Local First Blog

Hope Farms Connects Refugees to Agricultural Roots

Apr 20, 2016 11:45:00 AM / by Local First

Hope Farms, a project of Bethany Christian Services’ Refugee Programs, connects skilled refugees with land and education for small-scale farming in West Michigan. Those involved last year season participated in food preservation classes, and savored their hard-earned harvest for months after the growing season. “Our farmers are still pulling last seasons’ green beans out of the freezer,” Farm Manager, Scott Townley reports.

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The six farmers participating in Hope Farms this year are men and women from Burundi and Nepal. A recent NPR story, featuring a similar program in Kansas City, points out that farming can have a big economic impact for refugees striving to make ends meet. Farming also helps refugee growers connect to their roots. “When I’m out on the farm, I feel like I’m back in my country,” Kharka Gurung, a Hope Farms participant from Bhutan, says through an interpreter.

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Hope Farms will offer a CSA, and sell produce at farmers’ markets in westside and southside neighborhoods. These venues connect refugee growers to West Michigan’s local food system, and generate supplemental income. Hope Farms facilitates much more than commerce. “Our farmers work incredibly hard to support their families,” Townley says. “They can help us re-envision what it means to be entrepreneurial.”

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Working closely with Hope Farms growers, all of whom have been in West Michigan for fewer than five years, Townley found participants valued control over their pocketbooks and kitchen tables. Rachel Jameson, an AmeriCorps VISTA working with the program, says “The word ‘subsistence’ usually gets a bad rap. This season, we’re trying to redeem the term.” As a result, the program will focus on innovative practices for high yields on small plots.

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Growing food helps save a lot of money. “I will keep some of what I grow for my family, sell some, and donate some to the Bhutanese-Nepali community,” Gurung says. He looks forward to growing hot peppers, mustard greens, cucumbers, spinach, buckwheat and bitter gourd. “I’m thankful for the help of Scott to engage with the farm, to learn English, and for the exercise of being outside.”

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“Here, food is expensive,” says Frida Mutoniwabo. Having fled persecution, she found a way to farm in a refugee camp years ago. This season, she looks forward to growing eggplant, squash greens, and other crops from her native Burundi. Mutoniwabo also wants to learn to grow lettuce, onion and kale. “Most importantly, I want take my kids to the field, so they can know where food comes from. I want them to say, ‘Mom, that’s how a tomato grows?’”

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“I consider myself a pretty skilled farmer,” Townley says, “but all of our farmers this year know so much more than I do. It’s a deep skill for them.” Past Hope Farms participants have managed 25 – 30 acres in their home countries, feeding their families while earning extra cash. “This generational knowledge has sustained communities. We’re helping our farmers transplant it here.”

Local First

Written by Local First