Beginning to farm in a new land

Imagine awakening one morning to find yourself living in a small apartment in a big city. Imagine having no land on which to grow crops. Then imagine having access to a small plot of land where you can transfer your farming skills from all that was familiar to much that is new.

That, in a nutshell, is the experience of the growers involved in Fresh Start Farms (http://freshstartfarmsnh.org), a collective of participants in the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project. Once accustomed to farming nearer the equator, these farmers, with guidance from the Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success in Manchester, New Hampshire, are adapting to seasons that are hot or cold instead of wet or dry. Woodchucks, deer, and a whole new array of insect pests have replaced the familiar baboons and elephants. Despite many challenges, these farmers are optimistic, growing crops, and participating in wholesale and retail markets.

Fresh Start Farms at the Manchester Farmers Market.
PHOTOS BY KATHLEEN HATT UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.

Meet the farmers of Fresh Start Farms

The 20 people currently participating in the ORIS Fresh Start Farms project include ethnic Nepalese from Bhutan, ethnic Bantus from Somalia, and Burundians, all resettled in the state within the last five years. Most were farmers and gardeners in their homelands. Prior to coming to the U.S., they lived in refugee camps, often for years. War and genocide have scattered their families across the globe. They all speak some English, but many rely on interpreters, often their children.

Beginning Fresh Start farmers are introduced to farming in New England under the guidance of farm production specialist Anthony Munene, who studied organic agriculture at the Kenya Institute of Organic Farming and in Germany, and agricultural project director Andrea Bye, whose studies took her from St. Lawrence University in New York to Kenya. Each farmer begins with 0.25 acre of their own within 7 acres of leased land in Dunbarton, New Hampshire. The following year, a single farmer is allocated 0.5 acre. Couples farming together get 1 acre. The farmers make their own decisions about which crops to grow and how to market them.

Growing farms within a farm

The 7-acre parcel in Dunbarton – leased to ORIS on a handshake from two sisters, both retired dairy farmers – was most recently used to grow cow corn. One of the first hurdles the project faced was the lack of on-site water for irrigation. A grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded the digging of an artesian well. Another challenge involved farm animals. In their home countries, the farmers tended to have various animals that provided fertilizer for their crops. Since the farmers’ city homes are more than 10 miles from the Dunbarton site, tending animals is not feasible. Instead, the farmers obtain manure from a dairy farm and use bagged North Country Organics Pro-Gro fertilizer.

Asli Yussuf checks a giant thermometer in a newly erected high tunnel. On this November day, the temperature inside the high tunnel was 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ANDREA BYE, ORIS.

The entire operation is spray-free and utilizes integrated pest management. Having seen photos of large American agricultural machinery (such as combines) even before they arrived in this country, Fresh Start farmers initially anticipated using large tractors on their farm. However, an Italian-made BCS, a walk-behind tractor that accommodates attachments, is about the right size for their 0.5-acre or 1-acre plots.

The farmers also faced the challenges of a shorter growing season and crops unfamiliar in their countries of origin. In Africa, specifically in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi and Somalia, crops are grown year-round, a sharp contrast to the April or May to October season in south-central New Hampshire.

Carrying a seed tray in one hand, a watering can and a seed tray in the other, and a plastic bag filled with soil amendments on her head, a Fresh Start farmer prepares to work in the high tunnel she shares with her husband.
PHOTOS BY KATHLEEN HATT.

Markets for ethnic crops

With their first sales in 2011 at farmstands in Manchester, Fresh Start farmers learned that customers, particularly immigrants missing home, would pay whatever they asked for traditional vegetables. They also observed that novelty is a strong motivator. Local customers were interested in trying vegetables they had never seen before, such as the spiny bitter melon. Fresh Start’s farming groups are tending to target different markets: the Somali-Bantu farmers are growing for American markets, while the Bhutanese and Burundians tend to grow ethnic crops for cash and to feed their families.

Along with farmers market and community supported agriculture sales, Fresh Start farmers are wholesaling common vegetables – lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers – to Harvest Market in Bedford, New Hampshire. In addition, they’re starting a partnership with the NH Farm to School Program to provide both traditional and ethnic produce to New Hampshire schools.

Marketing is a task that many of the farmers were not accustomed to doing in their home countries. Laxmi Mishra noted that in Bhutan he plowed with oxen and grew wheat, corn, rice, maize, oats, tomatoes, mustard greens, daikon, hot peppers and many other vegetables. He also raised a number of different farm animals, but marketing was not something he did. “In Bhutan I just grow. Someone else sells. There the farmer doesn’t have to find markets,” he said.

