A group of Somali Bantu immigrant farmers has bridged a cultural and lingual divide with the crops they raise and sell throughout the Lewiston community.
Though these four farmers speak only MaiMai while most of their neighbors and customers speak only English, they all share a love of the land and a dream of connecting to their community.
The African-born farmers — Seynaub Ali, Batula Ismail, Mohammed Abukar and Jabril Abdi — own the New Roots Cooperative Farm in Lewiston, the first immigrant-owned farm cooperative in the state. And if current negotiations with the owner of the 30 acres they lease go well, the cooperative will soon own the land.
“The thing that is really pulling them together is the same goals,” Cooperative Development Institute Technical Adviser Omar Hassan said. “They are farmers and [the communities] have been farming for generations … the hard work that comes with it, people admire that.”
Getting their start on U.S. soil through Cultivating Community’s new American farmer incubator in Lisbon, the New Roots farmers are realizing a long-held dream of land ownership.
“I believe farming is life,” New Roots farmer and owner Ali said as translated by Hassan. “Whether you climb a tree or the tallest building, your life depends on what is grown on this earth.”
New Roots sells its chemical-free vegetables to about 200 community-supported agriculture customers who buy shares in the farm in exchange for a season’s worth of vegetables. It also sells its produce to wholesale customers including schools and businesses, and at many area farmer’s markets. New Roots donates about 40 percent of its food to local food pantries.
“New Roots is a shining example of a success story,” said Alex Redfield, the director of training for Cultivating Community’s New American Farmer Program. “They were with us for about nine years [before going on their own] and they are rocking it.”
It’s been a long road to this place of land ownership and community acceptance.
A formal refugee resettlement program did not bring Somalis to Maine, but rather it was an organic migration, as people who had faced famine and war searched for a safe, affordable community to raise their children, Redfield said.
But the initial migration to Lewiston in 2002 was met with conflicts and misinformation about the immigrants’ role in the community. By the time the New Roots farmers came to Maine a few years later, acceptance had grown.
Even though they don’t speak the language, they created a space together, Redfield said, adding that today all the farmers at the Lewiston farmers market are Somali.
“We feel welcomed and supported, and [we] worked together,” farmer and owner Ismail said, translated by Hassan. “It’s been a long time, long effort and being patient. We appreciate those people who helped, their time and [how they] supported us and put us to the level we are at today.”
Redfield said that the New Roots farmers — who grew up in farm families in Somalia and met in refugee camps — joined the incubator in 2006 and opened the cooperative in 2016 after Cultivating Community helped them find appropriate land to farm.
Cultivating Community’s New American Farmer six-year refugee and immigrant farmer training program, based out of two incubator farms in Lisbon and Falmouth, helps farmers transfer the knowledge and tools they bring to America from their homeland into those needed to farm in Maine.
“This is the most exciting stuff in Maine farming today,” Redfield said.
It offers immigrants a 30-by-100-foot space to farm, and after some training, the farmers graduate to their own farms. But a lack of available farmland is a problem, he said, adding that many of their farmers are currently looking for land to farm.
The New Roots farmers grow both traditional Maine vegetables along with African specialty crops such as African garden eggs.
“They grow an African cucumber and this man [from Somalia] hadn’t seen one in 10 years,” Redfield said. “It was a really emotional moment.”
Since those early days in the U.S., the New Roots farmers have made significant improvements to the land by clearing new areas for farming, installing solar panels and building hoop houses to expand their growing options.
“We have invested a lot of effort to make sure that this is a fully functioning farmland and we intend to continue to do that,” Seynaub Ali said. “It’s very important for me and my family because we love spending time here and enjoy farming.”
Hassan helps the cooperative to flourish and grow through marketing, negotiating, technical advice and equipment advances. Additionally, New Roots recently hired a farm manager who speaks English, Hassan said.
They are now in the process of contracting to have a sixth hoop house built so they can continue to extend their growing season.
Purchasing this land will enable them to continue building a sustainable farm, providing food to the community and improving the local food economy, he said, adding that the community support of their fundraising goal to purchase their land and more equipment has been incredible.
“It was really eye-opening for some folks with all that is going on in the world right now,” Hassan said. “It is good to see people willing to support immigrant farmers.”