Foodstuffs: Refugee Farmers Plant Seeds for an Independent Future
The late June morning grows warmer as seven refugee farmers till their new plots at Lewis Farm in Concord. This is the second "incubator" farm established by the Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success, or ORIS. After the success of their first location, the organization established another to meet the interest of their clients.
The Fresh Start Farms program was established in 2009 to provide immigrant farmers with familiar, sustainable work and the opportunity to sell their produce. When the number of interested farmers exceeded capacity at the seven-acre plot in Dunbarton, ORIS worked to acquire the new land in Concord.
Charlene Higgins, ORIS’ market and training coordinator for refugee farmers, gingerly picks her way across a field at Lewis Farm. The growth here is new - just leafy green hints of the tomatoes, corn, beans and mustard greens to come. A late start in the season, Higgins explains, means that these farmers will not be able to participate in the popular CSA program facilitated by ORIS. Their summer produce will only be sold at the local farmers markets, but that doesn't seem to discourage any of these growers. They are thinking in the long term.
Godance Ndabumvirubusa, a Burundian woman who has been in the United States for five years, heard about the Fresh Start program and visited the established farm at Dunbarton. That, she says, is when she decided she wanted a plot of her own. When Ndabumvirubusa begins selling her tomatoes and greens it will be her first source of income in the U.S.. Though it is a small beginning, there is potential for growth within the program. Some of the 20 farmers at Dunbarton, says Higgins, are already setting off on their own.
"Nine of them are very active in marketing," she says, "and are actually developing their own self-sustaining cooperative and are actually transitioning away from relying on services and support from ORIS, which is really exciting."
They’re calling it the New American Farmer’s Cooperative. The group spent all winter working with the University of New Hampshire’s Cooperative extension and with ORIS to develop business and marketing plans. A governing board with five members spent much of the winter, Higgins says, determining voting and decision making processes.
Two of the founding members of the Co-op, LaxmiMishra and Fatuma Mohammed, sell fresh vegetables from overflowing crates at the Manchester Farmers Market, while distributing CSA packages to their subscribers. Higgins hands a check to Mohammed - her cut of the CSA profits. The plan, says Higgins, is to completely transfer control of the CSAs and farms over to the Co-op in the next two years. The Co-op is setting up a bank account and filling out the paperwork to become a legally incorporated business. Then, ORIS will transfer the land over to them.
"We’ve been setting them up with the resources and the trainings to do that successfully," says Higgins, "and I think within the next couple of years they’ll be set to do that on their own."
Higgins says ORIS will still offer support and an office when necessary. But the Dunbarton farmers are already handling most of the business on their own. Independence is the goal of the Fresh Start program, and now, even for those farmers who have yet to sell a single bunch of mustard greens, it’s a real possibility.