Fresh food for all

Part of the Fresh Start mission is to “ensure equitable access to affordable, convenient, nutritious produce in a way that also supports local farmers and stimulates the local economy.” To this end, Fresh Start farmers accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and offer CSA shares that can be purchased on a weekly basis with Electronic Benefit Transfer cards. The weekly CSA fee is $20 for a single share and $35 for a family share.

Extending the growing season

With help from ORIS, Fresh Start farmers applied individually for Natural Resources Conservation Service funds to purchase four 30-by-72-foot high tunnels. (The Dunbarton acreage already had one smaller high tunnel.) Two farmers share each of the new tunnels. The tunnels were purchased and erected with advice from Ed Person of Ledgewood Farm in Moultonborough, New Hampshire. He has over 20 years of experience constructing and using high tunnels.

Some traditional planting arrangements, such as this one for watermelons, are not compatible with the drip irrigation systems used in high tunnels.

The tunnels, which are designed to withstand heavy snow loads, were erected in November 2013. The farmers, noting that the temperature inside the tunnels was 80 degrees Fahrenheit, were very eager to begin planting. They wanted to begin growing African eggplant in December.

Munene began a series of workshops to introduce the nuances of growing in the Northeast, including the seasonal temperature and light considerations that limit the types of crops that will grow during winter. Lessons were given in English and translated into Maay Maay, Nepali and Swahili.

Using growing calendars published by the University of Minnesota and the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, the farmers were able to set more realistic dates to begin sowing seeds suitable for the region. They decided to start with plantings of spinach, carrots and Asian greens in mid-February. However, the planting date was moved to late March because snow limited access to the site.

Using a BCS, an Italian-made walk-behind tractor that accommodates attachments, Laxmi Mishra tills compacted soil.

Spring planting

As soon as they could access the site, they began to prepare for planting. The first thing they discovered was that the process of readying the site for high tunnels had caused serious soil compaction. Eager to begin growing, some farmers addressed the compaction problem with their traditional broad hoe, called a jembe. They also arranged planting beds in their traditional ways, not necessarily the straight rows needed to utilize the high tunnels’ drip irrigation system. Some farmers created raised rows. Others made elevated squares with the centers dug out to catch water. Eventually, the BCS machine was used to loosen and level the soil.

Early ethnic crops included Mishra’s many varieties of mustard greens, Sylvain Bukasa’s (Congo) African leaf amaranth, Meshake Barahora’s (Burundi) black nightshade (only the leaves are eaten), and the Somali-Bantus’ collard greens and Swiss chard (which they call spinach).

Accustomed to using a jembe, a traditional broad hoe, some Fresh Start farmers find typical American hoes a bit inadequate.

Catching water for irrigation

A demonstration project funded by an NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant supplies water for the drip irrigation systems. The system installed on each high tunnel catches, stores and reuses rainwater. It has been estimated that 675 gallons of water will flow from the roof of a 30-by-72-foot high tunnel during a 0.5-inch rain event. While the water collected from rain may be enough to irrigate the crops inside for days or weeks, it’s not anticipated that rain will be consistent enough to be the sole water source. Besides collecting water, the gutter system is useful in keeping water from puddling around the sides of the tunnels.

Andrea Bye, agricultural project director, and her husband, Anthony Munene, farm production specialist.

The primary components of the rainwater catchment system are gutters, collection tanks and pumps. Gutters are mounted with brackets on the tunnel sides. The gutters slope gently down toward two collection tanks, one on each corner at one end of each tunnel. From the collection tanks, a small electric pump pressurizes the water and sends it into the drip irrigation system. No electricity is available on-site, so a solar panel was installed to provide electricity to run the pumps. The gutters will be removed in winter to prevent damage from accumulating snow.

Collected rainwater is used in the drip irrigation system as soon as possible to discourage algae growth. Water collected from runoff is not used for consumption or for overhead irrigation of food crops due to potentially high bacteria levels.

A born farmer

When asked how long he has been farming, Mishra, who has been living in the U.S. for almost five years, replied, “I was born farmer.”

Fresh Start farmers have found that customers will pay whatever they ask for ethnic produce, such as African eggplant, which is offered at $4 a pound.

“For Laxmi and the other refugees resettled in Manchester, perhaps the most difficult thing is their loss of connection to the land,” Bye said. With Fresh Start, she hopes the opportunity to connect with the land and to grow familiar food will provide a much-needed fresh start in a new country.

Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and has been a frequent contributor since 1998. She resides in Henniker, New Hampshire.