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Refugees find home on the farm

On a small farm in suburban West Des Moines, Iowa, even the barn is a refugee—an historic structure relocated from nearby Valley High School. The farmers, most of them refugees, are just starting to hoe the land, each one working a 50-foot by 50-foot plot where they’ll grow corn, beans, cabbage, eggplant, onions, tomatoes and peppers.

One hot, sunny Saturday in May, about two dozen people lined up to receive transplants and seeds from Donna Wilterdink, the farm assistant from Lutheran Services of Iowa. She’s helping them launch Global Greens Farm, a training farm that aims to help refugees segue from growing food for their families to operating small businesses that sell produce at farmers’ markets, local grocery stores and to area restaurants.

Many Midwestern cities have a long history of resettling refugees. Urban areas typically have the resources to help families adjust, such as English classes and public transportation. But fertile farmland calls to those refugees who farmed in their home countries. In response, social service agencies have worked to find availble land for urban refugess to cultivate. 

Several training farms have developed to help these new Americans grow food—and businesses. New Roots for Refugeesin Kansas City, Kan., and Community Crops, in Lincoln, Neb., have used the same model as Global Greens, leveraging non-profit resources such as grant funding and community connections to get interested immigrants onto small plots.

On the farm, Wilterdink split apart tomato starts and handed them to Cubwa Rajabu, who now lives in Des Moines, some 8,000 miles from his native Burundi. He’ll also transplant peppers and cabbage and tuck seeds into the fertile soil. Global Greens occupies an area in the shadow of Valley Community Center, a brand-new building on 35 acres that Valley Evangelical Free Church owns. The church is just across the street and one of its congregants had the idea to connect the community center’s open space with the refugee growers.

That churchgoer is Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture, Bill Northey, who’d been hearing about Lutheran Services’ endeavors to help refugees find land to cultivate.

“Two things hit me at the same time,” Northey said, “thinking this is a space that’s just perfect for them to be able to let refugees be able to farm.”

For the past couple of seasons, the refugees grew food for their families in community gardens. But those were mostly on city-owned land and came with the provision that they could not sell what they grew. Now they can farm. Wilterdink held a crop planning workshop in the spring.

“We discussed what they could sell at market,” Wilterdink said. “What things would sell well at market and what people would be interested in purchasing.”

Wilterdink knows—she has her own organic vegetable farm with her husband and she initially got in touch with Lutheran Services about possibly hiring some of the refugees to help on her farm. Instead, she landed a part-time job managing their farm.

The refugees come from Burundi, Rwanda, Bhutan, Nepal and Burma—now known as Myanmar. Wilterdink says some have saved seeds from their own countries.

“A lot of the greens that they have seed from, from their own countries, will do fine in Iowa,” Wilterdink said, “especially in the spring and fall when the cooler temperatures come in.”

Each grower paid $100 toward the costs, including seeds, transplants and water, but most of the expenses are covered by grants for now. Chantal Gatimantare grew various plants back in Africa, including cabbage, peppers, eggplant and onions, all of which she’s planting here this year. Her daughter, Charlotte, often translates for her.

“She's hoping to get some money from this whole thing so she can help her family,” Charlotte said.

After getting her seeds and transplants, Gatimatare picked up a hoe and got to work while her daughter, who is 15, tended to another woman’s baby. Next to them, another plot is worked by a woman from Rwanda, who is across from a Nepali family.

Mukiza Gahetano and his wife are also from Burundi and as they worked, they sang with their two young boys joining in. Gahetano’s sons were born in Tanzania, where many refugees from Burundi had plots of land to farm in the temporary camps where they lived. Gahetano plans to grow many familiar crops.

“I will plant some beans and some corn. But a lot of vegetables,” he said. “Some I will sell and another part I will use in my family.”

Wilterdink will work with the farmers during the season and throughout the year so they continue to learn business skills. All of them must participate in a seasonal monthly market at the church, to practice sales and marketing. Secretary Northey said the congregation will benefit from the farm and the market.

“I would love for folks from the church to be able to get out in the garden and be there when some of the families are working,” he said. “Making some connection, hopefully the refugees feeling very comfortable there, very welcome. And I think if anything a farmers’ market offers more opportunity for that interaction.”

Northey said refugees may never change the face of industrial agriculture in Iowa, but they can certainly contribute to the local economy.

“I would think we may see some business grow out of this,” Northey said.

That’s the goal.

“The vision that we have for it is to gradually get them on their own piece of land running their own farmer's market business or CSA business,” said Wilterdink, “so they can become more part of the community and be self-sufficient and sustainable.”

Community Crops in Lincoln, Neb., proves it can be done. That training farm has already celebrated the launch of multiple businesses from alumni.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames