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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Houston group helps refugees find success in farming

On just 6 acres of donated land, the organization’s farmers grow 70 different crops over a year, enough to feed 700 families who subscribe for weekly allotments.

HOUSTON (CN) — They have lived in refugee camps and survived assaults by racist Russians. Now they are urban-farmer entrepreneurs in Houston, thriving with the help of a nonprofit that embraces the skills of new Americans.

With soaring gasoline and food prices forcing families to tighten their budgets, many are buying seeds and planting vegetable gardens as the weather warms this spring to reduce their grocery bills and improve their diets.

For inspiration and introduction to crops not commonly grown in the U.S. they can look to Plant It Forward.

It was founded in 2011 with the goal of connecting recently resettled refugees with jobs that meet their skill sets, according to Rachel Folkerts, its farm programs director. She took the job after a Peace Corps assignment in Senegal.

“Back in 2010 there was very little local farming in Houston. Today, it is a really big presence at farmers markets,” she said.

Six of the group's farmers, most of whom are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, sell their produce every weekend at markets throughout the city. But the bulk of its sales are through subscriptions, with 75% of the proceeds going to its farmers.

On just 6 acres of donated land, the group’s farmers grow 70 different crops over a year—mainly salad greens, carrots and radishes “so we can pack a lot of veggies, which only take two months to grow, into a small space,” said Folkerts—enough to feed 700 families who subscribe for weekly allotments.

In its 11 years, Plant It Forward has sold $3 million in fresh produce.

Roy Nlemba, 56, traveled all over the United States clearing sites for landfills for a plastics company that recovers natural gas—which can be used to make plastic—from decaying trash.

Nlemba started planting peanuts and other crops with his parents at their farm outside Kinshasa, capital of the DRC, at age 5. So it bothered him when he saw large tracts of vacant land during his work travels in the U.S. “If I saw the land I was, ‘Ah this land they don’t do nothing. Why?’” said Nlemba, whose first language is French.

He said he dreamed about farming here and got his chance when a friend from his church told him Plant It Forward was recruiting Africans.

A conflict in the DRC forced Nlemba, then 26, to flee to neighboring Angola. Asked why exactly he left, he smiled. “That’s my secret I can’t tell you. … I never worked for the government. No, I was a political follower,” he said.

An aid organization helped him move to Russia, where he lived for 10 years and learned to speak some Russian but grew frustrated by the government’s refusal to give him documents needed to establish citizenship and other problems.

He said he and other Africans were attacked by Russians due to their skin color.

He told how Russians sometimes hit him in the back with sticks and chains and showered him with pepper spray when they spotted him walking down the street. He also had to watch out for law enforcement. “The police if they see you, they arrest you. Everything you have, they’ll take it,” he recalled.

Nlemba is now a U.S. citizen after nearly 20 years in America.

He is not at all bitter about his experiences in Russia. In fact, he divulged, he loves Russian food more than any because it has a lot of organic ingredients. “The first thing I like is the black bread. It’s brown. But Russians call it black.”

Nlemba's easygoing disposition might also stem from the success of his farming business. Working just two small plots, he has made enough money that he opened a pharmacy last year in the DRC that is run by his nephew, who, like all his nieces and nephews, calls him “daddy.”

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“Yeah, everybody calls me ‘daddy.’ Sometimes they call their father ‘uncle.’ Me. They call me ‘daddy,’” he said with a laugh.

Roy Nlemba takes a break from weeding at one of his Houston farm sites. (Cameron Langford/Courthouse News)

Furloughed from his marketing job early in the pandemic, Paul Shinneman, 37, dedicated himself to organic gardening along with his wife.

“Basically, we took out our yard and it’s all growing space. So we grow most of the food we eat in our backyard. And we’ve got a few chickens for eggs,” Shinneman said.

He started volunteering with Plant It Forward, helping its farmers sell their produce at markets, and accepted its offer of a farming education manager job in December.

Now he splits his time visiting the farmers at the group’s four sites and getting a feel for their dispositions, if they welcome his help or prefer to work independently. He has even had some of them over to his house to see his chicken coop and garden.

“They all have much more longer farming backgrounds than I do so I’m not necessarily trying to teach them to farm but, you know, trying to bring in new equipment, trying to figure out where they are struggling or spending too much time,” Shinneman said, adding sometimes the farmers who are not fluent in English just need help ordering seeds or compost.

The farmers have broadened his palate. They exposed him to sorrel, an herbaceous plant he said has a nice lemony flavor and is good raw in salads or in soups. Also, traditional African eggplants.

“And I didn’t really care for just about any eggplants,” he said. “But they’ll tell you how to cook something. ... Now I kind of love eggplant. And I eat it all the time.”

They have also taught him to appreciate the medicinal qualities of plants. For instance, lemon grass, he learned, can be used to make a tea that treats flu symptoms.

Another farmer, Elizabeth Nyuma, has not taken any kind of pill in more than seven years.

“No injections. When I feel pain I go for a check-up and when they say what’s wrong with me I will just come in my farm and get some up. ... No headache pill, no aspirin, no Tylenol. All Tylenol is here,” she said pointing to her rows of crops.

Nyuma, in her 50s, credits her diet for her youthful appearance.

She is the only Plant It Forward farmer from Liberia. She fled the West African country with her mother, five younger siblings and four children to neighboring Sierra Leone in the early 2000s amid a civil war.

After rebels killed her parents and one of her brothers, she became the matriarch of her family while living in a refugee camp in Sierra Leone.

The experience she had gained farming rice, corn, okra and other staples with her parents from age 9 helped at the camp. Though aid groups gave residents buckwheat, Nyuma said, some of her children got diarrhea from eating the grain-like seed because they were not used to it. So she started a garden.

“I was able to find a place all the way down by the riverside. So that’s where I went and planted okra, potato greens, collard greens, peppers,” she said, noting she could harvest the potato greens just two months after sowing them.

She sold the produce in the camp and bought shoes, clothes and rice for herself and her family and split the profits with friends she had enlisted to help with the plot.

The most challenging part of living in the camp was the downpours, Nyuma recounted. They built their home’s frame out of small sticks tied with rope and plastered the walls with mud. They made a roof out of palm leaves. Sometimes they would receive donated tarpaulins to cover the house, but they wore out quickly, she said.

Heavy rains would wash off the mud and soak their belongings.

Nyuma now lives in a comfortable apartment near downtown Houston. She moved here in 2011 with her children and three of her siblings. The area’s balmy weather reminds her of back home in Liberia.

Plant It Forward does not currently have anyone enrolled in its monthslong business-startup and farming-in-Houston training program because it does not have any land to put them on.

Folkerts, its farm programs director, is now focused on land acquisition as word spreads about its work among Africans living in Houston. “We have a lot of demand for the program from refugees,” she said. “For instance, 30 Sudanese families want to join it.”

Follow @cam_langford
Categories / Environment, Regional

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