Organic Consumers Association

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Kansas City Pioneers New Models for Urban Farms

Seven women in ankle-length floral dresses bend at the waist in rows of kale, arugula, and kohlrabi. Their hands effortlessly scoop and pick and cut the stems and pull the weeds. The low sun is already hot coming through the hazy white sky that makes the Kansas City downtown in the distance look like a mirage. Low-slung brick buildings of the Juniper Gardens public housing project line one side of this seven-acre farm. It's hard to know which is more out of place, more of a mirage: the city, the farm, the dried-out yards of the apartments, or the farmer women from Burundi, Somalia, Burma, Bhutan, or Sudan.

The Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas City started the city's Farm Business Development Program in 2006. The area sees many refugees from Africa and Asia, and some of the women receive classes and support at the Catholic Charities center.

Rachel Bonar directed the women's programs there in 2005. She heard the women asking for a garden, since most of them farmed or at least gardened in their native homes. So they started a community garden at the office. "Almost immediately, we realized that these women are really good at growing food," says Rachel. "So the next year we partnered with Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture and began this farm."

The New Roots for Refugees Farm is part community farm and part Farm Business Development Program. The business program acts as an incubator farm for 14 women. Once accepted into the program -- and after at least one year with a community garden plot -- the farmers receive a quarter-acre plot. For the first year, everything is paid for, including seeds, tools, water, and marketing. Rachel even sets up two CSA members who pay to support the plot's crop. Gradually, the farmers take on more responsibility.

In the winter, the farmers take courses in planning, production, marketing, and farming/market-oriented English instruction. In their second and third years, they begin paying for things like seeds (purchased on site from the seed store), marketing, and tools. They organize their own CSA member shares (between three and seven, normally). Rachel and the organization still shuttle them to and from the farmers markets on the weekend, but the women are on their own selling the produce.

On Saturday morning, we followed them from the farm to a market in Brookside, an upper-middle-class neighborhood south of downtown. Six New Roots farmers sell here, mixed in with the grass-fed beef booth, the artisanal bread-and-cheese gang, and other organic produce vendors. The women looked elegant and proud in vibrant dresses and evening shoes. Their produce was immaculate and some exotic, native to their homelands but able to be cultivated here.

"I really have seen these women's disposition change," Rachel says. "They move here and don't find anything they're good at. The language, the systems, etc. are all challenges. They aren't really eligible for other employment. Some go to the meat processing plant to work, but it's so difficult there and restricted. Here they have ownership. It's self-determination. Everyone needs something they're good at, and these women are proud to provide ethnic food to their community. Some weekends Dena Tu [a Karen from Burma] drives hours to Omaha to bring ethnic veggies to the Karen population up there."

The hope is that after three years, the farmers can take the annual $200 of their sales they've been saving and start their own independent farm on a vacant lot within the neighborhood. Though it's a long shot that they'll be able to single-handedly support their families -- most have husbands working full-time -- the farms offer an invaluable monetary supplement, as well as filling the fridge and satisfying that essential human hunger for productivity and worthiness.

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