DES MOINES, Iowa — A program that helps refugees in Iowa become farmers is growing, thanks in part to a federal funding boost.
Organizers with Des Moines-based Lutheran Services in Iowa will use a $24,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer training to refugees about food safety, organic production and crop planning.
The grant expands beyond previous USDA awards for the program. It solidifies a yearslong effort to expand the program from one that only offers community garden plots to one that also provides intense one-on-one training so some participants can start independent businesses.
That’s been the goal for Simon Bucumi, who came to Iowa from Burundi. Bucumi’s previous participation in the program, known as Global Greens, allowed him and his wife to expand from a community garden plot to renting three acres in Van Meter, just west of Des Moines. Today, he grows more than 40 types of vegetables and more than 100 varieties.
“I feel good,” said the 53-year-old Bucumi. “I harvest more than before.”
Zachary Couture is a farm manager for Global Greens and helps oversee operations at Valley Community Center, which is a partner in offering advanced farming on roughly seven acres of land in Wes Des Moines. Couture noted another farmer from Burundi who recently grew a large quantity of garden eggs, a type of eggplant, and transported the produce to Texas for a client.
The success Bucumi and others are having drives home the efforts behind the training, Couture said.
“We’re helping them to a point, but then they’re taking their own initiative,” he said.
Global Greens launched in 2011 with the goal of teaching refugees to grow a range of specialty crops including peppers, radishes, sweet corn, tomatoes and onions. But the heart of the program is connecting people with Iowa land, while also providing opportunities to earn a living and find a sense of community.
Today, refugees involved in the first phase of the program come from a range of countries including Liberia, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. More advanced farmers are from Burundi, Bhutan, Burma and Rwanda.
The first phase provides participants with community garden plots near Des Moines neighborhoods. That was the sole offering in the program initial years, and today the program estimates more than 280 families benefit from community gardens at 18 sites.
The second phase, which launched in 2013 through the partnership with Valley Community Center, upped training on larger plots of land, positioning some farmers to develop small-market businesses over a three- to five-year period. The third phase is aimed at more independence and fine tuning details around production.
Michael Klenk, the director of Valley Community Center, notes more than 20 farmers and their families use the West Des Moines land.
“Most common thing is, mom and dad are the farmers. Then they bring the young ones, and they bring grandpa and grandma,” he said. “It’s often three generations … it’s a family farm.”
Some refugees grow produce for a farmers market on the Lutheran Services grounds. Separately, there’s been increased production for community supported agriculture networks, which establish regular connections between farmers and customers. Lutheran Services data shows that in 2016, 18 participating members, or customers, generated nearly $7,000 for farmers. The number of members jumped to more than 70 this year, with more than $20,000 collected by farmers.
Gary Huber, manager of the online market Iowa Food Cooperative, where several farmers in Global Greens sell their crops, called the farmers “cornerstone producers.”
“These are people that are trying to earn a living in our country,” he said. “They’re here, they’re part of our community, and we want them to be able to be successful.”
Couture, at the community center, said the program highlights the hard work of refugees at a time when immigration has become a sensitive political subject.
“To vilify people who are doing what they need to do to sustain their family is really terrible,” he said. “It’s way off base from the reality of who these people are.”