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    Ethnic Roots
    Andrea Blum, Special to Beyond Organic
    May 24, 2006

    These days, there’s a lot of talk of illegal immigrants crossing the desert at night, the minutemen and border patrol. The conversation usually drifts toward agriculture. There’s fear that large-scale farms won’t be able to function without the landless migrant worker.

    But there isn’t much talk of the legal immigrants and migrants who farm their own land in this country and the critical role these new farmers play in American agriculture.

    Pass by the fields in the Californian central valley and you might see a plethora of workers wearing conical hats reminiscent of Southeast Asian rice fields. They are part of the 35 thousand Hmong refugees who settled in the area with the help of the US Government resettlement program. On their own farms, they cultivate traditional foods like daikon, lemon grass, and bitter melon for the Sacramento and Fresno farmers markets and restaurants.

    In Portland, Oregon, newly arrived Meskhetian Turks, refugee farmers from the Republic of Georgia, received a land grant to start their own organic urban farm from the non-profit, Mercy Corps.

    In the Boston area, Liberians grow sweet potatoes alongside Cambodians that cultivate long beans, amaranth, and pumpkin tips on leased land from a Tufts University sustainable farming program.

    Then there are the multi-generational Puerto Rican’s in Holyoke, Massachusetts who tend to their prized ají caballe peppers, among other crops, on their fertile 4-acre organic farm run by the well-organized community organization known as Nuestras Raíces (Our Roots).

    As small family farms begin to fade across the American landscape, new immigrant-based farms have begun to take root.

    The 2002 Census of Agriculture statistics show that the number of Latino and Asian farmers has grown substantially in the last five years. It also shows that the average age of an American farmer is 55 years old.

    “Immigrants and refugees are the only expanding constituency in US farming today,” said Professor Hugh Joseph, director of New Entry Sustainable Farming Project at Tufts University. He noted that 12 percent of the population living in Massachusetts are immigrants and refugees and many of them come from agricultural backgrounds.

    Joseph works with 40 refugee farmers near the Boston area from Africa and Southeast Asia. With grants from the USDA, the Kellogg Foundation and others, he’s helping these newcomers become the next generation of farmers in America.

    Further west, in the broken mill town of Holyoke, Mass, a vibrant Puerto Rican community has emerged from one of the poorest cities in the nation. The families arrived here in the 1950’s and 60’s as migrant workers for the shade grown tobacco industry (the leaves used as wrappers for cigars). With a rich history of farming behind them, they created 10 community gardens throughout the city since the founding of their community organization, Nuestras Raíces in 1992.

    Multi-generational farmers like Fermín Galarza and his father work a 4-acre organic plot in the city as part of the Tierra de Oportunidades — a farming project that unites youth with experienced Puerto Rican farmers in the community. They recently acquired 26 acres of prime farmland along the Connecticut River to expand opportunities for these local farmers to grow food for the surrounding community. The organization also integrates an organic bakery with a wood burning oven, restaurant, commercial kitchen, greenhouse, job training, and youth leadership programs.

    What’s unique about this program,” says Eric Toensmeier who directs the Tierra de Oportunidades farming projects, “is that the community told us what they want. We took a survey and the number one request was to start a farm.”

    Earlier this month in Portland, Oregon, Monique Dupre – a Mercy Corps employee with experience with Somali Bantu refugees – began working with three newly arrived Turkish refugee families who wanted to farm.

    With the financial aid of the USDA, Mercy Corps started an organic farm on a 7-acre leased plot on the city’s border. Although the organic concept is new for them, they’ve been schooled on the benefits of healthier farming techniques and the advantages of local support for organic products.

    “I’ve been researching dry farming techniques to pass on to {these farmers},” Dupre said of the dry summer climate and the difficulty of farming directly from seed when there is little water. Armed with determination and recipes from the old country, the farmer’s wives have started a farm stand and are direct marketing their native foods to local residents hungry for new flavors.

    With farmers markets growing in numbers each year, small immigrant farms near urban areas are perfect models for these nascent American farmers. Going organic near cities will yield higher revenues with limited space. By keeping their farming traditions alive in this country, they can avoid unskilled and low pay factory jobs and at the same time hold close their cultural identity, traditions and health by growing food they know.

    “There are so many immigrants coming into this country,” said Professor Joseph. “They are one important way to keep small farms viable. Our goal is to help farmers be part of a sustainable system that helps their livelihood, earn wages from their farm and helps them become the next generation of farmers.”

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