Noelle Swan

Training Program Helps Refugee Farmers Establish Urban Farms in their New Homeland

In Food Security on August 14, 2012 at 11:59 am
Noelle Swan
August 14, 2012

In 1998, a group of Cambodian immigrants and former farmers living in the economically depressed city of Lowell, Massachussets reached out to Tufts University for help. Their objective: to learn the business side of farming. Out of this request emerged the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, a partnership between Community Teamwork, Inc. – a community action action agency based in Lowell, MA – and the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition.

Immigrants have flocked to Lowell since the days of the mills. Once hailed as the cradle of the American industrial revolution, the city fell into a deep depression with the collapse of the New England textile industry nearly a century ago and has been trying recover ever since.

In recent decades, the city has become a safe-haven for refugees fleeing their war-torn homelands. Today nearly a quarter of residents were born in another country and 40% of residents speak a language other than English at home, according to recent census data. The majority of these immigrants come from rural farming communities in Southeast Asia and West Africa.

To help these refugees leverage their farming skills toward the end of achieving economic self-sufficiency and prosperity, Tufts University developed the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project to provide them with the tools necessary to establish new urban farms, create their own farming businesses, and capitalize on the rising local food movement.

Today, New Entry welcomes both immigrants and American-born students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds around the Merrimack Valley, says Kimberly Fitch, program and finance coordinator. Tuition is determined by a sliding scale, ranging from $80-$500. Over the years, the program has evolved from solely teaching business skills to experienced farmers to today providing hands-on training for new farmers and assistance in starting their own independent farms. “We find that the people who have been with us the longest and shown a tremendous commitment to this are the folks who have farming in their blood stream,” says Fitch.

Prior to enrolling in the program all students first take a two-hour long exploratory course, which offers prospective students an overview of the program and encourages them to reflect on whether or not farming might be right for them. “Farming is really hard work. Not only does it take some desire, it also takes a lot of skills,” explains Fitch. “It takes time and a really, really deep sense of commitment. People might realize partway down the road that it’s not the right direction for them.”

Students can choose to enroll in just one training program, a series of trainings, or engage in a career-long relationship with the program through a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. The flagship course, first offered in 2004, focuses on farm business planning. Instructors walk students through writing a business plan, creating budgets, indentifying markets, researching materials and equipment, and developing a crop plan and schedule. This class is also offered as a distance-learning course for students that are unable to attend class in person. Students can take a series of field workshops that teach specific skills from building raised beds, to managing insects and weeds, to post harvest handling. The program exclusively teaches organic practices. Additional courses are available in livestock and poultry management.

Students who have completed the farm business-planning course have the opportunity to lease a plot of land on New Entry’s training farms in nearby Dracut for up to three years. New Entry charges training plot farmers just $675 per acre per year and offers tenant farmers individual technical assistance as well as access to equipment, refrigerated storage, and organic pest management supplies. After three years, the program helps farmers find their own land in the area and transition to independent farming. While most students that enroll in New Entry want to have their own independent farm, the program does offer resources for finding jobs on existing farms around the Merrimack Valley.

Since 2005, over 60 farmers from 15 different countries have graduated from the program from. “For a number of our immigrants what they prefer to grow is what’s familiar to them,” Fitch says. The New Entry website features profiles of several farmers that grow crops from their native country, including amaranth, long beans, Japanese eggplant, bitter melon, hard-kernel corn, and water spinach. Many graduate farmers market their produce through New Entry’s World PEAS CSA even after moving onto their own independent farm sites. Member CSA boxes typically contain half standard crops grown by local farmers and half ethnic crops grown by New Entry graduate farmers.

New Entry is physically removed from Tufts University’s main campus in Medford, but it maintains a strong connection to the university and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. A handful of students from Tufts University have taken the online version of the business-planning course. One student returned to the program as a distance-learning instructor. Students from the Friedman School can opt to work on the farm as a work-study project. Fitch says that this year a graduate student will be working in the field as the assistant to the technical assistance coordinator.

Funding for the program comes from a broad range of sources and agencies within the USDA. Private foundations, CSA-memberships, and individual donations provide additional funding. As similar organizations have popped up around the country, securing funding has grown a bit more challenging, says Fitch. However, she adds that New Entry strives to support other organizations, offering ideas around best practices, posting learning opportunities, and hosting groups interested in seeing what New Entry has done first hand. “We are providing templates that describe how we operate and how we have grown and evolved over the years,” she says.

Looking forward, Fitch says that she and her colleagues are looking to grow New Entry’s existing programs. “It’s important that we have as much impact as possible.” She adds that she sees growth potential in the distance learning program and hopes to further develop a fledgling national technical assistance initiative.

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