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Farmer Training Program Helps Refugees Plant New Roots

August 10, 2011 |

The seventeen immigrant women involved in the New Roots for Refugees farmer training program don’t understand why their small urban garden plots draw so much attention. Farming is a natural part of their lives.

The training program is run by the Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, an organization that helps to resettle refugees in the Kansas City area and provide case management, English as a Second Language and job development. The idea for the program emerged in 2004 while Sherissa McDonald, an employee of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, was running a group to help refugee women acclimate to their new surroundings. When the topic of gardening arose, the group expressed a desire to have an area of land to cultivate. So that year the women planted small community gardens outside of the Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas offices.

In 2005, Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas partnered with Cultivate KC (Kansas City), whose mission is be a catalyst for the production and consumption of locally grown food in Kansas City neighborhoods, to develop workshops to provide the refugees with farmer training. Shortly thereafter the Kansas City Housing Authority provided the partners with nine acres of land within Juniper Gardens, a subsidized public housing development, formally establishing a home for the New Roots for Refugees program.

According to New Roots for Refugees program coordinator Rachel Pollack, the four-year program functions as an incubator for farmers. The women farmers in the program learn how to run a business, receive use of a quarter acre garden plot, access to Cultivate KC’s greenhouse and starts, water for irrigation, tools and moral support. The end goal is for each farmer to eventually move onto her own piece of land and operate independently.

New Roots farmers work to prepare the soil for growing

“Universally, they’ve all had some sort of agriculture experience,” explains John VanderHeide, program intern, “Some were large scale land owners while others were field laborers.” The refugees are enthusiastic about farming as an alternative to other employment programs. “It’s using skills that they have; it’s not degrading work.”

According to Pollack more experienced farmers often act as mentors. “You would think it would be difficult with lots of different languages, but there is collaboration…especially the experienced farmers helping the beginning farmers,” she says.

A unique program

Although there are other refugee gardening programs, the emphasis on business development is what sets New Roots for Refugees apart.

As part of the program, farmers also take 20 weeks of financial literacy classes. New Roots for Refugees encourages them to save up for their future business endeavors. For every dollar that a farmer puts into her savings accounts, the program puts in two.

“It’s unique in that we serve people that are really new to the United States,” says VanderHeide. Some have been in the United States as little as two years. “All of the training programs are translated into seven different languages.”  However, as part of their land use agreement, farmers attend English as a Second Language classes in the winter.

The program also teaches the women to use sustainable farming methods and practices and although the New Roots farm is not certified organic, all produce is grown without the use of chemical inputs and synthetic fertilizers.

Bringing food to a desert

The farmers market that is held every Monday at Juniper Gardens “brings [food] to a population that is vulnerable. Often local and sustainable food is elite,” says Pollack. “A huge percentage of the food in this community is bought with food stamps.”

Juniper Gardens is in a true food desert. “There are liquor stores, but no grocery stores,” says Pollack. “There are no fast foods even.”

When the famers market in Juniper Gardens started in 2008, the market served mostly immigrant populations. Recently, the market has begun to accept food stamps, which has attracted more American born customers.

Building community and a connection to food

New Roots for Refugees also seeks to build community around the production and sale of the produce that its farmers grow by offering a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture program.  CSA members can pay monthly installments and even use EBT cards (food stamps) to pay for their share. This brings the ability to purchase fresh produce to everyone.

In an effort to foster more meaningful relationships between farmers and buyers New Roots for Refugees established a program called Project: Engage. When a buyer purchases produce from a New Roots farmer at market, the buyer is given an information card with the farmer’s photo and fun facts about them. The cards serve to remind customers of who produced their food and from where it came. New Roots believes that this will establish a sustainable business relationship between the producer and consumer.

To further encourage potential buyers who might not know how to prepare or use the vegetables being sold by New Roots farmers, Cultivate KC recently hired two Juniper Gardens residents to do cooking demonstrations on market day. Pollock says that business at the market has improved as a result.

Graduation and the future

The New Roots for Refugees program will see its first class graduate this year. The graduates plan to work together to establish a small urban farm on an abandoned city lot. The program will provide them with support until the farm becomes self-sustaining.

Program coordinator Pollack’s next project involves working with three ethnic groups from around the city that have been requesting help to start community gardens, not as a source of income, but as a place to grow fresh vegetables in their part of the city. New Roots for Refugees will be partnering with them to find land and help them start the gardens.  “These communities have strong leadership,” she says. “We have the tools to help them to do what they want.”


In addition to the CSA and Juniper Gardens farmers market, New Roots for Refugees produce is sold at the Farmers Community Market at Brookside and the Overland Park Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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