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Refugee farmers cultivate community
A Growing Business — Mekhan Mumin and her son Aden stand behind piles of fresh vegetables at their booth in the Norway Farmers Market. Mumin, a refugee from Somalia, started farming in 2006 with the help of the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project (NASAP) that assists refugees in Maine learn the gardening and marketing techniques they need to become independent famers.
NORWAY — Although this is Mekhan Mumin's first year at the Norway Farmers Market, it's clear she's got a green thumb – piles of fresh kale, Swiss chard, carrots, onions, squash and beets cover her stall.
But when Mekhan came to Maine in 2005, she needed help learning how to grow unfamiliar crops in an unfamiliar land – she had been a farmer in her native Somalia, but wasn't sure how to start in Maine.
Through the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project (NASAP), a program of the Portland-based group Cultivating Community, Mekhan learned the skills she needed to set up her booth and stock it with produce – in the future, she may be able to start her own organic farm.
The NASAP program started around 10 years ago as a response to the influx of refugees into the state which has grown steadily ever since – according to the Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services website, people from over 25 countries now make Maine their home.
Across the county, dozens of programs like NASAP have sprouted to help refugees become successful farmers and develop ties to their new communities.
During the growing season, the 30 participants congregate at Cultivating Community's Fresh Start Farms in Lisbon to work their own small plots of land. Program staff provide technical assistance and advice on how to grow organic vegetables in Maine's soil.
In the winter, participants attend workshops on marketing their crops to Maine consumers.
Throughout the year they attend ESL classes that specifically focus on communication skills that will help them become entrepreneurs.
As Sarah Bostick, a refugee farmer specialist with Cultivating Community, explains, around 12 farmers like Mekhan are considered "advanced" – they farm an acre field and have the skills to attend farmers markets and run wholesale accounts without staff assistance.
The farmers also sell their produce to the 200 members of the Fresh Start Farm's CSA.
According to Bostick, when the program started, the refugees faced a steep learning curve – the techniques they used in their home countries could not be applied to Maine's vastly different soil and climate.
Mekhan says she had to learn how to grow entirely new crops and utilize different farming techniques like using fertilizer and compost.
Aden, Mekhan's son, says other differences make farming in the U.S. easier than in Somalia. In the U.S., they can use tools like rototillers, he says – in Somalia, most farmers do everything by hand.
Hussein Muhktar, an outreach coordinator for Cultivating Community and a Somali refugee, says that when he started working with the program in 2006 he found that the farmers were having a hard time with the concept of succession planting – they would plant their entire crop and harvest it all at one time – then be unable to sell everything at the farmers market.
Now, the farmers have more patience, he says – they understand the needs of their customers and can provide food at their stalls all summer long.
Teaching the farmers how to grow crops they are unaccustomed to, like arugula, salad mixes and radishes is particularly important, Muhktar says, even if the farmers – himself included – don't always eat what they grow.
"We grow the vegetables, but we don't eat [them]," he laughs. "I grow and sell a hundred pounds of radishes, but I've never tasted them!"
Mekhan says she grew many of the same vegetables she now sells in the farmers market, like onions, beans, squash and potatoes, in Somalia.
According to Bostick, learning how to grow new foods also shows participants what kinds of vegetables are available in the U.S. even during the winter, when they might not be growing in their fields.
While the overall goal of the program is to give the farmers the skills they need, the program also helps connect the refugees to their new communities and get to know their customers, Bostick explains – but it took a little time for the farmers to understand why people were so interested in meeting them, asking where they were from and shaking their hands.
"At first they just felt like people were being nosy," Bostick says.
"And then they realized that people are actually, genuinely curious to know them and they want to know more about them. It's not being nosy, it's being genuinely happy that they've brought something different to the marketplace."
The Norway Farmer's Market is held every Thursday, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the parking lot behind Fair Share Market on Main Street.