What do immigrant farmers from Tanzania, Nigeria, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, and Liberia have in common with central rural Massachusetts?
The Answer: World Farmers Inc. or WFI.
WFI located in Lancaster, Massachusetts, is a nonprofit organization that provides technical assistance to small, socially disadvantaged and immigrant farmers. Client farmers are taught sustainable farming production, fair marketing principles, and are mentored in the creation and operation of independent farming enterprises. WFI partners with the Flats Mentor Farm, also located in Lancaster, which acts as a farming incubator and who provides individual farm plots for the farmers to work on. At the farm, hands-on training is given in the technical aspects of farming, including farm safety and pest, weed and irrigation management among other farming issues.
WFI was the recipient of $168,000 under the Small Socially Disadvantaged Producer Grant program last year. It was the first grant of its type ever awarded by USDA Rural Development in the southern New England region. The objective of this particular project is for WFI to help a group of African immigrant farmers form a food cooperative for food production, marketing, and distribution.
The Executive Director of WFI, Maria Moreira, has an extensive, successful track record working with and helping organize and train immigrant farmers in a multitude of farming principles and helping bring the foods they produce to market. Recent past successful clients include a group of Hmong farmers from Southeast Asia. Working with the current group of African immigrant farmers, from a multitude of countries, has had its rewards and challenges.
Some of the tasks involved in the project include helping the group develop a business plan, maneuvering through the legal processes of cooperative formation, recordkeeping, teaching market business fundamentals and wholesale business fundamentals as well as developing post harvest handling/product presentation. Many presentations to the group have been by workshop. Further complicating matters are the language barriers that exist between farmers from the variety of countries as well as the cultural differences that exist between those various nations. Somehow, though, Maria has managed to address these issues and has had workshops conducted in multiple languages including English, Swahili and Karundi as well as having documentation and training guides being appropriately translated.
Many of the food items that are grown by the farmers are native to Africa and are a diet staple not ordinarily obtainable in the United States. Some of the foods produced include corn, collards, tomatoes, spider plant, amaranth, garden eggs, jilo, carrots, spinach, mint, and white sweet potatoes.
One example of a native African food product is the spiderwhisp, (Cleome gynandra)—also known as African cabbage, a wild green leafy vegetable that grows all over tropical Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Nutritional benefits are significant and there is an established culinary tradition in many African cultures. In Southern and Eastern Africa, the plant is sold in both rural and urban markets. Further economic benefit is realized when the plant is used in the development of seed oils, soaps, and other commercial products. In order for a farmers market to thrive and become successful in a Massachusetts African community, it would have to offer products such as these, which brings a little bit of familiarity to those whom it serves. There is a significant African immigrant community in Massachusetts. According to a 2007 report, 7.7 percent of the immigrants who live in Massachusetts are originally from Africa.
WFI recognizes that a need exists to help immigrant famers overcome socio-economic, cultural and language barriers which could stifle their ability to create independent and sustainable farming enterprises. As an additional part of its mission, WFI will continue to focus on helping to introduce the benefits of multiple cultures into the local communities of Massachusetts who can contribute to the local economy and infuse diverse security into the local food system. To read more about WFI and the work it does, visit their website at www.worldfarmers.org.