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Small Farms

Small Farm Conference Assists Refugee Farmers

Approximately 2.4 million refugees have come to the United States since 1975, seeking protection from persecution and in search of freedom, peace, and opportunity for themselves and their families. After a period of adjustment, many look to micro-enterprise and small businesses as a way to establish a new life. With many refugees coming from agrarian societies, it is not surprising that small-scale farming is a popular option. Refugees from Asia and Africa, for example, grow and market specialty and niche vegetables across the country.

Several presenters at the 4th National Small Farm Conference discussed the opportunities and challenges faced by refugee farmers. For example, Hugh Josephs, of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project at Tufts University, noted that crop production systems can be unfamiliar; that marketing, pricing, and start up loans are often difficult; that access to farmland can be limited; and, of course, that language and traditional labor practices can be a hurdle.

To address such challenges, the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) funds programs that help refugees adjust to their new country. One such program, the Refugee Rural Initiative, encourages farmers to take advantage of increasing demands for niche, specialty, and organic crops. Under this initiative, the Institute for Social and Economic Development (ISED) works with nine funded and other non-profit and faith-based organizations to help refugees start or expand agricultural enterprises.

Research and outreach programs at land-grant universities also address problems faced by refugee producers across the country. For several years, Brad Bergefurd, Ohio State University Extension, has offered educational programs and hands-on advice to refugees from Somalia, Cameroon, and other countries in Africa. Most of these refugees, already experienced farmers, quickly adapt their skills to the new crops and production practices in southern Ohio, but access to land, the cost of inputs, and unfamiliarity with local marketing opportunities pose major hurdles. Brad encourages these farmers to start small—for example, by growing berries and vegetables on garden allotments—and taking advantage of the many direct marketing opportunities in Columbus area. In a few years, many of the refugees amassed sufficient capital and skills to expand their operations through Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans. Brad hopes to expand his program beyond the local area by supplementing his current programs through small grants, for example from the Ohio Economic and Community Development Initiative.

In Maryland, the Small Farm Institute offers research, educational, and outreach programs in all areas of agriculture, including crop production, farm management, and marketing to a diverse range of farmers, including traditional small-scale producers, beginning, immigrant and minority farmers, and agricultural entrepreneurs. The institute also stimulates research and extension educational programs on alternative enterprises and new market outlets and strategies. In particular, the institute has undertaken an in-depth evaluation of ethnic and specialty vegetable production in Maryland, including Oriental leafy vegetables, beach plums, and kiwi. The institute also researches the feasibility of marketing these crops across the state.

Washington State University's Small Farm Program partners with professionals from the university, state agencies, and non-governmental organizations to provide education resources for farmers, outreach to communities, and team-based research with farmers across the state. Classes on entrepreneurship and small-scale, sustainable production, for example, are relevant to the needs of refugee farmers, and the program partners with the USDA Risk Management Agency to provide specific resources and information for Hmong farmers.

In California, Richard Molinar of the University of California's Small Farm Program, works with the immigrant and refugee farming community in the San Joaquin Valley. Many of his programs address the difficulty of access faced by refugee farmers who have little time to attend meetings, and who often face literacy and language problems. With Michael Yang, Richard offers technical assistance, helps find land, and provides farm planning classes, presented in various languages. He also presents a very popular bi-weekly Hmong radio broadcasts offered late in the evening. Several useful publications were presented at the small farm conference, including a comprehensive 2007 Small Farm Resource Directory, a training resource guide in Hmong and English, and detailed costs of production and marketing of specialty niche crops.


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