them to get her lists of the seeds they would need to replant in
the next week. “Be happy,” she said as the farmers stood to leave.
“The sun is shining. The farms are drying.” Nods all around.
“Oh! And the mosquitoes are coming,” Liz added, handing out
cans of insect repellant.
A MONTH AFTER Harvey, Plant It Forward began a new training class with over twenty potential refugee farmers at the
Demonstration Farm laid out between Alimasi’s land and Sarment’s near the railroad and the highway. All summer, Liz
had been recruiting through the resettlement agencies and on
refugee Facebook groups. A military friend of Liz’s, originally
from Sudan, spread the word among the Sudanese community.
Fatuma even referred several participants, whom Liz described
as “adorably bossy Congolese women.” Though the deadline to
apply had been in August, word of the program’s opportunities was spreading and new applicants kept turning up, hoping
to be allowed in. The class now has refugees from at least six
countries: Congo-Kinshasa, Congo-Brazzaville, Nigeria, Liberia,
Sudan, and Cameroon.
Liz, and Daniella Lewis, the operations manager for Plant It
Forward, have been reimagining the nonprofit’s possibilities and
are scrambling to keep up with their vision. The new training
class means they’ll need more land for farms, and more markets for the produce. They’re looking into partnering with an
institution—a school, perhaps, or a hospital. They want to get
authorized to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance
Program) benefits—otherwise known as food stamps. They’d
also like to o=er di=erent tracks for the farmers that they train:
some could become, as before, independent contractors running
their own urban farms; but others could work on a Plant It Forward farm, growing for the wholesale program.
On one Saturday morning in late October, the first cold day
of the season, the refugee trainees and some of their spouses
and children were gathered around Dr. Joe Novak, the Plant It
Forward agriculture consultant and a former professor of garden
science. Speaking slowly and loudly, his white hair lifting in the
breeze, Novak was demonstrating how to fertilize the rows that
they had been preparing for the last couple of weeks, each row
labeled with a participant’s name. After every sentence, Novak
would pause to allow the two translators, distributed among the
trainees, to translate into French and Swahili.
The crisp air sharpened and clarified everything. Though
tra=ic flowed past on the nearby highway, here in the planted
fields, the city seemed far away. It had become a world again of
fundamentals: green crops, blue sky, black earth. The seeds that
the trainees had planted in trays were pressing up out of the
Plant It Forward farmers at the Demonstration Farm file past crops
planted by new refugee trainees.
soil—lettuce, carrots, rutabaga, sugar snap peas. The fringed
leaves of Alimasi’s banana tree shimmied in the wind. After
Novak demonstrated the proper use of a motorized tiller, one of
the women gave it a try. When it got away from her and careened
down the row as she barely held on, the adorably bossy Congolese women wearing traditional kangas and flip-flops and head
wraps and jackets leaned into one another and bent their bodies
over in joyous laughter.
The current Plant It Forward farmers weren’t here that day.
Most of them—Constant, Christine, Roy, Sarment—were at
their Saturday markets. Alimasi was looking into a church that
had o=ered space for his Congolese parishioners to worship. But
Fatuma was here, taking the training class herself, along with a
nephew who came with them from Congo. If they successfully
complete the training, they could have their own farms one day,
which might put the family on stronger financial ground.
Since the day he returned from his wedding in Brazzaville to
find his farm laid waste, Constant has been preparing beds and
planting furiously. He started a nursery of seedlings in one plot,
which he transplants as they grow. He sowed cooler-weather radishes well before the other farmers and he’s already harvesting
them for his CSA shares. The kale is flourishing, as is the lettuce and kohlrabi. The strain and fear in his eyes are lifting. In
a year, the roads and the water lines and the electricity will be
installed on his new land. By then, Roseline will be here. Constant is patient. Together they will prepare the soil. He’s thinking of planting an orchard. Eventually, he hopes to own three
or four farms on the outskirts of the city. He believes he has to
work hard for his new country, to give it a productive return on
its investment in him. Soon he will start teaching the Saturday
training classes himself and mentor the new refugee farmers. “ I
know tomorrow will be good,” he says.
After the Saturday market, Constant returns to his farm at
the margins and thinks about how soothing it is here in a place
otherwise surrounded by so much concrete. Walking the path of
green grass bisecting the framed plots, he surveys the crops that
have sprung from the earth of a city whose fate does not seem
quite as certain. A flock of starlings, startled from out of the
sugarcane as Constant ambles by, lifts into the sky like a handful of tossed seeds, then scatters and settles along the electrical
lines that run above him to the borderless horizon. O
This article was made possible through the support of Kalliopeia