter to continue eating healthy."

The reality of this seemed attainable to Sin, he said, after taking a car ride one day passed the Hmong American Farmers Association Farm on Highway 52, with Dee Sabol of the Rochester Diversity Council.

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"And I mentioned that I wish we had something like this in Rochester," said Sin.

Sabol told him he needed to meet with Amanda Nigon-Crowley, also of the Diversity Council, so he did. They left their meeting over coffee with a complete outline for the organization and even a name, The Village Agricultural Cooperative and Learning Community.

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Kim Sin and Amanda Nigon-Crowley on Nov. 19, 2021, at one of the six growing sites of the Village Agricultural Cooperative and Learning Community. Sin is the founder and president of the nonprofit organization and Nigon-Crowley is the executive director. Noah Fish / Agweek

"Kim, I call him the rock star, and I'm kind of the band manager, because he's always connecting with people and coming up with ideas," said Nigon-Crowley, executive director and garden manager of Village Agricultural Cooperative. "And it's just a matter of, OK, so where do we find the pieces and just put them together."

After hearing about Sin's work through Diversity Council members, Joselyn Raymundo, founder of Rochester Home Infusion, donated 11 acres of land for the project. Before that, the growing operation consisted of a rented garden behind Mayo Field where the Rochester Honkers Baseball Club plays in the summer.

So what served as the ground-breaking ceremony in 2019 was a sweet Italian chili pepper going into the soil on the 11-acre parcel. Soon after, the Village Co-op made educational partnerships with the University of Minnesota Rochester, University of Minnesota Extension and Rochester Community and Technical College.

"It was something that I never imagined would be so successful," said Sin of the Village Co-op. "But the work that was done, it's not just me, and Amanda (Nigon-Crowley) was a big part of that and the Diversity Council — it's a community effort to make the village to get to where we are today, the partnerships and the connection that we have."

Up and running

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The sign at the Village Agricultural Cooperative and Learning Community in Northwest Rochester, Minnesota, on Nov. 19, 2021. Noah Fish / Agweek

The nonprofit now has six growing sites totaling around eight acres, said Nigon-Crowley, with two of those still being developed. The largest site at the Rochester Covenant Church located next to Kings Run Creek, has over 145 garden plots that serves over 120 families.

Other plots include a fenced-in garden space at the History Center of Olmsted County —surrounded by historic buildings from the late 18th and early 19th centuries — one at Rochester's John Adams Middle School, and another at the Community Presbyterian Church.

Nigon-Crowley said it's hard to tally the number of volunteers that were involved this year, but the Village Co-op wouldn't be anything without them.

"So much of our success is totally attributed to our volunteer base, and we have so many," said Nigon-Crowley. "We had service crews this summer, and at the University of Minnesota-Rochester, we've had cohorts every single semester and summer session."

What's also getting hard to tally is the number of communities the Village Cooperative now serves. The organization started by serving the Cambodian community in Rochester, which Nigon-Crowley said has between 5,000-8,000 people. It's now serving many of the city's immigrant communities.

"We have over 16 different languages that we know have been spoken — those are official languages, and doesn't even count the number of dialects," said Nigon-Crowley.

The biggest populations served by the Village Cooperative are from Cambodia and Kenya, but Nigon-Crowley said they also have growers from Mexico, Guatemala, Cameroon, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Iran, Bosnia, Ukraine and Laos.

As long as there's a waiting list for the Village, Nigon-Crowley said they will keep looking for land to expand to.

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"We're also trying to find the farmers of tomorrow, and educate people on regenerative agriculture, and teach them how to manage a farm business, and what will sell in local markets," she said.

A bigger future

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A sign at the Village Agricultural Cooperative and Learning Community in Northwest Rochester, Minnesota, on Nov. 19, 2021. Noah Fish / Agweek

When first getting started, Nigon-Crowley said that her and Sin's vision was a pragmatic one, focused on the basic needs for each site such as water, garbage, parking and other things.

"And so as we do that, and also as we grow our business plan, and really are able to focus in on what we want to do and where we want to go, I think now I'm starting to see the bigger picture with what's more capable," said Nigon-Crowley.

Sin is a lifelong advocate for the Cambodian community, and his initiative sparked the nonprofit, but he credits Nigon-Crowley with connecting that community and many others to the resources they actually need to succeed in farming.

"(Growers in the Village Co-op) say they were not able to grow as large as they wanted in the past, because they didn't have anybody to advocate for them," he said. "So when they needed somebody to speak to, or to let us know about something, Amanda would be there to connect, and find the resource."

Cambodian park

When Kim Sin came to Rochester from Cambodia with his family on July 14, 1983, they landed in a neighborhood next to the city's oldest shopping center, The Miracle Mile, located along Highway 52 near Kutzky Park.

"Back then, we called it the Cambodian Park," Sin said of Kutzky Park in the 80s, where he and his friends would play basketball, volleyball and soccer, but not tennis, which wasn't played in Cambodia.

Sin said the Cambodian culture was raised to cultivate and farm, but they weren't able to continue that when they first arrived in Rochester.

"When we came to the U.S., we didn't have that opportunity," he said, not even outside their own home. "When my mom wanted to grow in the backyard, our landlord would not allow that because he said we were damaging their lawn."

The landlord had to get a translator to tell Sin's mom she wasn't allowed to grow things in the backyard.

Sin said now more than ever, he feels like he and the community he came to Rochester with are more at home.

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast.

While covering agriculture he's earned awards for his localized reporting on the 2018 trade war, and breaking news coverage of a fifth-generation dairy farm that was forced to sell its herd when a barn roof collapsed in the winter of 2019. His reporting focuses on the intersection of agriculture, food and culture.

He reports out of Rochester, Minnesota, and can be reached at nfish@agweek.com
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