Farming the Future

Refugees put down roots in shadow of Kansas City skyline


by Kara Hansen

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It’s an unlikely setting for a farm — a former housing project site with the Kansas City skyline as a backdrop. But here women from diverse cultural backgrounds work the land largely by hand, all dressed in their traditional garb beneath the blazing midday sun. Their children play nearby, sometimes helping.

It is hard, exhausting work. But these women are growing more than vegetables. As refugees, they are literally cultivating their dreams.

“One of the women went to sell [her crop] at a farmers market for the first time and made her first sales, ” explained Rachel Bonar, special programs coordinator at Catholic Charities.

“She earned $30 and was so excited!”

Refugees flee their homelands to escape persecution of all kinds — racial, religious, political. These particular women are all Somali Bantu, Burmese Chin, Burmese Karen, Sudanese or Burundian, and are participants in the program called “New Roots for Refugees,” a partnership between Catholic Charities and the Kansas City Venter for Urban Agriculture that began in 2006.

When they joined the program, each woman chose to become either a market gardener to grow produce to sell at local farmers markets, or a community gardener to grow food for her own family.

“This program has really worked out well because most of the women don’t speak English, has no job experience, and have no reliable child care,” said Sharisa McDaniel, Catholic Charities Refugee Services coordinator.”This program allows them to set their own schedule and bring their children with them if they need to. It provides them a context for learning and using English, both on the farm and when they sell at the market.”

“It can be very stressful coming to a new country as a refugee, especially coming from a less developed country to the United State,” said Bill Scholl, archdiocesan consultant for social justice.

“Building a network of contacts and friends who can help you is incredible social capital,” he noted.

One of the ways the New Roots for Refugees program has opened up social networking opportunities for these refugees has been to invite locals to join the women in cultivating their own small plots on the training farm. A local framers market is also planned for the neighborhood. Green space, trails and a park are also in the long-term plans for the new training farm, which is located east of downtown Kansas City, Kan.

Though the New Roots for Refugees program began as a community garden in 2005 with the help of Kansas City Community Gardens, the space used for growing produce was quickly outgrown. This year, the program was given land for farming use b the Kansas City, Kansas Housing Authority.

Each of the 17 refugee women participating in the program farm a quarter-acre plot, with many of the plots being worked by two women together. Several community garden spots are open to anyone living in the neighborhood, said McDaniel. The project is funded by the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program though the Department of Health and Human Services.

Farming is a natural fit for many of the refugee women, who have experience gardening or farming in their countries of origin.

“Many of the women have direct experience as gardeners and farmers, and the concept of a farmer selling goods at market is one hat is within cultural framework,” said Katherine Kelly, executive director of the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture.

Building on this earlier experience, the refugee women learn about everything from the soil composition of their plot to how to market and sell produce. the program’s ultimate goal is for the refugees to eventually become self-sufficient.

“The goal is to have women graduating from this program, moving off the training farm to their own site with money in the bank,” said Kelly.

That land is then opened up for new refugees to move into the program.

But the women are not then left to sink or swim. An employee of KCCUA inspects each woman’s farm plot with her weekly, providing instruction and encouragement with the help of an interpreter.

Some of the refugee women live in the neighborhood and are able to walk to the training farm. For those who live farther away and have no means of transportation, Catholic Charities provides them with a shuttle several days a week. The women come to the farm whenever they are able – to water, week, mulch, and generally cultivate their vegetable plants. All of the produce is grown using organic methods.

“One of the women was her tis morning before I got her at eight, and she will probably be her until at least eight this evening,” said Bonar.

The women have also received help from the Junior League of Wyandotte and Johnson Counties, which has provided grant funds to develop and purchase reference books for the refugee farmers and to purchase a truck to haul produce and supplies to market.

When produce is ripe, the women will pick it and ready it for sale at the Brookside Farmers Market in Kansas City, Mo. – or they will take it to parishioners at the St. Pius X Parish in Mission as park of a farming subscription service.

For St. Pius X parishioner Kelly Harris-Zehr, the arrangement is a win-win.

She had been looking for a local farming subscription service, commonly referred to as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in order to get locally grown produce at a reasonable price. Given the chance to support refugee women in the process, Harris-Zehr thought it an ideal way to put her Catholic faith and values to work.

“I had been wanting to do a CSA anyway, for the benefit of buying local, organic food,” she said. “When this opportunity came along, I thought it would be a perfect setup.”

She was not alone. When a representative of the CSA was invited to speak at St. Pius X one weekend, interested parishioners were encouraged to sign up for the service following the Mass.

“To be honest, we were hoping to have at least eight families sign up for each of the eight farmers. We ended up with 16 families to fill each spot, with more families on the waiting list,” said Harris-Zehr.

The 16 families who subscribed to the service pay a set fee to a refugee farmer each week. In return, they receive a bag of produce from one woman’s farm – whatever is ripe that particular week. Families are invited to come visit the farm and meet their farmer in person, as well as see how their food is grown.

“I’ve been wanting to do a CSA for the locally grown produce,” said Pius parishioner and subscriber Pamela McGary, “and it’s an added bonus to help people out.”

McGary has already taken her three children – Cadence, Andrea and Patrick – to the farm site so they could meet their farmer and see how the program worked.

Scholl said the partnership between the New Roots for Refugees program and St. Pius X is an ideal example of Gospel values at work.

“People in the parish participating in this program are becoming stakeholders – not only financially, but they are also helping the women interact with the culture,” said Scholl. “There is an element of solidarity in supporting refugees and seeking out Christ in others.”

Leave a Reply