Mao Lee, Henry High Alumna and the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market



This article was written by Susan Curnow Breedlove, Northside Historian and Henry High Resource Teacher


I must to admit being an aficionado of the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market. As a resident of North Minneapolis, I purchased a Victorian House on a double lot off Broadway which provides a plausible reason for creating several flower beds, a veggie garden and frequent visits to the market to procure plants. I am a farmer in the city. The late Nellie Stone Johnson installed the knowledge of the importance of the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market going back to the days she accompanied her father bringing produce from Cloverdale near Hinckley. In my efforts to offset the purchases of perennials and annuals I made lemonade at the Untiedt Vegetable Farm one summer. However, I soon found out that there is a discount at many of the stands for workers and I ended spending more money than ever.

Throughout the decades I developed many friendships with the growers, many who have passed on. I have observed the emergence of a greater number of Hmong farmers, some of whom have included their children in their marketing, some who have been students at Patrick Henry High School. I know many of these young adults having worked at Henry for nigh 25 years.  Thus, I have undertaken the course of interviewing some of them. This article for the Camden News celebrates Mao Lee.

As a member of the class of 2007, Mao was in the Literary Magazine Club, the National Honor Society and College Possible. She completed a degree in Conservation Biology with a focus on Fisheries and Wildlife at the University of Minnesota. She has now risen to the position of assistant manager of my favorite market.

I spent a September morning with Mao and learned so much about her and about the operation of the current Minneapolis Farmer’s Market. Mao’s Northside family chose to become a Minneapolis Farmer’s Market vendor in 2003 after being vegetable growers in Eagan and Rosemount.  Mao told me, “I never thought I would stay in the agricultural world or farming business having memories of picking Thai chilis in terribly hot weather, and other difficult conditions, but because of what I learned through this, I have never left.”

Mao attributes her IB education at Henry as being a primary factor to “work harder, work smarter, to do what you have to do.” Her role as assistant manager requires being versatile, adaptable and willing to do almost anything. It may mean helping a vendor unload a broken-down truck, help set up a demonstration, schedule a musician, etc. She has studied facets of technology in order to create a website, write a newsletter, and develop a media and advertisement campaign. Initially Mao was in the growing part of the industry; now she is becoming more in the networking facet with others such as the EBT program, the Minneapolis Health Department, and the USDA which all have certain rules for the market and the vendors. For example, each vendor must have a hand washing apparatus at their site for cleaning knives and samplings. The city inspector can come and fine the vendor and the market and possibly get a business shut down if the rule is not adhered to.

In April 2018 Mao was approached to be a member of the 7-member market governing board. In order to sustain the Market it was decided that different perspectives were needed. (More than one-half of the 155 association members are currently non-European American. There was not a diverse age group on the Board.) After being a board member for a month, Mao was asked by the director to apply to be assistant manager. She was hired.

Farming practices of the Hmong community are being adopted by some non-Hmong growers.  Examples: Hmong generally plant earlier in the spring. Long-time Minnesota farmers used to plant, maintain and harvest a crop once a year; Hmong farmers often rotate crops 2-3 times a year. Mao told me of many of the changes that continue to evolve. Significant changes in growing and marketing observed by Mao: In the past, local farmers with 20 acres would plant two varieties of veggies. Farmers, such as the Hmong, would farm on five acres with several varieties of veggies providing more options for marketing. The later practice is becoming more popular moving from macro to micro-economics. A lot of customers want chemically free produce grown locally. And the Hmong American Farmers Association provides education for immigrant farmers in growing clean (chemically free) crops.

I asked Mao, “In what ways is the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market a factor in access to people of all incomes?” She believes the location is geographically a best option being close to bus lines, highways and underserved populations. Prices are stable. Food is the freshest and best. Mao provides the coordination of programs such as EBT, providing food for those in need. “Market Bucks” give free money for shopping. The Farmers Market Nutrition Program is on site.

Being experienced as a farmer and as a vendor is critical to Mao’s position. The skills of her past meld with her striving to embrace the new. She is integral to the growth of the ever-changing Minneapolis Farmer’s Market.