Two Somali Bantu farm cooperatives will open a farm stand in Lewiston that will be the home base for what they say is the nation’s first Somali Bantu farm-to-fork food truck.
The idea is to find a broader market for food from the two farms and to use the food truck to introduce Somali food to venues around Lewiston and eventually the rest of Maine.
New Roots Cooperative Farm in Lewiston and Isuken Co-op in Lisbon joined forces to reopen the former Blackie’s Farm Stand — named for the late founder Normand “Blackie” Labbe Sr. — at 966 Sabattus St. in Lewiston. Blackie’s also has a farmstand in Auburn and a farm in Minot.
The cooperatives have a six-month lease but plan to continue running the farm stand seasonally, according to Jonah Fertig-Burd, a co-op development specialist at the Cooperative Development Institute, a Massachusetts-based organization that helps co-ops get set up and expand their business. Fertig-Burd said CDI has many locations throughout Maine as well.
Both cooperatives are owned and run by Somali Bantu farmers who came to the United States as refugees and are now citizens owning a business. The Bantu are an ethnic minority group who live mostly in southern Somalia.
The new farm stand also will be called New Roots Cooperative Farm.
“The farm stand will provide an opportunity for our food truck to have a home base so people can come and eat Somali Bantu cuisine, and for us to share our culture with the wider community,” Ishino Ibrahim, president of Isuken Co-op, said.
Seynab Ali, president and one of the four farmer-owners of New Roots, said the collaboration will give Lewiston residents a new place to get fresh, local vegetables.
The farm stand will hold a grand opening celebration with Somali food and produce Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m. Fertig-Burd said the food truck likely will be there, though it is scheduled to start operations in August. The farm stand will be open through October, and the food truck will likely run through December, he said.
New Roots is the first immigrant-owned farm cooperative in Maine, Fertig-Burd said. It started in 2006 at a small incubator location in Lisbon and moved to a larger, 30-acre farm in Lewiston in 2016. It grows vegetables it sells to wholesale customers, restaurants, farmers markets and through its own community supported agriculture program.
Both co-ops tapped loans from the Cooperative Fund of New England and held separate crowdsourcing fundraisers. Fertig-Burd said his organization helped the co-ops learn to raise the money.
Isuken raised $14,000 through its crowdsourcing campaign last year, and New Roots raised $12,000, he said.
The money went toward business operations, including a new tractor for New Roots and the food truck purchased by Isuken. New Roots also installed solar panels last year to help power the farm and this year plans to add unheated hoop houses to extend the growing season till late fall and to start planting earlier in the spring.
New Roots grows traditional vegetables such as tomatoes, kale, chard and beans. It also wants to expand its African specialty crops including molokia and amaranth, Fertig-Burd said.
The food truck may sell some fresh vegetables as well, but its main fare is Somali food, including sambusa, a fried pastry filled with a mixture of vegetables or meat and seasoned rice with chicken legs or goat meat.
“The goal with the food truck is to bring their food to a larger audience,” Fertig-Burd said. “They are interested in bringing the truck to various areas around the state, to go out and to connect with people.”
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