• Eat it on the Radio

    Eat it on the Radio

    In his book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Vermont author and environmentalist Bill McKibben focuses on the importance of strong communities for the health and well-being of the planet and its people. He suggests that we can strengthen our home regions by producing more of our own food, generating more of our own energy, and even creating more of our own culture and entertainment. To achieve these goals, McKibben advises, we need to build or rebuild local institutions that draw people together, and one such institution that he cites in his book is a low-power radio station in the Mad River Valley: WMRW-LP Warren, 95.1 FM.

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  • A Passion for Artisan Soap

    A Passion for Artisan Soap

    My soap-making journey started a decade or so ago, when I was becoming more and more sensitized (allergic) to mainstream, detergent-type soaps. Eventually I just couldn’t use them anymore. As I researched the subject, I became alarmed at what was being used in cosmetic products on the market, not to mention all the harmful chemicals leaching into our waterways as a result of those products. I decided to start making my own soap, and the enthusiasm I had back then for soap making has now turned into a passion and a business for me. My only regret is that I didn’t start making them sooner!

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • The Story of Bread

    The Story of Bread

    Green Mountain Flour, a new artisan bakery in Windsor owned and operated by Zachary Stremlau and Daniella Malin, takes a unique approach to its craft: it uses local wheat, local milling, and local fuel to create its flours, breads, and pizzas. Here, woodcuts that comprise the bakery’s logo tell “the story of bread,” echoing a time in early New England when, according to Zachary and Daniella, “the farmers knew the miller, the miller milled with stone, and the baker baked with fire.”

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  • How to Get Grounded

    How to Get Grounded

    On a road in Cabot, not far from the land that Laura Dale and Cyrus Pond bought this past March, you can look out to the west at a horizon dominated by the undulating spine of the Green Mountains. For many young farmers in Vermont, the cost of land can seem as daunting and insurmountable as the largest of those mountains in the dead of winter.

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  • Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Classy Wheat

    Classy Wheat

    Last year, I arrived at The Putney School as their new gardener and was tasked with getting the high school students at this Putney boarding and day school excited about gardening. Early on, the farm manager told me he had planted some wheat on the edge of one of the farm’s hayfields. I was intrigued.

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  • Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    As I downshift off the Putney exit of I-91, my husband, Jerry, is roused from his dozing by the hollow sound of several hundred jostling maple syrup jugs. It’s April, time to buy containers for our maple syrup at Bascom’s 10% container sale, and time to post Farm Camp flyers.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Getting Everyone to the Table

    Getting Everyone to the Table

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • A 10-Year Stroll

    A 10-Year Stroll

    With hundreds of spectators lining Main Street in Brattleboro, the groomed and bedazzled heifers are led down the center of the street to the cheers of onlookers. Hundreds of cows preen for the delighted crowd, followed by more farm animals (bulls, goats, and horses), tractors (also decorated for the parade) floats, clowns, marching bands, street performers, and all manner of groups touting their various farm affiliations.

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  • Cookbooks, Culture,  and Community

    Cookbooks, Culture, and Community

    The case for local nuts. No, I’m not talking about your odd mother-in-law, your bizarre ex-boyfriend, or that whacko who expresses herself, extensively, at town meeting. And I don’t mean aficionados or extremely enthusiastic people. I mean those portable nuggets of nutrition, held aloft by tree limbs. A nut, technically speaking, is a big seed enclosed by a hard shell. And even though you’re now fantasizing about almond and macadamia instead of weirdo and diehard, I’m here to tell you about what nuts we can grow in Vermont, and why.

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  • After the Fire

    After the Fire

    Barn’s burnt down…now I can see the moon. –Chinese proverb

    Yet the converse is also true: Yes, we can see the moon, but it won’t shelter tractors, nor can vegetables be washed, packed, and stored inside its lovely glow. Oh, the moon is beautiful, but what can it do for food and a business after the fire is put out?

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New to America, Old Hands at Agriculture

Michel Mpambazi and his wife, Clothilde Ntahomvukiye
Michel Mpambazi and his wife, Clothilde Ntahomvukiye

Written By

Ginger Nickerson

Written on

June 01 , 2010

There’s something exciting happening at the Intervale. “So what else is new?” you might say. “There’s always something interesting happening at the Intervale.” But not every day do you see families from more than four different countries, speaking a mix of different languages, planting lenga-lenga, molukhia, or Asian mustards side by side in a lush valley in Vermont. This summer that will be the scene at the gardens at Ethan Allen Homestead, a field at the Intervale Center in Burlington, and on farmland in Shelburne.

