International Rescue Committee (IRC)

New Roots: Picture a farmer

Picture this: In the back of a van heading into the countryside, a group of people, most of them refugees, singing, joking, smiling. They are on their way to meet a farmer to learn some of the techniques he uses to make a living in the United States.

Now picture this: This same group of refugees, gathering on a Friday to eat lunch—a potluck prepared from last week’s harvest, a taste of their culture, a taste of home.

And another picture to feast on: The Mainali family from Bhutan, so generous with the produce they grow every week at an International Rescue Committee New Roots community garden, bringing a harvest to their apartment complex, where they share with one and all mustard greens, radishes, amaranth, onions, tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, pumpkin and a variety of vegetables.

All of these growers take part in a pilot training program—the New Roots MicroProducer Academy—in Oakland as well as Salt Lake City and New York City, with support from the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation. In Oakland, additional funding has been provided by Y&H Soda Foundation, Philanthropic Ventures Foundation and Hella Heart Oakland Giving Circle. The program helps resettled refugees become farmers in their own right or supplement their livelihoods through farming. They come from agrarian societies where land is part of their heritage and they want to contribute to their new communities. The IRC is committed to helping them do just that.

Laxmi Poudel, Chhali Mainali and Kapil Mainali share lunch with Zack Reidman in Oakland's New Roots incubator farm training program in the gardens of Laney College. The Mainali family, who are Bhutanese, prepared the meal for the farmers to eat together.

Laxmi Poudel, Chhali Mainali and Kapil Mainali share lunch with Zack Reidman in Oakland's New Roots incubator farm training program in the gardens of Laney College. The Mainali family, who are Bhutanese, prepared the meal for the farmers to eat together. 

Photo: Jean-Philippe Dobrin/IRC

Meet Puspa, a refugee from Bhutan. On her first visit to the New Roots farm in Oakland, she took a look at the land, littered with weeds and rocks and mulch, and went straight to work, ax in hand. Having cleared the earth and started planting, Puspa looked to a neighboring parcel and asked, “What about this land?” She wants to grow, harvest and share.

These farmers have much to give. Zack Reidman, the man lucky enough to coordinate the IRC’s New Roots program in Oakland, talks about spending time in the fields, listening to refugees describe how they grew cardamom in the foothills of Bhutan. The community garden provides a space for them to share and learn. They hold workshops on topics ranging from land preparation to irrigation systems to urban farming. And as crops mature for market, all engage in best harvesting practices as they prepare their produce for market.

They have big plans: Through the MicroProducer Academy they aim to increase sales at local farmers markets. Beyond turning a profit, the farmers believe they are contributing to their local communities, where in many cases, fresh produce is hard to come by.

One last picture for you: Klaw Meh and Oo Meh, Karenni refugees, arms full of mustard greens, heading home to dry it in the sun, the first step of the fermentation or “souring” process. This traditional form of preservation, called “Gundruk” by the Nepali people, has become popular among New Roots growers and highly sought after in several communities in Oakland. If all goes well, New Roots farmers will turn this added-value food into a farmers market staple. The New Roots MicroProducer Academy will help them make this happen.

Bhutanese Gundruk soup, Amaranth Sabji, Tomato Achaar, rice, and cucumber pickle

The Mainalis prepared Gundruk soup, Amaranth Sabji, Tomato Achaar, rice, and cucumber pickle for the farmers to eat together. 

Photo: Jean-Philippe Dobrin/IRC

New Roots in America

Each year, the IRC helps thousands of refugees who have been granted sanctuary in the United States to rebuild their lives. An essential part of our broader resettlement efforts, the New Roots program enables refugees to reestablish their ties to the land, celebrate their heritage and nourish themselves and their neighbors by planting strong roots—literally—in their new communities.
 

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