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Seeds in the City
May, 2013, Page 92
To illustrate Barrett’s point, Timothy Olorunfemi, coordinator of the International Rescue Committee’s New Roots program in Phoenix, recalls a class of 26 students who attended a garden tour. He pulled out a large orange root caked with dirt and asked one boy to identify it. The boy glanced up in confusion. “It is a carrot,” Olorunfemi said. “They do not grow at Wal-Mart, you know.” The youngster’s eyes grew wide with amazement. “Really?” he asked.
Founded in October 2007, the New Roots program provides land plots and agricultural education for social and political refugees. The size of the plot depends on household size and the intent of the gardener (i.e. feeding a single family versus selling produce at farmers’ markets). In its infancy, New Roots serviced 10 families on 14 acres of land. Today, there are approximately 75 families farming across five smaller gardens totaling five acres scattered throughout Phoenix, along with an additional 100 acres of dedicated farmland. The original 14 acres are now part of a privately owned farm tended by a former New Roots member.
In just five years, New Roots became so successful that farmers began requesting assistance setting up an agricultural business. One roadblock was insurance, which can set a small farm back $2,000-$5,000 per year. In response, New Roots administrators created the Gila Farm Cooperative, which combined the resources of several families and diminished the individual contribution required. Co-op members sell produce at market, purchase from other New Roots farmers, and run a Community Supported Agriculture program where locals can pre-order online and pick up boxes of vegetables at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) office each week.
Phoenix Farm Truck greenterns Razi Amado and Cassandra Valdez
Scalding summer weather aside, Olorunfemi points out that the growing season in Phoenix is year-round, and the climate similar to many of the refugees’ homelands. A Nigerian immigrant with a Masters degree in Agricultural Economics, he understands the hurdles farmers must overcome when transplanted to the desert. “When I come here and look around, everything is brown,” Olorunfemi jokes. “For [refugees] to figure out how to get started in agriculture here is a challenge. This program is designed to show them how to get started and how to triumph.”
On a brisk Saturday morning in February, Bhutanese refugee Januka Neupane picks vegetables from her plot at Cross Connections community garden in north Phoenix. She lays down two blankets – one for drying mustard greens, another as a makeshift workspace. Januka sits and begins to slice a thick white root with a pair of massive scissors. There is a steady rhythm to her movements as she chops, then pauses to spread the growing pile of vegetable pieces around with one hand.
Francisco Soltero, and Mykin Lopez
Januka’s husband, Dadhi, is at the Downtown Phoenix Farmers’ Market, where he sells organic produce to locals hungry for fresh vegetables. Dadhi is a top producer at Cross Connections, one of five community gardens run by IRC as part of the New Roots program. Only 1 percent of refugees worldwide will be permanently resettled – the Neupanes are among these lucky few.
Januka explains her task to a group of community volunteers here to help clean up debris on the 1.5-acre lot. Chop. Chop. Slide around. The plants in front of her are leftovers, parts of the plants locals will not eat. The white vegetable will be pickled, while the dried greens are for a traditional soup. “It is… radish,” Januka says as she hands spectators a sample of the daikon. “It is very sour. These ones Americans do not like.” As I bite into the pungent root, I can see why.
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