By Bonnie Rukin
Maine’s Somali farmers and farm-to-table food truck owners are spending the winter preparing for a new season, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic. Drawing on the courage and resilience that is a legacy of their difficult history, farmers of Liberation Farms and New Roots, as well as Isuken food truck owners, are moving forward with spring plans, and with their vision for a healthy future for their community.
The Somali Bantu Community Association (SBCA) staff and board are working to hire office staff and a property manager for Liberation Farms, the Somali Bantu farmer community’s newly purchased permanent home in Wales. This winter, Muhidin Libah, SBCA Executive Director, is continuing financial planning to ensure that needs are met. Last fall, community members moved two large hoop houses to the new property, and two other hoop houses – funded by Good Shepherd Food Bank – will be moved there sometime this winter. These passive solar greenhouses, also called high tunnels, will extend the production season for warmer weather crops, and will allow cold-tolerant vegetables to be harvested in winter.
Goats, the only residents of the new farm so far, have played an unplanned, ambassadorial role in the neighborhood. One morning they all escaped and a neighbor caught and returned them, providing a chance for Somali farmers and the neighbors to begin building friendly relations. Now when farm community members head to Wales to do chores, in addition to waving at neighbors, building fences, and other projects, they feed their four-legged friends and make sure they are at home!
Planning is underway for enriching soils with cover crops and amendments. The land has been depleted by continuous hay production in the past decades, and the farmers know the importance of healthy soil for growing all crops. Over the winter, the land is being organized into growing plots; the eventual harvest will serve community and commercial market needs. The farmers work in a traditional, Somali, cooperative farming method, known as Iskashito, which allows for everyone involved to contribute to the farm enterprise and to share equally in the land and the profits from their efforts.
Omar Hassan, of the Cooperative Development Institute, works closely with the families that comprise the New Roots Cooperative Farm in Lewiston. Hassan is originally from Somalia, and shares a common language and cultural associations with the farmers. He said that he “really enjoys helping the farmer community to prosper and have an impact.” The priority focus for New Roots, before the growing season starts, is to complete fundraising for purchase of their Lewiston farm. The farmers have been involved in a lease-to-own arrangement with Maine Farmland Trust since 2017, and have raised $120,000 in grants towards their $200,000 goal to meet purchase and infrastructure needs.
Other winter activities include procuring vegetable seeds for standard and specialty crops, starting seedlings, working on logistics to maximize efficiency, and preparing greenhouses and high tunnels for use. Natural Resources Conservation Service, a government program for agricultural improvements, will fund both high tunnels and a new well for the farm, a valuable contribution.
Last year, New Roots farmers doubled their community-supported agriculture customers and sold out the shares. This year, offers are rolling in for dropoff sites for New Roots produce, and farmers are preparing for higher volume sales at their seven farmers markets in Bath, Cumberland, Damariscotta, Kennebunk, Lewiston, Portland, and Saco. Hassan is preparing to offer a new round of workshops and trainings for farmers this spring, and will also be recruiting and training younger community members to help with social media outreach.
A priority need for the Isuken cooperative food truck business is to procure and put finishing touches on a new food truck to enable it to travel to more farmer’s markets and events throughout the state. The co-operative also aims to expand the size of its well-loved, traditional Somali food menu, said Mohamed Dekow, Executive Director of the Sustainable Livelihood Relief Organization in Lewiston. Isuken’s five members and their families share equally in the responsibilities and rewards of the business. They use locally farmed, organic ingredients and their own blend of special spices, and at this point their menu includes sambusas, stews, and salads.
Although all of these organizations and farmers had a successful 2020, COVID-19 clearly made the year especially challenging for everyone involved. They welcome continued community support for their endeavors, and look forward to in-person celebrations at their new homes in 2021.