Amid the vegetable plots near the Ethan Allen Homestead in the Winooski Valley Park District, just north of the VCGN garden plots, you’ll come upon what first looks to be a random jumble of sticks and branches. But look closer, and you’ll realize that it’s actually very carefully and intricately arranged trellising for the plot’s tomato plants.
The plots in these gardens are part of the New Farms for New Americans (NFNA) program, and the innovative trellising is example of some of the farming techniques that participants have brought with them from their home countries. The Burlington/Winooski area has a very active refugee community – many of whom are individuals that have been resettled here through the US refugee program. As of last year, since 1989, at least 6,300 individuals had come to Vermont through the program. That total includes 1,705 Bosnians, around 1,400 Bhutanese, and about 1,000 Africans from countries such as Burundi, Congo, Rwanda, Somalia and Sudan.
And while that total is impressive for a small state like Vermont, it represents a tiny fraction of the world’s refugee population – a population that keeps increasing as new conflicts spring up. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees reports that there are there are more than 15.4 million refugees in the world, and over a million globally are now in need of resettlement. If you add in asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide, that number jumps to over 50 million people, the highest number in the post World War II era. Many refugees spend years or decades in camps, and each year less than one percent of the world’s refugees get the chance to leave a camp and resettle in another country. The United States welcomes over half of these refugees, more than all other resettlement countries combined, according to the State Department.
The NFNA program, which is part of the community-based organization the Association of Africans Living in Vermont (AALV), was started in 2008. It was originally intended as a way to get refugee women with children, who were not leaving their homes due to lack of transportation or a language barrier, the chance to get out, socialize and farm, NFNA program manager Alisha Laramee explained to me on a recent visit to the farm.
But in the seven years since its inception, the program has grown and evolved. The program received some grants and became more of a social enterprise, with the New American farmers starting a CSA and selling crops to restaurants and farmer’s markets. The idea was that farmers would learn the skills to start an independent farm and go off on their own. But that was rarely happening, according to Laramee. And because the grant program limited participation to 5 years (refugees are eligible to apply for US citizenship after 5 years), some participants were disappointed that that couldn’t continue to garden there.
Today, the NFNA program functions more as a community garden, with participants paying for the use of a plot over the summer. The fee charged covers the direct cost of running the garden – the water bill (the program recently switched to using city water, having previously used water pumped from the Winooski River), tilling, and soil amendments. The program also accepts donations, and those funds can be used to help purchase a plot for families that can’t afford one.
On a tour through the garden Laramee pointed out that you can see that the plots of farmers from the same region or country are generally grouped together. She said it wasn’t intentionally set up that way, but that it ends up that way as it’s easier for them to be able to communicate with their neighbors and tell them if there’s a new kind of pest or fill them in on a missed class.
It’s interesting to note that you can usually tell where the gardener is from depending on the different crops he or she has planted. People from Africa generally plant a lot of corn and beans, as well as amaranth greens – also known as lenga lenga — which is often cooked for roughly 30 minutes and eaten with tomatoes and onions. Laramee said that amaranth was often a common staple in the refugee camps where most of the farmers lived before being resettled to Vermont. Here, they have learned they can harvest, blanch and freeze the amaranth, something they wouldn’t have done at home.
The plots cared for by the Bhutanese and Burmese almost always have mustard greens (used to get mustard seed) and daikon, the latter of which is used in the Bhutanese national curry (and also happens to be good for aerating soil). They also grow roselle– a bitter green that can be cut back several times over the summer and used in stir fry.
According to Laramee, almost all the participants had some farming experience from back home – either they farmed or their parents did and they grew up in refugee camps. But farming in Vermont can be very different than farming in Africa or Asia, so the NFNA program provides workshops once a week where gardeners can learn about local pests to watch out for, or when it’s warm enough to start planting and when to watch out for frost.
While the gardeners do pay for the plots, the NFNA program also receives donations that help sustain it. The Vermont Community Garden Network (VCGN) donates seeds, and Green Mountain Compost donates much wanted compost – something program participants were especially appreciative of.
And while being able to plant and harvest their own vegetables is a great reward, the program has additional benefits for participants. For one thing, it’s an ‘intergenerational family building experience” says Laramee. There will often be several different generations talking and working their plots together. It also provides an opportunity for individuals who now live in apartments, but who once had land and had it taken from them, to have access to land and feel some ownership of it.
Finally, many of these individuals have lived through extremely difficult times in their countries of origin, having been forced to flee due to persecution war or violence. Being able to work the land, to do something familiar in a new country far from home, has to have some therapeutic value says Laramee. “It helps them find purpose and meaning.”
A New American Farmer Tends His Plot
Links: New Farms for New Americans: http://www.aalv-vt.org/#!farms/crjk
Association of Africans Living in Vermont: http://www.aalv-vt.org/
Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program: http://www.refugees.org/about-us/where-we-work/vrrp/?referrer=https://www.google.com/