ST. PAUL — In 2014, multimedia artist Mike Hazard was asked to document the happenings at a 155-acre farm run by the Hmong American Farmers Association. While he wasn’t planning on turning the project into an exhibition, that’s exactly what’s happening with “Seeds of Change: A Portrait of the Hmong American Farmers Association.” 

With an opening reception today at the Minnesota Museum of American Art Project Space, “Seeds of Change” features photos, videos and books capturing the heart of this particular group of farmers and their relationship to the land they work and the food they grow.

“I didn’t want to frame these pictures with my own words,” Hazard said. “I wanted them to be a picture story first. It’s a trip to a farm — the hand labor, the old tractors, the beautiful clothing. They don't look like the typical farmer we know in Minnesota. Yet there’s so much in common. This is not a trip to another country — it’s a trip to a different kind of farm.”

The farm is in the town of Vermillion, a short drive from downtown St. Paul. It is divided into a series of plots with 20 families farming the land. Hazard was originally commissioned to photograph the farm by HAFA executive director Pakou Hang, whom he first met while making a film about the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone. Hang worked on Wellstone’s campaign before the politician died in a 2002 plane crash.

Hazard said he's had “the time of (his) life” taking photos on the farm (or “garden,” as the farmers refer to it). He recalls the connection he had to some of the farmers before working on the project, thanks to frequent trips to the St. Paul Farmers Market in Lowertown, where many of them sell their crops.

“It changed the way I eat,” he said. “You know who’s growing your food.”

While he didn't go seeking an exhibit, he said MMAA’s executive director Kristin Makholm saw some of his images from the farm and suggested he display them at the museum’s Project Space. Hazard jumped at the chance.

Along with the three dozen photos and a five-minute video Hazard created to document the changing of the seasons on the farm, there are also books containing more than 30 stories about the farm’s community that Hazard wrote.

“First you see the pictures on the wall,” said Hazard about the exhibit. “Then you experience the video and then, if you go far enough, you get my story of what I see in the book.”

Most importantly, for Hazard, documenting the farm has given him the chance to get to know the people who work the land.

“It’s about growing a deeper relationship, not just with the land and the food but with the people who grow our food,” Hazard said. “Call it experience or exposure or learning the life lessons of a deep, profound connection between the earth and the human beings who are growing things on it. That’s a gift. I’m there to click pictures, and the pictures have been used in many good ways — this museum exhibition is just one of them. I’m the medium in between and lucky to be there.”

Tribune News Service