Namaste Community Garden sits in the middle of the low-income community of Tukwila, Washington, 10 miles south of Seattle. Managed by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) since 2010, the garden provides plots for refugees and immigrants from Myanmar, Central African Republic, and Nigeria—but the majority of the farmers are from Bhutan. The one-acre site started by offering 30 family plots. After growing by word of mouth, now there are 97.
Krishna Biswa, 48, one of the most successful farmers at Namaste, dedicates all of his time to his farming and family. He grows everything from beets and carrots to greens, herbs, and stuffing cucumber (a popular Bhutanese vegetable).
“He farms over a quarter acre across three different sites, sells at a farmers’ market and to several wholesale customers, and takes responsibility for our biggest community garden to help with general site maintenance,” said IRC’s New Roots program senior coordinator Deepa Iyer. “He is crazy productive on a small space.”
Biswa relies on the money from produce sales to feed his seven-member extended family. Born in Bhutan to a long line of farmers, he came to the U.S. in 2010 as a refugee after the government’s ethnic cleansing of the Lhotshampa people.
When the pandemic started and shelter-in-place orders kept the farmers from visiting their plots, Biswa worried that their business would suffer. “If I don’t work on the soil, there will be nothing in the garden. Weeds will be growing, small animals will come in, and there will be nothing to harvest for the entire season,” Biswa said back in April.
He was eventually able to go back to the garden, but some of his vegetables went to waste. And while the Tukwila farmers’ market—one of his main outlets for selling produce—opened several months later than usual, a farm stand he relies on didn’t open at all. His overall sales will likely be way down this year.
COVID-19 has affected small business owners throughout the nation, but refugee farmers face significant hurdles. In addition to lost revenue, they are also at increased risk of contracting the virus. But it’s not all bad news. Several organizations around the country have devised creative solutions, and many of the farmers who have received support are managing to eke out a modest season against the odds.
Essential Workers and Farmers
Aside from the nature of their work, many refugee farmers are at a further disadvantage because they work day jobs as essential workers. At New Roots for Refugees, a similar program in Kansas City, Kansas, nearly half of the farmers either work in meatpacking plants or have spouses who do.
“A lot of them work there, and they have had major COVID outbreaks to the point they had to shut down for a few days or decrease shifts,” said Semra Fetahovic, program manager at the organization. “One of our farmers got COVID, and we had to ask them to stay away from the farm for weeks. They won’t fully recover for the season because weeds took over.”
The dilemma not only sheds light on the economic challenges faced by many refugee farmers but also poses larger questions about what types of food have been deemed essential. “It’s really unfortunate. I know they have to go to work, but do we need to eat meat this much, and put people’s lives at risks?” Fetahovic asked.
In Des Moines, Iowa, workers have faced similar risks, and Daniel Bowser, the food hub and markets supervisor at Refugee Community Services, says many of the refugee farmers he works with also have health problems that put them at greater risk for COVID. “A lot of the foreign population we serve are [in their] 50, 60s, even 70s,” said Bowser.
When COVID-19 hit in the spring, it was a crucial time in the growing season. Many refugee farmers weren’t able to combat pests and weeds early on. In addition, many seeds and other supplies sold out quickly as Americans everywhere decided to grow their own food and vegetables, often for the first time. Urban refugee farms are also usually much smaller than rural farms, and many have had to limit people, staff, and farmers.
When some farmers’ markets closed early on, many farmers were able to pivot quickly to online sales. But refugee farmers faced an additional language and digital literacy barrier as produce sales moved online. In addition, many immigrant communities don’t buy produce online, so farmers serving these communities often had to find new audiences.
“In low-income areas, most customers who would buy produce generally pass by the market on foot,” explained Iyer. “We don’t know that all immigrant communities aren’t buying online, but our conversations with clients across all our programs suggest that the majority do not, for one major reason: EBT isn’t accepted online except for through Amazon or Walmart. This is a systemic issue that puts poorer people at risk right now.”
Even with the help of support organizations and the opportunity to sell directly to food banks, Iyer says some of these farmers may lose more than 80 percent of their revenue for the year.
Overall retail sales at farmers’ markets were down by 50 percent by July in Kansas City farmers’ markets due to closure and delays.
In Des Moines, Bowser says, “It hit each farming family differently.” Many of the farmers were dependent on one downtown farmers’ market. When it closed in the spring, the organization that ran it created an online marketplace, but most of the refugee farmers felt that it simply wasn’t relevant to them. When Civil Eats spoke to him in July, he said those who did try it weren’t selling enough to make it worth it. “Many made $18 a week for produce as opposed to hundreds of dollars,” Bowser said.
Some communities and local organizations have worked hard—and seen success—in making sure refugee farmers’ livelihoods have continued. Through connections and help from the IRC, Biswas was able to secure a contract with the South King County Food Coalition to sell the crops he grows in Tukwila to local food banks. But even with the contract, he may lose a significant portion of his revenue this year.
In Kansas City, New Roots used to bring in close to $30,000 a year from restaurant sales. When many of those restaurants closed, the organization secured grants to purchase produce directly from farmers and deliver it to senior centers around the metro area.
New Roots ran an aggregated Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription program prior to the pandemic, and it grew by 40 percent this spring. “We have too many requests for people to join [the] CSA,” says Fetahovic. “That’s one positive thing that’s come out of all this.” CSAs, which have grown in popularity around the country since the pandemic started, don’t involve a lot of human contact, and are often perceived as a safer alternative to shopping at the farmers’ market or at a grocery store.
Early in the pandemic, when grocery stores were short on food, Fetahovic says local farms were able to fill the gaps. She hopes the moment helped some people realize that a local food system can be a more secure and less prone to interruption.
As some farmers’ markets in the Des Moines area closed, Global Greens doubled down on their own farmers’ market for refugees, an incubator market, which launched in 2013. Taking government regulations very seriously, and working closely with farmers, they accepted SNAP benefits and sales went through the roof. Through a matching program with the Double Up Food Bucks Program, they were also able to double the amount low-income shoppers could spend on fresh produce.
While those programs usually allow matching for small purchases, at the Global Greens market shoppers can match larger amounts also. “For every $50 that a customer spends on their SNAP card, they get $50 matched. I can’t emphasize enough how huge this has been for farmers and for customers,” Bowser said.
So far, farmers at the Global Greens Market have sold over $40,000 worth of vegetables to folks who are using these benefits, which is five times more than they had sold at this point last year.
And yet while refugee farmers’ livelihoods are obviously important at this time, urban farms that serve this population also have much deeper value as well.
“During the pandemic, everything that is true about the garden’s importance to people is even more true,” says IRC’s Iyer, who stresses the value for seniors. “It’s the only safe space outside of people’s homes that they can regularly go; it is the one place where they can meet friends of their language group or others, where they can get exercise, and where they feel engaged and at home. When I ask people [about] the highlight of their week, most elders describe an experience at the garden—something they harvested, a conversation with a friend.”
Top photo: Tika Bhandari owns the farm business Namaste Gardens. She currently operates her farm business on a quarter of an acre at Global Greens Farm where she grows a variety of crops that are popular in her home country of Bhutan along with vegetables that she markets to an American born audience in the Des Moines area. Photo credit: Bob Blanchard.