On a Maine farm, African refugees go back to their roots

Through farming and selling their crops, new immigrants make up to $20,000 a year – lifting them from poverty, alleviating debt, and, in some cases, bringing college within reach.

Gram Slattery
Osman Nuurow, part of a program that helps African immigrants learn to farm in Maine, poses on a wheelbarrow in a farm field in Lisbon, Maine.

In the middle of a rolling, 18-acre field surrounding a handsome white barn in central Maine, John Yenga, a farmer, steers a small red tractor across his vegetable patch.

It wouldn’t be an unusual sight in this rural, verdant part of northern New England, except for the fact that Mr. Yenga is a black refugee from South Sudan – practicing one of the whitest professions in the nation in the country’s whitest state.

His land, which measures one acre, is encircled by 22 small, adjacent plots – each planted with lines of variegated vegetables and tended by a different refugee. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and turnips abound. But so do more exotic plants, like okra, dent corn, and amaranth – a stalky green column drooping with slender, lupine-like flowers.

It’s a cultural fusion made possible by the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project (NASAP), a program started in 2002 and supported by the US Department of Agriculture and the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the US Department of Health & Human Services. It gives Maine’s immigrant families the skills – and the land – they need break into farming in the United States.

The vast majority of enrollees hail from Africa, mainly Somalia, South Sudan, and the Congo, and most have a background in agriculture in their home countries. But here they lack the land, capital, and business savvy to return to their traditional profession. So most take up low-wage jobs in Portland, Maine, or the blighted, hard-luck mill city of Lewiston, a mile from the field.

By farming with NASAP, and selling their vegetables on the open market, these immigrants can make up to $20,000 a year in supplemental income – lifting them from poverty, alleviating debt, and, in some cases, bringing a college education within reach.

Perhaps as important for the majority of participants, most of whom only take in a few thousand dollars from the program, farming reconnects them with their roots during what can be a time of intense cultural displacement.

“People have farming in their blood, and it’s something they seek out to do here,” says Daniel Ungier, the wiry, genial director of farmer training at NASAP. “I think it gives people a purpose. I think it gives people a way to contribute and a way to find a piece of themselves that’s difficult to do when you’re in a very different country.”

“There aren’t a lot of jobs available,” adds Hussein Muktar, a Somali farmer and translator who arrived in Maine in 2006. “So people say, ‘Let us go back to farming.’ They say, ‘Let us go back to the field.’”

Up until the early 2000s, there would have been little need for a program like NASAP in Maine, especially in landlocked Androscoggin County where only 0.17 percent of residents at the 2000 census were African-American. But starting around 2001, East African refugees – many survivors of the ongoing civil war in Somalia – began to flood into Lewiston and southern Maine by the thousands.

Though the area was in economic decline, it was far safer than the poor neighborhoods in cities like Dallas, where many were initially placed by federal officials. Plus, the opportunities for adult education and language instruction were far more abundant here.

At first, this novel mixture of native Mainers and exotic newcomers wasn’t without tension. In 2001, then-Lewiston Mayor Laurier Raymond provoked national controversy when he wrote an open letter asking Somalis to stop coming to the city, saying the town was “maxed out financially.”

Lewiston again found itself in the national spotlight in 2007 after a man threw a pig’s head – considered unclean in Islam – into a mosque.

But, according to Mr. Ungier, what never made the headlines were the examples of collaboration that became more and more the norm in the years that followed.

NASAP, he says, was one of those examples.

In 2006, the organization approached Robert Packard and Ella Mae Littlefield, two owners of the family farm in Lisbon now cultivated by the immigrants, to see if they’d lend their land to the program. The farm was fallow, and the Packards didn’t want to see it overtaken by forest. So after some deliberation, they agreed.

What started off as only five acres has expanded rapidly. Now, two "pack-and-grow" facilities – large, permanent white tents with hoses hanging from the ceiling – have been established at the edge of the Packard-Littlefield Farm, making it easier for farmers to move their produce directly to consumers. Some refugees even say the opportunity to work the field was a factor in their move to Maine; others say they’ve mentioned it when recruiting relatives to the area.

Ultimately, NASAP plans to move the more advanced farmers onto independent land of their own – a move, Ungier says, that will counteract the progressive loss of farmland in the Northeast and increase the percentage of New England’s food grown locally. If New England is ever to grow a significant portion of its own crops, Ungier argues, immigrants could be a big part of the equation.

He concedes that there remain structural challenges to NASAP’s goals. The shared resources of immigrants at the farm – like crop equipment and the packing facilities – significantly increase the profitability of small-scale agriculture. Even so, many of NASAP participants are only bringing in an additional $2,000 to $4,000 a year.

But even though farming in the Northeast may be far from a get-rich-quick scheme, that has hardly dampened the enthusiasm of southern Maine’s African diaspora, many of whom are still lining up for a chance to work the field – reconnecting with their roots, providing Mainers with local food, and earning needed cash in the process.

“We don’t even come close to meeting demand,” Mr. Muktar says. “There’s so many people in the [immigrant] community that want to be farming. We don’t even come close.”

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