Having overcome violence and hatred on two continents, the four Somali Bantu farmers of the New Roots Cooperative Farm weren’t sure they’d make it through a third trial by fire. But then a fourth social upheaval lifted them up.
Jabril Abdi, Seynab Ali, Mohamed Abukar and Batula Ismail were traditional farmers from different areas of Somalia during the civil war that’s been ripping the nation apart since the late 1980s. They fed the country and met in a Kenyan refugee camp. When they arrived in Lewiston 15 years ago, they faced widespread racism and discrimination, as impoverished whites in this deindustrialized Central Maine mill town vented their resentment toward the newcomers.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit Maine this March, the farmer-owners of New Roots were growing seedlings for what would be the fourth season on their 30-acre farm. They’d been planning to expand the wholesale side of their business by selling produce to local restaurants, schools and markets.
“There was a lot of scare in the beginning for every farmer, so we started out saying we don’t even know if we can do this anymore,” recalled Omar Hassan of the Cooperative Development Institute (CDI), who acts as a translator for the New Roots farmers. “There were a lot of businesses closing, and we were not doing well in the beginning.”
Then came this spring’s mass protests against police brutality, and heightened consciousness of racial inequality. One major way Americans have responded is by supporting local Black-owned enterprises.
“As time progressed, we started to do some fundraising, and then the Black Lives Movement happened, and many people started looking at us as if they needed to support us,” Hassan said. “Many people donated, and many people signed up.”
New Roots’ primary source of revenue has been its community supported agriculture (CSA) program, by which customers purchase shares to receive fresh produce from the farm weekly. In past years, New Roots averaged about 100 CSA shares. This year, they’ve doubled that. Suddenly, rather than scrambling to figure out how their farm will survive in this pandemic-stricken economy, New Roots is grappling with explosive growth.
The four Somali Bantu refugees began farming together in Maine in 2006. They graduated from the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project run by Cultivating Community, a nonprofit food-justice organization that helps immigrants in the Portland and Lewiston areas succeed in Maine’s food economy.
CDI helped New Roots form their producer cooperative. In 2016, the New Hampshire-based farm-advocacy organization Land For Good and Maine Farmland Trust both helped them secure land on a former dairy farm. That old cow pasture is now producing a cornucopia of naturally grown* fruits, vegetables and herbs, including salad greens and cilantro; beans, peas and Brussels sprouts; beets, garlic and potatoes; tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers. African varieties of corn and squash are in the ground, as are crops less commonly grown in Maine, like okra, amaranth, and collard and tatsoi greens.
The political leadership in Lewiston has done an about-face since the East Africans began arriving over two decades ago. In 2002, Mayor Larry Raymond wrote an open letter to his city’s immigrant community in which he declared, “This large number of new arrivals cannot continue without negative results for all. The Somali community must exercise some discipline and reduce the stress on our limited finances and our generosity.”
By contrast, then-Mayor Bob Macdonald attended New Roots’ groundbreaking celebration four years ago, and current Mayor Mark Cayer considers New Roots a boon to the city. “As you may know, Lewiston has an above-average rate of poverty,” Cayer said. “With this comes food insecurity. New Roots provides jobs and economic security, while also providing fresh produce for our residents and businesses — a win-win for our community.”
This is not to say that racism has been erased. “We have in the back of our heads that we have to watch out regardless,” said Hassan. “You would think people would be more forgiving. Immigrant farmers who don’t speak the language struggle, and if you don’t put yourself in those shoes, you’re not showing any empathy.”
The farmers are not fluent in English and don’t use computers, relying on allies like Hassan to help them conduct business. The language and technology gaps can cause problems, as when the organizer of a farmers’ market threatened to disallow New Roots from selling its produce there because of a perceived lack of communication, Hassan said.
Yet, as this year’s bumper crop of CSA shares shows, many Mainers are amenable to getting their fruits and vegetables the old-fashioned way. CSA participants pick up their orders at one of numerous distribution locations in Southern, Central and Midcoast Maine, including farmers’ markets and the Portland Food Co-op. They get whatever was ripe to be harvested that week.
The second of New Roots’ eight-week CSA seasons runs from September through October. It costs $175 for a small share (enough produce for one or two people who don’t cook every day) and $230 for a “family share” (about 10 items). Low-income households participating in Maine’s EBT or SNAP programs get shares for half price. According to the farm’s website, a typical fall-season share includes cauliflower, purple kale, turnips, cabbage, broccoli, parsley, carrots, bok choy, sweet potatoes and arugula.
“As they continued to grow, they adapted,” Hassan said of the founding foursome. “The farm was an empty place, nothing was built, we had to develop the farm itself. We’re still in development of becoming more sustainable.”
New Roots’ wholesale accounts include Norway Brewing Company, Bates College, the Portland Food Co-op, and Isuken, a first-of-its-kind, farm-to-table food truck owned and operated by a fellow cooperative of Somali immigrants. Like the farmers of New Roots, Isuken’s members were already familiar with the African cooperative-farming practice called iskashito, by which a small group of growers work the same parcel of land and share the surplus and any profits. Still, the long meetings typical of modern worker cooperatives, and the complexities of conducting business in Maine, remain challenges both co-ops must wrestle with.
Isuken’s food truck sells sambusas, a fried pastry filled with beef, chicken, vegetables or fish, as well as Somali chai tea and vegetable stew with injera, a traditional sourdough flatbread. “We’re developing them to be a full business as well,” Hassan said of Isuken. “Adding more cultural food within the town we’re in kind of brings more richness to the area.”
Hassan said the five members of the Isuken worker co-op and their families had plans to open a restaurant in Lewiston within the next few years, but these days, “we’re starting slow, getting to know the rules and regulations.”
“Anything new is always challenging,” Hassan added. “They can learn and adapt, but it will just take time.”
Thanks to the influx of support these co-ops are receiving from Mainers newly inspired to help them succeed, time is finally on their side.
*New Roots farms without pesticides or other industrial chemicals, and is in the process of getting its organic certification.