by George Looby, DVM
The State of Maine represents many things to different groups of people; recreational opportunities, important potato crops, scenic vistas, and harvests from the sea are a hallmark and an independent spirit not found in many other places. As the planting season approaches, a new group of farmers are about to set out on their own — the culmination of a dream several years in the making.
In 2005 four refugees from Somalia immigrated to Maine with the hope of establishing a farm. They are Somali Bantu, a farming culture in their native land, and on arrival in the U.S. they immediately began a search for farmland. These four aspiring New World farmers, Mohamed Abukar, Batula Ismail, Seynab Ali and Jabril Abdi, were fortunate to have chosen the Lewiston, Maine area in which to begin their search. Lewiston already had an established Somalia community, which made their transition to a new lifestyle somewhat easier. Many agencies, groups and organizations, acting cooperatively, assisted them in adapting their skill levels to life in a new land.
Cultivating Community is an organization in Maine, which assists in developing a wide variety of programs for refugees and immigrants who wish to farm in the state. They learn how to grow food in the Maine environment with its often unforgiving weather patterns, come to understand the consumer preferences of large buyers and individual customers in the U.S., create individual marketing plans suited to their interests, become skilled at financial management, and interact with customers in English. The program in which they participated in is called the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project (NASAP) which until 2009 had been managed by Coastal Enterprises, Inc. Coastal Enterprises is an organization dedicated to the financial support and development of rural communities and businesses in Maine and beyond.
NASAP is primarily located at the Packard-Littlefield Farm in Lisbon with satellite sites in Cape Elizabeth and South Portland. This refugee and immigrant farmer training program gives a diverse group the tools that they need to launch independent farm businesses, adopt new leadership roles in the community, and attain increased economic independence for their families and themselves. It was here that the four farmers enrolled, graduated and remained until their own search for land was realized. While there they established a market for the produce they grew and harvested, in farmers markets, CSA’s, and others.
Another organization, the Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) was contracted by Cultivating Community to assist in the search for farmland suitable for the four men eager to start their own farming operation. Funding for this search was provided by a grant from the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The Maine Farmland Trust is a statewide organization that protects farmland, supports farmers and advances farming. The goal of the organization is not just to protect Maine farmland but to revitalize Maine’s rural landscape by keeping agricultural lands working and helping farmers and their communities thrive.
Another organization, Land for Good, helped the new farmers learn about land tenure arrangements and assisted them in determining what they needed for new farmland. During the land search they worked with farmland owners to help establish relationships.
Land for Good is another New England organization whose primary goal is the preservation of farmland. It interacts with other organizations with similar interests, as was the case in this land search. They research, develop and implement innovative alternative approaches to getting farmers on the land. Jo Barret, Maine Field Agent for Land for Good, said, “the New Root Farmers are so inspiring. Their resilience, hard work and love of farming have helped them adapt to a new culture and a new climate. Having been a farmer myself, I am in awe of the way these farmers have persevered. It is an honor to know them.”
The New Roots Cooperative Farm, as the new farm will be known, is structured as a producer cooperative where each farmer owns a share of the business and each share marketing, distribution, equipment and land. The Cooperative Development Institute (CDI) assisted in developing the cooperative structure and helped the farmers develop their business plan. Located in Northampton, MA, the stated mission of CDI is to work with people in the Northeast to create cooperative businesses and networks that grow a prosperous, equitable economy. Jonah Ferig, Cooperative Food Systems Developer at CDI has assisted the project for some time and he has stated this project is a model for its community and the state about how to use a cooperative business structure to increase access to land and markets for farmers. Jonah further states that this cooperative is creating greater economic opportunity for New Americans and increasing food access in southern Maine.
The search culminated in the acquisition of 30 acres of land in Lewiston that had been part of a former dairy farm. MFT purchased the land in January 2016 and the New Roots signed a lease with MFT in July 2016 with an option to buy. The owner of the property was very supportive of the program which aided greatly in proceedings.
New Roots Cooperative Farm will begin farming in Lewiston this season and will open a farm stand, offer CSA’s, provide wholesale to institutions, restaurants, stores and food pantries, and will continue to provide vegetables to their customers at farmers markets.
This entire story is a most inspiring one, reinforcing the idea that many resources acting together can accomplish so much. Each resource draws on its own strengths to ensure that in the end those they want to assist will be able to realize their dreams.