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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