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Sep 10, 2008

The latest U.S. immigrants are reinventing the family farm and renewing the American dream.

By Claire Levenson

Outside a Whole Foods in Portland, Maine, the farmers’ market is in full swing on this sunny Saturday afternoon in September. But nestled in among the stalls—mostly run by the long-time denizens who have been selling their produce at this market for generations—are an increasing number of new faces: immigrant farmers, primarily from Somalia and Sudan. By introducing crops and farming methods from their native countries to Maine’s traditional farming communities, these newcomers have brought a fresh look and excitement to this weekly event.

Watch a slideshow of one immigrant family as they tend to their fields and travel to a local farmers’ market with their produce.

“I love farming, I really do,” says John Yanga, a Sudanese immigrant and lifelong farmer who is now the outreach coordinator for the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project (NASAP) in Maine. “In Africa, farming is just a part of life—it’s not a business. So I like making money. But I love the farming life: being outside with my kids, enjoying the weather and enjoying nature.”
Yanga’s fondness for farming in America is shared by many of the other immigrant farmers on hand, whose stalls offer a mix of produce native to both this country and their own.
“The customers that come to buy the vegetables are marvelous,” says Helen Aboyge, who has been farming in Maine since arriving from Sudan six years ago. “They like to ask us about what we do, and that’s the kind of people we’re looking for: ones that like to talk.”

A Fertile Diaspora
Like these groups in Maine, a growing number of immigrants who acquired farming experience in their home countries are adapting their skills to new conditions in America. Many are refugees who were directed to specific regions by the Office of Refugee Resettlement: Somalis in Minnesota, Hmongs in California’s Central Valley or Sudanese refugees in Maine. Often with the help of local farmers, these newcomers started growing crops—first to feed their families, then for a profit.
“In 2002, we started with six immigrant farmer groups in the country. There are now more than 40 organizations working with us,” says Mapy Alvarez, interim executive director for the National Immigrant Farming Initiative (NIFI).
“My group’s culture has been farming for generations. We don’t know other jobs,” remarks Mukhtar Hussein, a Somali refugee who works as a translator and farms in Lewiston, Maine, a small town where hundreds of East Africans are building new lives.
For over a decade, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), along with a few other foundations, has been funding projects that teach newcomers about American-style agriculture. This means learning about crop planning, risk management, pesticides, customer tastes, management, fundraising, marketing and labor regulations.
In many cases, farming has become a reliable source of income for those with limited English skills, and a way for them to play an active role in their communities.

Foreign Faces in Familiar Places: Watch two short documentary videos of immigrant farmers in Fresno, Calif. and Portland, Maine.

Helping Hands
The immigrant families in Maine have the agricultural know-how, but often need help with the administrative processes, which they receive from the nonprofit NASAP.
“In Somalia, land was free, you could just create your own farm,” Hussein says. “Here, it is complicated. So, the organization helped us to get land.”
Others have bought farms and turned them into profitable businesses, like the Rodriguez brothers in New York, who specialize in Mexican produce, or Hector Perez, who is originally from Mexico and now has three employees that work his nine acres of land in New Jersey.
Several factors account for the success of these initiatives. Foreigners often can’t find familiar foods in local supermarkets and therefore are eager to start cultivating them. Also, most cities now have organic farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture programs, or CSAs, that partner up a local farm and a group of buyers.

In our interactive infographic, find out where different immigrant groups have settled in the U.S., and what types of produce they are bringing from their homelands to their own fields here.

Growing Tastes
“Customers are really happy to expand their culinary horizons,” says Kimberley Fitch, the finance and program coordinator for Tufts’s New Entry Sustainable Farming Project (NESFP). In Lowell, Mass., a CSA selling ethnic specialties that attracted 15 customers two years ago now has 100 participants who pick up weekly bags of exotic cabbages like kale and kohlrabi.
To help market these new crops, staff members from several farmers’ groups wrote recipe booklets and staged cooking demonstrations, an approach that yielded good results.
In Boston, for instance, pea tendrils, baby bok choy and pumpkin blossoms have become so popular that nonimmigrant farmers in the area have started planting them as well. “It’s really exciting. We spurred diversity in what other people grow and eat,” reports NESFP’s director, Jennifer Hashley.
In Maine, the Somali and Sudanese farmers introduced locals to melokhia (a common ingredient in Egyptian and Sudanese cooking) and black-eyed pea leaves.
In California, farm advisors from the University of California Cooperative Extension are trying to educate customers about lemongrass, which makes a lemony tea and is grown by local Hmong refugees. These exotic products are also sold to some of the country’s best restaurants, from New York to San Francisco.

Filing a Void
Another reason for the expansion of these farming projects is that “American farmers are aging and often aren’t being replaced by younger ones,” says Rebecca Morgan, a senior specialist for Heifer International, which funds some of these initiatives. “Especially when it comes to the production of fruits and vegetables, immigrants have become a vital part of agriculture. It’s really a national trend.”
According to a USDA census, the number of farms in the United States decreased by 4 percent between 1997 and 2002, while the number of Hispanic farmers (some born in this country) increased by 50 percent during the same period. Unfortunately, there are no definitive statistics on the number of immigrant farmers in America, but they now can be found working throughout the country.
The history of immigrant farmers in this country dates to the 19th century, when Germans and Scandinavians developed farms in the Midwest. In the 1970s, this trend was revived by political refugees, with the Hmong in California being among the first to begin farming on a large scale. The group, which fought alongside U.S. troops during the Vietnam War, was forced to flee Communist Laos for the U.S., settling mostly around Fresno, Calif.
“I have been a smaller farmer for five years already,” explains Chia Lee, who fled Laos as a child and is one of the 1,200 East Asian farmers in the Fresno area. “I moved from Minneapolis, Minn., and settled in Fresno, which is when I started working as a small farmer, growing many different kinds of Asian vegetables, like long beans, green beans, squash, monqua and bok choy.
“I like the freedom of farming and being my own boss. Whenever I want to come to my fields, I can come here. And when I want to go on vacation, I can just take off,” Lee continues. “Nobody controls me.”

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