Refugee Resettlement: Finding Empowerment, Honoring Roots at New Lands Farm

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603568_511856275496688_568655166_nOn this blog, I do my best to share both my thoughts and those of others standing for welcome at LIRS and nationwide.  Today, I’d like to introduce an interview by Luke Telander, Program Associate for Outreach at LIRS, with Daniel Gregory, Marketing Specialist at New Lands Farm.  Stay tuned for even more on the NLF with farmer interviews coming soon!

The crops at the New Lands Farm are not your stereotypical New England fare.  The farm boasts everything from Bhutanese hot peppers to the popular Tanzanian green mchicha.  Newly resettled refugees, often with significant agricultural experience, come to the farm from across the Worcester urban area to plant their crops.

To the refugees at New Lands Farm, a project of Lutheran Social Services – New England (LSS),  the opportunity to farm is empowering both personally and financially.  Refugee farmers are able to sell their produce to local farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) groups, and are also able to honor and share their own culture through growing and selling produce native to their home countries.

I was lucky enough to talk with Daniel Gregory of New Lands Farm about the project and its importance to the local refugee community.  Here are his and the farm staff’s thoughts, shared by email:

Luke Telander (LT): How did New Lands Farm get started, and why?

Daniel Gregory (DG): Because so many refugees making Massachusetts their new home are farmers or gardeners by trade and tradition, LSS launched New Lands Farm in 2008 as a way to enable them to stay connected with and involved in their cultural traditions and vocational expertise, as well as to put down roots in their new community. Upon arriving in the United States, many refugees ask about growing food to feed their families and about opportunities to work in farming, a sector with which they understand and practice. LSS developed New Lands Farm in order to enable refugees to grow food for their families, sell their produce locally, and pursue self-sustaining careers in agriculture.

LT: How has New Lands Farm worked with refugees on their transition into lives in America? 

DG: By providing access to land and assistance with growing, New Lands Farm plays an important role in assisting refugees with their transition into lives in America. Many of the farmers have strong backgrounds in subsistence agriculture and have interest in continuing this practice, which helps them connect to their lives from their home countries. In addition to growing many of the crops that are native to farmers’ home countries, New Lands farmers are able to supplement the availability of fresh produce in their homes and communities and alleviate their weekly cost spent on groceries.

LT: Can most of the farmers grow produce native to their home countries?

DG: There are a few adjustments needed to adjust to the new climate, but a majority of the farmers use their space quite successfully to grow crops that are native to their home countries, e.g. mchicha, bittergourd, roselle, and African & Asian varieties of eggplant.

LT: What are some of the challenges that refugees have faced in adapting to American farming?

DG: The first challenge farmers have to deal with is adapting to a new climate. New England’s growing season is far shorter than many of our farmers are used to, so they have to learn about many season extension strategies and agricultural techniques to adjust to this change. Another challenge is learning how to work with a smaller space. In our program, farmers work on 1/8 acre plots, where some farmers in their home countries worked up to 10 acres. Many farmers are used to larger spaces, however some have said they have learned to grow more out of the smaller space we provide them than they would have grown on larger plots in their home countries.

The biggest challenge is learning how to market their produce. Most farmers have the technical skill to adapt to new growing conditions, however the ability to sell their vegetables is a challenge for almost every refugee farmer. Many of our farmers have said that in their home countries, they would only sell when they needed to, occasionally go to market, or sell them to their neighbors when they asked. A weekly farmers’ market is a familiar concept to many of the farmers, however, community supported agriculture models and setting up relationships with restaurants and grocers for wholesale purchasing are completely new to them.

LT: One of the main goals of the refugee resettlement program is self-sufficiency.  How is New Lands Farm effective in helping refugees reach this goal?

DG: Many of the farmers were self-sufficient in their home countries by growing a majority of their food for themselves and their families. Since this lifestyle is a familiar way of life for our clients, farming enables them to gain self-sufficiency in their new lives in America by gaining supplemental income and food for themselves and their families.

LT: Is there a nutritional need in refugee communities that New Lands Farm is addressing?

DG: In many urban settings, such as the Greater Springfield and Worcester areas, lack of access to healthy foods is an important issue. Many refugees may resettle into neighborhoods where corner stores may lack fresh produce, or the quality of produce in grocery stores is less than desirable. Additionally, with a majority of refugees without cars, they are unable to travel to places where they can purchase higher quality produce. By growing much of their own food, the farmers are able to access fresh vegetables in a culturally acceptable way.

LT: You offer farmer trainings to new participants.  What do these trainings entail?

DG: Our trainings range from field workshops, to field trips at nearby farms, to a winter training course. Field workshops generally entail training on new equipment or new agricultural techniques. We do field trips to nearby farms so farmers can get an idea of how other farms operate, whether it is on a larger scale or not. Our off-season training course covers a wide range of topics, including soil management, crop planning techniques, how to market produce, and culminates in developing an individual crop plan for each farmer’s plot.

LT: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve observed or experienced working on this project?

DG: How food and growing food can reach across language barriers and across cultures. There is a very simple, but profound connection that all the participants and staff have with one another due to the love of growing food.

LT: How do longer-term residents nearby view the project?

DG: We have always been greeted by welcoming comments and smiles by the surrounding community. I think our communities understand that we live in a city that is increasingly multicultural. Within that diversity of people, the community understands that people have different skills and interests. So if people want to farm and garden then have it! And most people admire our project because they too at one point had a grandmother or grandfather that used to own a farm, or tend a large family garden. They think it’s very romantic in fact. In addition, certain neighborhoods where are gardens are located look more beautiful now.

LT: Will the success of New Lands Farm lead LSS to adopt any other micro-enterprise initiatives?

DG: We are hoping in the future to partner with LSS’s Micro-Enterprise Development program to develop, market, and sell several lines of value-added products. Many farmers bring a heritage of food preservation techniques and we would like to utilize their knowledge.

If you enjoyed this interview, stay tuned for Q&A’s with individual farmers in weeks to come. In the meantime, thank you for willingness to Stand for Welcome for refugees and immigrants! And don’t forget to bookmark this page and subscribe to this blog in the upper left-hand corner of this page.

Image credit: New Lands Farm

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