The families who are tilling this soil all came to Vermont as refugees from areas of war and civil strife, and are now working together to grow food on Burlington-area land through a micro-agriculture incubator program. The project, New Farms for New Americans, is a partnership between the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, the Winooski Valley Park District, and the Intervale Center. Launched in 2008, New Farms for New Americans provides a glimpse into what a more culturally diverse agriculture could look like in Vermont.

The farmers originally came from Burundi, Bhutan, Somalia, and the Congo. Each group was forced to leave their homes, land, friends, and family due to civil strife in their home countries, where they were subjected to violence and discrimination because of their ethnicity. Most of them spent years, sometimes decades, in other countries before it was determined that they would never be able to return home or to stay in their host countries and would have to be resettled in the U.S.

Because adjustment to American culture can be hard for immigrants, the Association of Africans Living in Vermont (AALV) was founded in 2003 to provide Africans in Vermont a place to come together and to help each other adjust to their new home. In 2009, AALV decided to serve all refugees in Vermont, and today it provides assistance and social services to refugees and immigrants from more than 35 countries, including Bhutanese, Burmese, Meskhetian Turks, and Iraqis, as well as people from African countries. 
Since AALV’s founding, one of its top priorities has been to help members locate jobs—and not just the low-skill, low-wage jobs that are often the only ones available to people with limited English, but jobs that allow individuals to truly support their families and to achieve self-sufficiency and independence. To that end, AALV has three workforce training programs: one that trains refugees and immigrants to be personal care assistants; another that combines training in welding with English lessons, and the micro-agriculture project, which provides participants with access to land and training in production, marketing, and business skills for growing vegetables for Vermont markets. As project partners, the Winooski Valley Park District supplies land, the Intervale Center supplies technical assistance, mentorship, and help with curriculum development, and AALV supplies training, seeds, water, assistance at training markets, and transportation to markets. The program, which currently serves 48 households from Bhutan, Burundi, Somalia, and the Congo, is funded with money from the United States Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Growing toward independence

The New Farms for New Americans micro-agriculture program is a tiered, or phased, system with participants receiving less and less support from AALV until they are eventually farming independently. In order to participate in the program, growers must be committed to starting their own business. Applicants who are more interested in growing food for household use are steered to the first tier, or community gardening options in Burlington. 
The second tier is market gardening with support from the AALV. The land for this part of the program consists of three acres at the Ethan Allen Homestead in Winooski. Since the majority of the farmers have been primarily involved in subsistence farming, there is considerable instruction given on business-oriented skills such as goal-setting, planning timelines, and record keeping. This year, farmers in the second tier also have the opportunity to garden larger plots on a one-acre parcel at the Intervale Center. Here, growers are expected to farm more independently than at the Ethan Allen Homestead gardens, and are rewarded with more land to cultivate.

In the third and final tier, participants receive some initial support from AALV to find land and to develop relationships with landowners and produce buyers, but the expectation is that they will manage their own accounts. This year a group of Bhutanese farmers will cultivate vegetables on a quarter acre of land in Shelburne made available by Al Gobeille, a Burlington restaurateur who is interested in purchasing vegetables from the New American farmers for his restaurants.

The AALV helps the growers sell their products at different farmers’ markets and affordable housing sites in Burlington. This year they will be selling at the farmers’ markets in the New North End, the Old North End, Winooski, and South Burlington. Last year, two women struck out on their own and independently started selling their products at the farmers’ market in Williston and the Burlington South End Market. One Somali-Bantu woman who had experience selling food in Africa has been particularly successful selling samosas along with her vegetables at the New North End market. This venture has provided her with a steady weekly income. 
New American farmers also sell their produce to grocery stores such as Healthy Living and City Market, restaurants, including American Flatbread and Bluebird Tavern, and other programs such as the Intervale Food Hub and the Burlington School District.

Longtime farmers

All the refugees are used to farming on a much larger scale. When their families were farming on their own land, or in resettlement areas, they grew crops that required large areas of land: rice, wheat, maize, cassava, and palm trees, as well as vegetables such as cabbage and tomatoes. The Somali-Bantu also raised sheep, goats, chickens, and even camels. Used to hard work, the farmers did all of the labor to clear and cultivate their farms manually, without the aid of tractors, tillers, or other machines. Many of the farmers hope to locate larger acreages so they can grow some of these crops again.

