By fall harvest, the Hmong American Farmer’s Association will have a new leader at its helm.
Janssen Hang, a co-founder of HAFA, will be new to his position but well known to the organization. As executive director, he will be replacing Pakou Hang, his sister and the other half of the original HAFA team. Janssen will step into the role on Sept. 22.
In the Hang household, education was the key to a better future. Pakou and Janssen’s parents farmed to pay private school tuition for their seven children, who all worked in the fields each summer. “The sun is beating on you, the rain is hitting you so hard,” Janssen recalled.
After graduating college, the siblings saw that Hmong farmers needed more support to access land and build wealth – and the community was ready to do something about it.
“Our mission … is to advance the economic, social and cultural prosperity among Hmong Americans farmers, and also their families,” said Janssen. “We don’t believe in just building income for the year, but … it’s about intergenerational wealth.”
A hub of Hmong business development
The organization has been featured by mainstream and specialty media as a barrier-breaker for an overlooked yet robust population of growers. Since 2012, the nonprofit has grown into a hub of Hmong business development, with more than 100 members and 17 farmers on the organization’s 155-acre farm. Their produce is served in the lunchrooms of 24 school districts around the state.
The organization has grown so much, in fact, that Pakou felt she needed to leave in order for it to continue developing. A fast-talking person and go-getter, Pakou said her “frantic energy” was great for a start-up, but not sustainable.
“In many ways we’re maturing, and my type of leadership is not needed; it’s actually not beneficial to the organization,” said Pakou. “The next leader needs to be someone who can govern and can maintain and can refine.”
Because of language barriers, Hmong farmers often lack access to land, credit and training — all critical resources in advancing their business.
As HAFA was becoming a reality, Janssen wondered, “Why are they not part of the whole local food access and food movement here, even though Hmong farmers make up 50% or over 50% of vendors at the local farmer’s market system?”
Through different business development and research programs, the organization has sought to close disparities between Hmong and white farmers. One big step was when an anonymous investor bought the 155 acres of land in Dakota County and leased it to HAFA, which set up its base in 2014. Farmers can choose to sublease five or ten parcels, where they grow a wide range of crops, like squash, bok choy and bittermelon.
The lease contract allows HAFA to buy the land from its benefactor in three years, but the association now has an opportunity to acquire it earlier. As the incoming leader, one of Janssen’s top priorities will be preparing to launch a capital campaign to raise funds for the purchase.
“As a membership-based organization, once the organization purchases the land here, then there is a sense of ownership, regardless if [farmers] are owners or not,” Janssen said. “Collectively … we really build on this farm.”
The land acquisition would also be a chance for capital improvements. To accommodate the diversity of crops members grow, the organization is looking to build a million-dollar facility for washing, packaging and storing produce. The facility, with four climate control refrigeration systems, would minimize the amount of crop loss farmers see in the winter.
Janssen is also looking to go national; he envisions someday using HAFA’s curriculum to create a federally recognized training program.
“The majority of our farmers … they’re not English speaking. And so if they spent $2,000 on a course that they’re not going to be able to obtain anything out of, how does that benefit them?” he said. “These are system barriers that we know about and have actually approached [the United States Department of Agriculture] about.”
Changing hands, not vision
If Pakou has been the engine powering the nonprofit through its tenuous start-up years, there are hopes Janssen will be the steadying hand as it matures.
In addition to leadership skills and knowledge about the industry, it was important that the next leader understand Hmong culture and speak the language, said Martha Lee, co-founder of the consulting firm Better World, which led the search for HAFA’s next executive director. Lee solicited applications from Michigan, California, Seattle and Wisconsin.
Liz Johnson, the board chair of HAFA, said Janssen’s track record is what made him a standout candidate. With 25 years in the ag industry, he built “almost every program” on the farm.
“He’s very thoughtful, and he’s very good at relationship building, especially with farmers,” Johnson said. “He’s the homegrown leader, and that’s ultimately the best. That’s just another sign of success, to have someone who’s been in it for so long already and wants to take it to the next level.”
Pakou, who recused herself from the search, acknowledged that Janssen’s current position as co-founder and as her sibling could cast doubt on the fairness of process. But to her, it was clear from the beginning that Janssen was the best choice to maintain the organization’s values.
“Oftentimes people say, “Oh, we’re going to have a new leader, because we want to go in a different direction.” We don’t want to go to a different direction … We actually like the direction, we believe in the direction HAFA is going,” she said.
What direction is that? Increasing the independence of member farmers, it seems. “We will really be successful when our farmers don’t need us, and that is OK. Janssen and I both understood … even as he was accepting this position, that there might be a shelf life to HAFA,” Pakou said. “And that’s how it should be.”
Meanwhile at the farm, life continues at a busy pace.
Timothy Vang, who has been a farmer for 15 years and joined HAFA to get into the wholesale market, said he doesn’t have an opinion on the leadership change. Everybody can learn and be taught. “We just go year by year, day by day,” Vang said.
Mae Yang Xiong, who worked in assembly prior to farming, said through a translator that the transition is a little concerning. She heard rumors from vendors at the farmer’s market that there might be changes in purchasing the land, and expressed worry that she might lose access to her parcel.
Hang hasn’t heard these concerns from farmers, but assured that there would be no change to their 10-year land lease, which ends in 2024.
“Without a doubt, we are still pursuing with the same agenda to secure the purchase,” Hang said.