Words Ashley Mason

Laying Roots in Foreign Soil: Refugees Thrive in Urban Agriculture Roles

Apr 13, 2016

When Burmese native Tri Sa tends her pepper plants and lettuces, she doesn't often think of the work that her vegetables require. For her, tending the soil is a needed break from the harsh chemicals at her housekeeping job. Her rows of tall, lanky greens remind her of the home she left. “The things that I miss the most that I remember is my parents’ house,” Sa says, in a documentary short. “My farm, and then my chickens.”

She steadily increases her vegetable plot each year to grow more produce for farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes through the help of Transplanting Traditions Community Farm in Chapel Hill, N.C. Once her three daughters graduate from college she plans to become a full-time farmer.

When the agricultural program began six years ago, the community—through farmers’ markets and neighborhood potlucks—could soon see how much garden benefited the neighborhood and improved the growers' quality of life.

"What they were showing as a need for the community was gainful, consistent employment."

In areas that received large waves of refugees, like Chapel Hill, farmers cultivated ethnic vegetables—daikon radish and bitter yu choy—that its new residents depended on to feed their families. These programs gained such success that in 2010 the Office of Refugee Resettlement nationally issued grants totaling over $1 million. In partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture, they promoted gardens and small-scale farms, aiming to provide better nutrition and supplemental income for refugees. Today, almost 30 organizations nationwide provide agricultural training and resources during the resettlement process.

Budding culinary cities find this narrative—paired with the reliable source of local produce—attractive. In the case of Cleveland, Ohio, the Refugee Empowerment Agricultural Program launched its urban farm hot on the heels of prominent chefs like Michael Symon and Jonathon Sawyer, thoroughly establishing themselves in the city.

Its growers, like farm manager Mohammad Noormal, who relocated from Afghanistan to escape threats from the Taliban, are at the forefront of growing specialty vegetables for the Forest City's restaurateurs. Its experimental garden plot by City Hall, which opens this year, plants varieties of herbs for neighboring chefs. The group yields 23,000 pounds of produce a year, with a little over 34 percent going to restaurants.

While this may not seem like much, it gives the program's nine trainees experience marketing their produce to high-end businesses "What they were showing as a need for the community was gainful, consistent employment," the program’s executive director Darren Hamm says. Roughly 80 percent of the recent immigrants in their community exhibit high levels of agrarian experience. Rather than training these people as career farmers, REAP strives to equip them with the skills they need to snag higher wage jobs.

White collar employment is rare for the program's alumni. After they graduate from the three-year program, many earn supplemental income from the farm. Others find careers in the restaurant industry or transition to retail. “I am happy that I have a job in my own profession and I’m living with other Afghan families around Cleveland out of any threat,” Noormal says. They focus on mastering English and establishing relationships with businesses around the city.

In some cases, these skills alone help refugees bypass menial, unskilled labor jobs that they would otherwise get at factories. But in terms of achieving the American dream, many have a long way to go.

Outside Lowell, Mass., New Entry Sustainable Farming Project matches growers to plots of agricultural land. The farm training incubator accepts refugees and American-born growers with clear business plans and some starting capital. Once accepted, they receive farmable land, access to equipment, and training from Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition.

"I am happy that I have a job in my own profession and I’m living with other Afghan families around Cleveland out of any threat."

Refugees and recent immigrants make up 30 percent of their long-term farmers, and they tend to stick with agriculture much longer than their American counterparts. "It's in their blood," Hashley says. "We have to attract a lot of people who are romanticized by the notion of farming. This is what they want to be doing."

Their tenacity shows. Alumni from the program Phalla Nol, from Cambodia, needed little help putting together the application to secure a major wholesale account with Whole Foods. Hashley says the program helps participants secure farmland and distribute produce through their food hub, even after they’ve graduated.

But for the bulk of gardening refugees in Lowell, which has the nation’s second largest Cambodian population, they want access to fresh vegetables that they can't find in ethnic markets. At Mill City Growers, a mixed community garden in the area, co-founding director Lydia Sisson says these crops occasionally catch the curiosity of American growers. At the moment, it’s sour leaf, an Asian green in the hibiscus family. "We kind of make fun of them because Burmese farmers are overwhelmed by all of the requests to learn how to grow it," she says. "It's not often that you get to learn about a new vegetable."

For other communities, ethnic crops need some explanation. In Burlington, Vt., refugees and Vermonters plant side-by-side in its community garden space New Farms for New Americans. Through their partnership with University of Vermont Extension, new immigrants learn techniques for gardening in the harsh climate.

The farm's program coordinator Alisha Laramee says a few participants assumed the mentored gardeners used pesticides because their plants were growing so well. The misinformation spread through the community in a series of emails. "I wanted those people who were making those accusations to meet with the farmers themselves,” she says.

“Now that I have land to grow, I come here and get the fresh air. The vegetables are growing, the seeds germinate, and the plants spread out. I feel so happy to see those things.”

Shortly after New Farms produced a colorful guide of different crops from Africa and Asia as a way of getting more information out to the public. They distributed the booklets for free out of grocery stores and restaurants. "We're encouraging people to purchase some of these crops from the farmers and to get more involved in the community piece of it," Laramee says.

After the booklet, a few local eateries added African eggplant to their menus. The unfamiliar vegetable was a fun challenge for Kortnee Bush, the owner at Butch and Babe's. "A big part of our restaurant features things Americans are not familiar with," Bush says. Her Thai fusion concept, which neighbors a Vietnamese noodle joint, is far from the main drag of downtown Burlington. "We want to tell the story about the neighborhood we're in."

The stewed and spicy eggplant side dish sells well when it's in season, but customers aren't quite ready to try it as an entree. "People still need to be walked through it," Bush says. Tent cards on the tables provided by UVM tell the story of the dish and the Rwandan farmer Janine Ndagijimana behind it.

Ndagijimana's eggplant is somewhat of an anomaly in Burlington. Unlike most farmers, she tends a monocrop of over 2,000 eggplants a year. When she resettled from Rwanda she says she had a vision of growing beautiful eggplants in her new home. With the help of New Farms, she'll buy her first hoop house this year, allowing her to continue her production in the cold winter months.

Even with sizable plots of land, many refugee farmers opt for evening jobs as their main sources of income. These "third shift" jobs, where people work between 11 PM and 7 AM, are desirable among growers because they can spend the daylight hours outside doing something they love while earning a stable income doing housekeeping or sanitation work.

Transplanting Traditions' program coordinator Nicole Accordino feels conflicted about the long hours. "They're really tired all the time, but they're not sure how they would be able to farm if they were working all day," she says. "We paint a realistic picture of how difficult it is to be an independent farmer and how unpredictable that is. From the heart, their first priority might be farming, but in practicality, it’s working a job that gives them a reliable income."

Still, the farmers pursue late-night jobs on their own initiative. For Sa, this tiresome work schedule affords her the best of both worlds: a stable income to support her family and a therapeutic pastime. “Before I got involved at the farm I just went to work and came home,” Sa says. “Now that I have land to grow, I come here and get the fresh air. The vegetables are growing, the seeds germinate, and the plants spread out. I feel so happy to see those things.”