Refugee farmers look to grow in the Midwest

Plots at community gardens in Des Moines, Iowa, allow refugees including Pabitra Rizal of Bhutan to get their hands back in the soil. (Courtesy Lutheran Services of Iowa)
Plots at community gardens in Des Moines, Iowa, allow refugees including Pabitra Rizal of Bhutan to get their hands back in the soil. (Courtesy Lutheran Services of Iowa)

When you come from a country that’s so small its name doesn’t fit across it on a global map it’s not surprising that you experience farming on a smaller scale than we do here in the American Midwest.

Firmin Ntakimazi is from Burundi and on many maps of Africa, the word “Burundi” spills over the small country’s borders. That's similar to the experience of many of Burundi’s people.

Ntakimazi and co-presenter Etiene Hacimana shared their story at the Practical Farmers of Iowa conference in Ames. The men are among a huge Burundian diaspora that fled the country, first in 1972 and again in 1993, because of war. At one time, the Tanzanian refugee camp where the men lived with their families housed over 500,000 displaced Burundians.

Once a farmer in Burundi, Ntakimazi was able to continue to farm as a refugee. Tanzania’s president, in a joint effort to help refugees and squash a conflict between refugees and locals, had bush land around the camp divvied up among the refugees so that every family had at least one acre on which to grow food. Eventually, Ntakimazi found himself managing five acres and he hired other refugees to help his family work the land with hand tools. He and other Burundian farmers sold their surplus to Tanzanians outside the camp.

Ntakimazi and Hacimana now live in Des Moines, Iowa, having resettled in the U.S. At the Practical Farmers conference, refugees from Burundi, Sudan, Bhutan and Myanmar (formerly Burma) shared their stories of farming in their homelands and what they’ve grown here since re-settling.  

Lutheran Services of Iowa, which coordinated the session on refugee farmers, has worked with community gardens, churches and even private homeowners to find small parcels of land for refugee farmers to cultivate. The immigrants feed their families, share with their communities and in some cases are staring to sell at farmer’s markets. Plus growing food again helps them feel more settled.

Firmin Ntakimazi and Etiene Hacimana originally hail from the central African nation of Burundi. Now, they live in Des Moines.

“We have fun with that little garden,” Ntakimazi said. “It’s like we are back home when we are playing with those seeds, enjoying [seeing] how they grow and sharing the crops, sometimes, with neighbors and friends.”  

Ntakimazi said he and Hacimana would both like to farm again on a larger scale but still feel they have much to learn about how to do that here.

Hilary Baehr from Lutheran Services of Iowa says the non-profit has a long-term goal of creating a training farm to help get refugees like Ntakimazi  the experience they need to eventually have their own farm businesses. That’s something Community Crops in Lincoln, Neb., has done.

Warren Kittler, Community Crops’ Growing Farmers Training Program manager says immigrants, some of whom are refugees and others who are not, start a three-year program on the group’s training farm with one-eighth of an acre to grow food for themselves.

“Not everybody in our program wants to farm full time,” Kittler said, “but for those who do, they need considerably more [land].”

Program participants can increase their space in each of the program’s three years and Kittler said Community Crops is currently moving from its original training farm site to a bigger space where more families will have access to more land. Two families have graduated from the program and are now running their own farming operations—though Community Crops continues to support them commercially by purchasing their produce and eggs for a CSA.

“It’s easy to sell to us and we pay a pretty good price,” Kittler said. He’s particularly proud that one of the immigrant Hispanic families that now has its own farm recently presented a workshop to Spanish-speaking aspiring farmers.

A learning farm may still be a ways off for Des Moines refugees, but some of the American farmers in attendance at the conference session recognized the rich body of knowledge these new Midwesterners offer.

“They’re probably efficient and economical workers who can get a lot accomplished in a small amount of time. And that’s what we’re trying to teach young people here who want to farm,” said Laura Krouse, who grows corn and hay and has a vegetable CSA near Mt. Vernon, Iowa.  “To have somebody like that who has those skills already who could show us all—including me—how to be better at it—what a great resource.”

Transportation and language remain big hurdles in getting refugees working on local farms. But, Baehr said the refugee population shows tremendous interest in farm work.

“This is just a small representation of people who are really interested in doing this work,” Baehr said of the presenters in Ames. “So as long as language and transportation can be worked out, there’s a lot of people who would love to work [on farms].”