Agriculture programs help Northwest refugees settle in

Sep 15, 2011

PORTLAND – Starting over in a new country as a refugee can feel like landing a new planet.

It’s hard to understand daily life, much less face the challenges of finding a job. One movement in refugee resettlement pioneered in the Northwest helps people put down new roots – literally – through agriculture. But learning to be an American farmer can be a tough row to hoe.

A few years ago, a half-acre in southeast Portland was an empty lot. Now, it’s a densely-planted farm. Tomatoes are ripening on the vines, and the lemon cucumbers are nice and juicy. But David Beller, the farm’s coordinator, is not happy about the fields.

“Everyone come here, and feel how dry this is. I can’t believe this stuff is even alive,” he says to the farmers.

The farmers Beller is working with tell him they thought they didn’t need to water this field very much. They are all refugees from Bhutan. They arrived in Portland a couple of years ago.

Now they’re part of the New American Agriculture Program at MercyCorps Northwest. The group is known for its international development work, but John Haines directs the local arm, which helps people right here in the Northwest.

“We started working with refugees, engaging them in urban agriculture in 2004, with the motivation that food is a connector, and there was growing interest in local food," says Haines. "And the refugees were coming with motivation, some skills in growing ... not to this region ... and it was just a connector that seemed obvious to us.”

National movement

This idea of small urban plots, where people can earn supplemental income close to their homes, is now a part of refugee resettlement programs all over the country. There are Somali Bantus farming in Boise, and refugees from Burundi farming in Seattle.

When Bal Tiwari moved to Portland from a Nepali refugee camp, he was excited to have the opportunity to farm again. In fact, he says through a translator, he was just glad to find America even had farms.

“He said that he never think that he’ll get an opportunity to work in the farm. Because they said that America is like, they don’t have any kind of agriculture production, and he thought he’ll get all the things from out of country ..." Tiwari said through a translator.

But becoming an American farmer is still a big adjustment for refugees. First off, they speak very little English, and often have had very little education. Then, they have to learn about the American Northwest climate. Finally, back home many refugees practiced a casual subsistence agriculture, growing on far-ranging fields. Here, farm manager David Beller says, they’ve got to learn how to grow on dense, urban plots.

“For example, these farmers are really into planting beans spaced out farther than I like. And they’re convinced that it’s the best way to grow beans, and they’re easier to pick and better quality. And I’m convinced of exactly the opposite. So there’s a healthy tension (laughs) between different practices,” Beller said.

Learning beyond the harvest

Farmers also learn to grade produce for an American market and to pack it so that it won’t bruise. The hard work is paying off – these plots grow enough vegetables to sell to local farmers’ markets, a few restaurants and members of their Community-Supported Agriculture program. And director John Haines says the benefits go beyond the economic.

“They get some connectivity to the wider community. They’re comfortable getting on a bus going across town, they get comfortable with selling at a market. So we find it’s a way to bridge isolation as much as provide a modest income,” Haines said.

And, of course, there are also the edible benefits, as Pabi Tiwari explains through a translator.

“They are getting the fresh vegetables and the fresh fruits. They don’t have to pay in market, it’s kind of free food and fresh food.”

Although, as Nisha Basnet laments, it’s not quite as good as back home.

“Oh, yeah. We have very sour tomato in Nepal, and here is kind of sweet or something. It’s not taste good like Nepal.”

The Nepali farmers hope that they’ll be able to get seeds for their native tomatoes and beans someday, and grow them right here in the Northwest.