KC Cares: New Roots for Refugees is growing permanent bonds as well as fresh produce

A group photo of some farmers in the New Roots for Refugees program

Top row: Semra Fetahovic (Juniper Gardens Training Farm Manager, Cultivate KC), Mediatrice Niyonkuru, 3rd-year farmer from Burundi. Second row: Dhan Rai, 2019 graduate from Bhutan (his farm business is “The Natural Farmacy” and can be found on social media); Tin Tun Aung, 4th-year farmer from Burma; Ngun Tial, 4th-year farmer from Chin State in Burma. Standing, far right: Ibrahim Dugudu, 2020 graduate from the DRC (farm name is Maisha Mapya). Standing, far left: Ca Saw, 2nd-year farmer from Burma. Sitting front: Taw Meh, 2nd-year farmer from Burma. // Photo Courtesy New Roots for Refugees

When you buy produce at local weekly farmer’s markets, you may already be supporting refugees in the area. Since 2008, New Roots for Refugees has helped people settling in the Kansas City metro start farm businesses through a collaboration between Catholic Charities and Cultivate KC. 

The four-year program begins at Juniper Gardens Training Farm, where farmers have a quarter-acre plot to grow vegetables according to sustainable practices and learn how to adjust their growing practices to the changing Kansas City climate. Many in the program bring expertise and new crops from their home country to the midwest. 

After the growing season, New Roots for Refugees provides winter classes covering everything from farming workshops to English lessons. Each year, the program transfers more responsibilities to the farmers in the program until they have control over the totality of their business. 

“We work with folks over that four-year period to adapt their farm,” says Meredith Walrafen, program manager of New Roots for Refugees. “We recruit people who have farming skills already. And our goal is to help them adapt those skills to be successful in the climate and in the market here in the Kansas City area so that they can start their own small farm business.”

Biak Par and her daughter holding a farm share from last season

Biak Par and her daughter holding a farm share from last season. // Photo courtesy New Roots for Refugees

That goal has largely been accomplished. To date, 21 of the 30 program graduates still operate farms.

Farmers in the program have full autonomy over what they choose to grow, but New Roots for Refugees does teach them about what successfully sells in area markets. It’s the culturally relevant crops that farmers plant from their home countries that make the program shine. What makes the farmers feel more at home also introduces people to new ingredients and food practices—New Roots for Refugees even shares recipes that involve the crops. 

“There’s a lot of barriers to come into a new country and start a new life, especially as a refugee. Giving people access to space to grow food for themselves and their families really ties people to home,” Walrafen says. “It can make you feel like you miss your home if you don’t have the food you’re used to. So, people being able to grow the things that they’re familiar with—while also supporting their own food communities and the broader community that they’re new in—is all really powerful in different ways.”

Last year, the 16 farmers in the New Roots for Refugees program grew 72 different crop varieties. Beyond the food they grow, participants in the program are integral members of the Kansas City community. 

“There’s a narrative around refugees in particular and the things that they take—that they come here and they utilize benefits and resources,” says Walrafen. “I really love that this program showcases the skills and knowledge, the benefits, and all of the wonderful things that immigrants bring to this country. I think that’s really powerful and it brings to the forefront how much people have to share. It’s a shift in the narrative and I think that’s really important.”

The contents of a farm share box from this summer

The contents of a farm share box from this summer. // Photo courtesy New Roots for Refugees

To support the farmers in the New Roots for Refugees program, visit one of the 13 different markets that they sell at. All of the proceeds from market sales go directly to the farmers. The program also offers farm share boxes. For just $16-24 a week, Kansas Citians can support the farmers and get spring greens, or early and late summer vegetables. 

The farm share is aggregated based on the availability each farmer has, so there’s always a rotation of produce. Farmers see 80% of the money from the boxes while 20% goes towards paying a Community-Supported Agriculture specialist—whose family is a graduate of the farming program. 

New Roots for Refugees sells its produce wholesale to 10 different restaurants in Kansas City as well, and is looking to expand that program. The Homesteader, The Rieger, Jax Fish House, The Savoy, Heirloom, and even Betty Rae’s are some of the local spots where you can eat produce sustainably grown by the program’s farmers. 

Supporters can also volunteer to help farmers sell at markets, host a pop-up market, or donate directly to Cultivate KC or Catholic Charities to help run New Roots for Refugees. 

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