A group of Somali-Bantu elders have asked AALV to help them find land where they can grow corn to make a puffed corn product for the Somali-Bantu community, and the men from Burundi would like to grow more dried beans

AALV provides the refugees with the opportunity to cultivate foods from their own cultures. Francois Gasaba brought seeds of lenga-lenga, an amaranth eaten for its greens, from Burundi. He has been growing it in his garden here and says it grows well. Others have discovered they can grow molukhia, a mucilaginous green from the mallow family that is used commonly in different parts of Africa in stews (see recipe below).

Unlike many American families that have become dependent on frozen dinners, prepared foods, and microwaves, most of the refugee families are very familiar with cooking fresh, whole foods. They know how to prepare a whole chicken, and prefer fresh fruits and vegetables. Yet as a consequence of the language barrier and their lack of transportation, 80 percent of AALV’s members are living below the federal poverty level and are eligible for food stamps. So it’s no surprise, when asked what they like best about the New Farms for New Americans program, that most of the participants cite the opportunity to make money through selling their crops, and the chance to save money by feeding their families with the wholesome produce they grow.

As Michel Mpambazi, a Burundian farmer, said through an interpreter, “Even though we cannot grow everything that we grew in Burundi, we can still grow something and make some money. It contributes to our households because we can feed our families on what we do not sell instead of having to buy everything from the supermarket. We are contributing to the community.”

Dreams for the future

The New Americans clearly want to farm. All of the farmers interviewed for this article expressed a desire to grow their businesses as farmers. Pius Sinzohagera from Burundi told me that he participates in the program because “I have a big family [10 members]. I farm because I want to feed my family and to produce and grow as a farmer.” The men would very much like to find work on Vermont farms. When asked to describe what his dream farm would look like five years down the road, Ali Adam, a 25-year-old Somali-Bantu who works at AALV and farms part time with his aunt and uncle, responded like a true businessman: “It depends on what Vermonters have a need for. We would grow whatever people need. Tell us what is needed and we will grow it!”

Josie Weldon, program specialist at AALV, and Mandy Davis, program associate at the Intervale Center, dream that the New American families will soon be farming on their own land or rented land and enrolling in mainstream agricultural service programs like those offered by the U.S. Farm Service Agency and the Women’s Agricultural Network of the University of Vermont Extension.

“This is the most open-minded, generous, and patient group of people I have ever met,” Davis says. “Their tenacity is more than I can ever imagine. It’s hard for me to imagine having been through what they have been through and doing what they do on a daily basis and still be so open-hearted and generous. It has been an amazing experience for me.”

Often Mandy will be out at the gardens and will go over to say hello to a group of Bhutanese women, who are frequently enjoying papayas, pineapples, or some other tropical fruit. “Whenever I go over to say hi, they make me take food. Here I am supposed to be helping them, and they are giving me food to take home!”

Inspiration for the rest of us

In 2008, the Vermont Council on Rural Development conducted a year-long, statewide listening session with Vermont residents to determine the values that Vermonters hold in common and their visions for the future of the state. Two of the highest-ranked shared values held by Vermonters are community, or a shared feeling of belonging, respect and trust, and a commitment to preserving the state’s working landscape. The study recommends that recognizing the positive resources contributed by diverse members of the Vermont community will help us as a state meet the challenges that face us in the years ahead.

The tenacious New American farmers show us how we might be able to achieve our goals around community and agriculture. As individuals and as a group, they are working hard to overcome significant challenges. The process is not easy and includes daily struggles. But the New Americans persist because of their willingness and determination to succeed and to provide a better life for their families and communities. In doing so, they provide lessons for all of us in Vermont as we learn to feed ourselves and to protect our agricultural heritage in this ever-changing landscape.

If you have an opportunity you’d like to share with the participants in this program, particularly if you know of agricultural jobs, marketing, or land opportunities, please contact Josie Weldon at AALV:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 802-985-3106. Find out more about AALV’s other services for the larger refugee community athttp://www.africansinvermont.org/resources.html.

Photo of Michel Mpambazi and his wife, Clothilde Ntahomvukiye, of Burundi by Ned Castle, courtesy of New Farms for New Americans

About the Author

Ginger Nickerson

Ginger Nickerson

Ginger Nickerson gardens in the cold pocket of Worcester, where she dreams of someday cultivating tropical plants. Green Mountain bananas, anyone?

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