Ca Saw, a 35-year-old from Burma, resettled in the U.S. around 2015. He was growing vegetables in his family’s yard before coming to the U.S and settling in Kansas City, Kansas.
“Farming is one of my hobbies,” he says through an interpreter.
Burma may be on the other side of the world from the United States, but farming can be a common denominator between the two countries.
For refugee newcomers to the U.S. like Saw, a Kansas City, Kansas-based program offers a chance to earn extra income for themselves and their families; learn English language skills; integrate into the local community; and take part in an activity that they know from their home country.
New Roots for Refugees has been helping refugees farm and find a community foothold for more than 10 years. The goal of New Roots for Refugees is to help newcomers learn to grow their own produce, sell it through various a market, a farm share program or wholesale to local restaurants and grocery stores, and then graduate and start a small-scale farm. Along the way, they will learn English and business skills and help to get to know the community that is their new home.
The program is a partnership between Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas and Cultivate Kansas City, a sustainable agricultural organization. Catholic Charities helps resettle nearly 400 refugees a year, the organization says, the majority of them from Burma.
“I think food has a unique way to bring people together,” says Meredith Walrafen, program coordinator for New Roots for Refugees.”This program and food in general is something we all have in common and something we can start a conversation with someone who is different from us and bond. I think food has a unique power to bring people together.”
At New Roots, there is a nine-acre training farm for the newcomers to use. During any given year, there are about 16 families involved in the program, most as students and some graduates who have rented space on the farm, Walrafen says. Since its inception, 36 participants have graduated, with 27 still farming. Collectively the graduates are growing on almost 13 acres in the Kansas City metro area, Walrafen says. The participants have earned $1.4 million in earnings in the last 12 years due to the program, which does not include cost savings from produce families take home to eat themselves.
As a student of the program — which runs four years — the newcomers take part in various classes and courses.
“We really want people to adapt their skills, so most of the classes we teach are about changing their skills to be successful with the climate here and with the market work,” she said, adding that it also includes business management skills and record keeping coursework.
“There’s a heavy emphasis on writing in our business culture in the United States, so we have to do a lot of teaching around that,” Walrafen says. “We don’t require people to speak English in the program. We provide interpretation.”
However, English classes are also offered during certain times of the year when growing is slower and is targeted toward enhancing skills for the market and farm work, Walrafen says.
Most of the participants are from countries in southeast Asia or Africa, which have vastly different climates than Kansas City, she notes.
“The weather in Kansas City is four seasons and can be unpredictable,” she says, adding that Burma, also known as Myanmar, has different weather than the Midwestern United States. “Just teaching about the weather and strategies to maximize their quarter-acre farm plot, because that’s a pretty small area. It’s a smaller space than they may be used to, but you can get a lot out of that size of plot if you know how to manage it correctly.”
Saw has noticed the weather difference as well. The weather rarely hits 100s degrees in Burma, he adds, but can regularly hit that during summer months in Kansas City.
Some vegetables are also new to Saw, such as zucchini and squash.
“I only see those here,” he says.
Participants in the program grow a variety of vegetables, both things that are popular to a palate of a Midwestern-born person — think kale, spinach, onions, garlic, potatoes, cucumbers, squash — and items that might be grown in their home country.
“They have the option to grow anything that is traditional to their home country,” Walrafen adds. That might include hot peppers, eggplants and similar items.
Participants sell their items in a variety of ways, including at a local market or parish market, through a farm share program or wholesale to local restaurants and grocery stores.
Participants tend to earn more as the years progress. They can make anywhere from a few thousand dollars during the first-year season to upwards of $25,000 per season for a graduate farmer, Walrafen says. The program is free to participate in, but if a farmer chooses to sell into New Roots’ sales streams - either the farm share or wholesale - there is a 10 to 20% fee on sales.
New Roots for Refugees tries to recruit newcomers who have a second household income, she notes.
“A lot of folks are the childcare provider of the family and wouldn’t be working otherwise, so that’s a pretty significant addition to the family income,” Walrafen says. “You add $15,000 to whatever they might be making otherwise.”
The program, Walrafen notes, not only helps the refugees but is also changing the dialogue around newcomers in the U.S. Programs such as New Roots help people who may not otherwise interact with refugees learn about someone with a different background.
“When you put a face with a name it’s harder to dislike someone,” she says. “This program helps people interact with others.”