Mhonpaj May with customer

Mhonpaj’s Garden: Inspiring organic farming

Mhonpaj’s Garden is a long-time vendor at the Mill City Farmers Market. This certified-organic farm is owned by mother-daughter duo May and Mhonpaj Lee. They grow a variety of vegetables using organic practices for pest and weed management as well as practicing soil conservation, sustainable water usage and the many other things encompassed in USDA Organic Certification.

In 1980, May, her husband, their children and May’s mother immigrated to the United States from Loas as refugees. They found work farming conventionally, but when May’s mother was diagnosed with cancer after working with pesticides in the United States, May knew she needed to start farming organically.

May’s daughter Mhonpaj was connected with the Minnesota Food Association (MFA) and learned about their New Immigrant Agriculture Program (now called the Farmer Education Program). They were accepted into the three-year program, which gave them access to the MFA’s 60-acre certified organic incubator farm and connected them with a Hmong-speaking coordinator who helped them find resources and answer questions about organic farming. Together they resolved issues ranging from drip irrigation setup to product liability insurance to insect control.

After “graduating” from the MFA program, Mhonpaj’s Garden went on to become the first Hmong-owned certified organic farm in Minnesota. May and her family now farm 9 acres of leased land along the St. Croix River.

In addition to farming, May spends lots of time educating other growers about organic practices through the MFA and as a Master Gardener volunteer. She and her family also share their culinary heritage through cooking demonstrations and classes.

You can find May along with her children (and sometimes grandchildren!) at the Mill City Farmers Market, 704 S. 2nd St., every Saturday from 8 a.m.–1 p.m. with seasonal vegetables, like asparagus and garlic scapes used in the recipe below.

Learn more at millcityfarmersmarket.org.


Grilled sirloin and asparagus with garlic scape chimichurri

Recipe courtesy of the Mill City Farmers Market

Serves 4.

Ingredients

  • ½ bunch parsley
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup white wine vinegar
  • 4 garlic scapes or 2 green garlic stems
  • ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 lb. sirloin steak from Sunshine Harvest Farm
  • 1 lb. asparagus
  • 4 cups salad greens, optional for serving

Method

Prepare Green Garlic Chimichurri by blending all the ingredients (lest steak and asparagus) in a food processor. Set aside.

Rub salt and pepper into both sides of a 1-pound sirloin steak, then allow the meat to come to room temperature while you prepare the grill.

Start the grill and warm it until it is hot. Use your hand test: the grate will be hot enough when you can hold your palm 3–4 inches above the metal for no more than three seconds.

Brush steak with olive oil. Sear the steaks for 2–3 minutes on each side directly over the flame, with the lid down. Then, move the steaks to the part of grill that is not lit. Set the lid in place and allow the steaks to cook, without flipping them, until they reach 120–135 degrees (this is a lower temp than you would use for feed lot finished beef), about 10–20 minutes, depending on the size of the steak. Remove the steaks to a platter and allow them to rest a few minutes before serving.

Meanwhile grill the asparagus. Coat with olive oil and grill the asparagus for 7–10 minutes, until tender.

To serve, lay steak and asparagus on a bed of salad greens. Drizzle with chimichurri sauce and serve immediately.