For the past three summers, Mahamud Mberwa has woken each day before dawn, squeezing in four hours of Uber driving before he treks to the Somali Bantu Community Farm.
There, on a donated plot 20 miles outside Buffalo, N.Y., Mberwa and dozens of other Bantu refugees plant African maize, amaranth, onions, tomatoes and spinach. The non-profit, volunteer-run farm has over its three-year run become both a critical food source and social hub for Buffalo’s growing Somali Bantu population.
Volunteers plow the fields and pick crops; in exchange, they take home bags of fresh, free vegetables every week during harvest season. It’s a collaborative, community-based approach to helping immigrant communities thrive in — or in spite of — America’s fraught food system. The model has proved so successful, in fact, that several other immigrant and underserved communities will begin similar projects on adjoining plots this year.
“People need to be able to grow the food that is part of their tradition and culture,” said Kristin Heltman-Weiss, one of the project’s organizers. “And they need that to stay healthy, especially here in America.”
To Mberwa, who came to Buffalo in 2006 after more than a decade in a Kenyan refugee camp, the Somali Bantu Community Farm has already been a “miracle.” He, his wife and their seven young children make just nine of the more than 600 Somali Bantu who federal officials have resettled on Buffalo’s West Side, a diverse and historically working-class neighborhood. Since the early aughts, Buffalo has become a major resettlement hub for refugees from Myanmar, Iraq and Somalia, including the Somali Bantu, an ethnic minority group.
Mberwa was helping run an afterschool program there for Somali Bantu kids when, in 2017, he met Heltman-Weiss, a volunteer and educational therapist. He mentioned to his new friend that the Bantu next needed a place to farm: Many felt concerned, he told her, that they couldn’t purchase their traditional fruits and vegetables in Buffalo’s grocery stores, if they could get to those stores at all.
“Some elders in the community talked about farming all the time,” Mberwa said, paraphrasing them: “‘We need fresh food, we don’t know what we’re eating, so much of it is canned.’”
To Mberwa’s surprise, Heltman-Weiss, who lives in one of Buffalo’s well-heeled, largely rural exurbs, knew a local healthcare executive with a horse farm and several extra acres. Within weeks of her conversation with Mberwa, she secured the Somali Bantu not only a quarter-acre plot for a pilot garden, but a trove of donated seeds, seedlings and gardening tools.
From that first planting, the farm grew quickly: The executive donated two more acres mid-season. In 2018, the newly christened Somali Bantu Community Farm received a $74,000 grant from General Mills, which it used to buy a passenger van, a pick-up truck and a walk-behind tractor.
That year, the Bantu also began growing traditional crops, such as maize, mace and amaranth, as well as cash crops for outside sale, including snapdragons, sunflowers and artisanal garlic.
From the beginning, however, the bulk of the produce has gone back to the Bantu themselves. Even those who can’t or don’t want to volunteer at the farm receive heavy discounts on its bagged vegetables.
That has given them an advantage over many of the city’s other recent immigrants, who have struggled, like immigrant communities across the country, to access affordable, healthy foods in their new homes.
“One of the major issues with our new American communities is that they eat better in their home countries than they do here,” said Allison DeHonney, who chairs the Food Policy Council of Buffalo and Erie County. “Those issues need a special type of attention, and the farm has been able to provide that.”
The farm has, of course, also faced a number of challenges — the climate chief among them. The Bantu learned quickly that they couldn’t plant cassava or tobacco, Mberwa said, and that they’d have to contend with a shorter growing season.
The long days could also be brutal on the farm’s volunteers, many of whom already work 40 hours per week or more. When Mberwa still Ubered — he has since found regular work — he would farm until late afternoon, drive back into Buffalo, supervise the afterschool program, and drive again until 10 p.m. or later.
“There is a big, big challenge with the the time and the hours,” he said. “You have to go to work, then go to the farm, and sometimes you get tired. You cannot do anything to the farm then.”
Heltman-Weiss said she recognizes the labor is a “burden” to many in the Bantu community, and she hopes to lessen it as the project evolves and expands. This year, it won’t just be the Somalis farming in East Aurora: Heltman-Weiss and some collaborators registered a new non-profit organization, called Providence Farm Collective, that will provide small “turnkey” plots to four community organizations and eight individual farmers on 60 acres.
The first class will include, in addition to the Somali Bantu, new farmers from a city church, a Congolese community organization, and a non-profit nutrition and farming education group that DeHonney runs for low-income students of color. For the first time, the farm will also employ paid staff, Heltman-Weiss said, who will handle the day-to-day drudgery of tasks like fencing, soil-testing and routine irrigation.
Eventually, she said, she would like to see the new Providence Farm Collective become a land trust, so that it will be officially owned and run by the Bantu and the other “people it serves.” For now, however, both Heltman-Weiss and Mberwa say they’re happy to see how much the Bantu community has made the farm their own.
While the plots sit quiet and muddy now — it’s still three months from the start of the growing year — they’ll be overflowing in the summer with large Bantu families, their minivans disgorging packs of kids into the fields.
Mberwa’s own children love going to the farm, he said, and dress for it on weekend mornings without being told.
“The kids just go with American culture mostly, they don’t see our culture all the time anymore,” he said. “But since we got the farm, the kids realize: Our people, they used to farm. They understand it.”