June 16th-23rd is #RefugeeWeek and June is Immigrant Heritage Month #CelebrateImmigrants
by Vanessa García Polanco
Imagine arriving in a new country as a refugee after spending years in a refugee camp in another country as an asylum seeker and then being given three months to achieve “self-sufficiency” in your new host country. Your hands and mind are restless for work. Maybe you were a farm hand, a farm owner, a food entrepreneur, or something else in your home country. Now that you are given a fresh start in a new country, what opportunities do you seek? Is agriculture even an option? For many, it is and it’s the only one that makes sense.
Immigrants and refugees from around the globe continue to find in agriculture, through different scales and in rural and urban environments, an opportunity to connect with the American soil, making this land their land. In the past 60 years, the United States has admitted more than three million refugees from across the globe, and more than 13 percent of the total population of the United States is foreign-born. At the same time, the current United States annual refugee intake has been capped at 30,000 individuals per year, a record low.
In regions and cities of the U.S. that have experienced significant population decline or with high resettlement numbers, agricultural initiatives have been developed with recent immigrants and refugees, many of whom have prior experience with agriculture in their home countries. Municipalities and many organizations have also often attempted to promote refugee and immigrant incorporation through food and farming entrepreneurship programs, affirming that refugees and immigrants can construct a sense of belonging to their host community through agriculture, food, and social practices within agricultural initiatives.
Case studies of refugees and immigrants highlight diverse themes and motivations for their involvement in agriculture such as (1) Land Tenure, which relates to the refugees having secure access to land with individual plots they can legitimately farm, (2) Reconnecting with agriculture, which recognizes that many immigrants have their origins in farming communities or have been involved in small scale food gardens to supplement food available either in their home country or refugee camps, and (3) Community Belonging, which relates to the role agriculture can play in building relationships and facilitating integration into society. Participation in agriculture such as taking part in community gardens, urban farming, direct market sales, and so on facilitates processes of inclusion to overcome cultural, social and economic barriers commonly experienced by immigrants and refugees.
Agriculture has been a pathway of opportunity for many generations of New Americans, and they should be able to find belonging and opportunities in American agriculture. Programs and Organizations like New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, Michigan Food and Farming Systems and Rural Coalition have a proven record of training and advocating for resources for this, the next generation of farmers in the United States of America who are making this land their land. At the federal level, a new program, the Farming Opportunities Training, and Outreach Program was created on the last Farm Bill to further support the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program that provides critical support to community-based organizations and nonprofits seeking to support refugee and immigrant farmers. This catalyst of resource investment is necessary, as the U.S. farmer population ages and declines over time. Refugees and immigrants can assert their own determination and inspiration for agriculture as they become the leaders shaping our food systems. Refugees and immigrants have created organizations like the African Alliance of RI and the Somali-Bantu Community Association of Maine to represent their desires for food and land justice.
There are plenty of opportunities for reconnecting and empowering a whole generation of New American communities to reclaim their agrarian traditions. We must not forget refugee and immigrant farmers and growers in our conversations about the future of American agriculture. We, as individuals and organizations, as stewards of agricultural land, we must ask ourselves how do we engage and support refugee and immigrant farmers and growers?