Ca Saw cuts newly bloomed sunflowers on his plot of land at the Juniper Gardens Training Farm in Kansas City, Kansas. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

For 14 years, on 9 acres of land sandwiched by public housing apartments in Kansas City, Kansas, resettled refugees have been learning how to farm at Juniper Gardens.

They grow vegetables and crops that remind them of home. They dig bricks, glass, pipes out of the dirt. They learn to work with the Midwest climate.

It’s all done through New Roots for Refugees, a business incubator and training program. The farms will soon be moving to a 90-acre site at 90th Street and Parallel Parkway in Kansas City, Kansas, to provide more learning opportunities for the farmers and former program participants.

There will be 50 acres of agricultural land, with real soil. 

“It’s a incubator program in that they come here, they have their own plot, they have access to shared infrastructure, like a greenhouse, coolers, a wash stand, equipment, and they’re starting their farm business here,” said Semra Fetahovic, program manager for Cultivate KC, one of the organizations that helps run New Roots for Refugees.

How New Roots for Refugees started

Ca Saw, 35, is one of 13 farmers in training now at New Roots.

Ca Saw (people from Myanmar do not traditionally have surnames) is of the Chin ethnic group in Myanmar, known as Burma to Ca Saw when he lived there. As a child, his family grew crops and raised pigs and chickens to eat. He resettled in the U.S. in 2015. This is his second year farming with the program.

Ca Saw has wanted to be a farmer since he was 20 but first thought about working on a large-scale farm in somewhere like North Carolina. His mother called him every day from Myanmar and told him to move to Kansas City, Kansas, where he had family. So he did, and after asking around the community about farming, he found out about New Roots for Refugees.

On his quarter acre of land, he grows carrots, cilantro, basil, tomatoes, peppers, kale, potatoes and sunflowers. He also grows crops from his country of birth, like chin baung, which is a type of roselle and Thai chili.

If it weren’t for New Roots for Refugees, Ca Saw said he wouldn’t still be in Kansas City. Now, he plans to stay and start his own farm here once he graduates from the program. 

“I don’t want to go to, like, a factory job,” he said. “I would buy a plot and raise pigs and chickens, maybe goats. Grow produce. That is my goal.”

New Roots for Refugees started as a partnership between Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, which helps resettle refugees, and Cultivate KC, which works on advocacy and training for urban farming. 

It began with a group of Somali Bantu refugee women who were interested in gardening and growing food. As their produce amount grew, they wanted to sell it. So the organizations created a four-year training program on the business of farming in the Midwest. 

New Roots for Refugees accepts refugees regardless of how long they’ve been here.

“Everything they earn, they keep,” Fetahovic said. “They start out having their own business as soon as they join the program. We’re just incubating it and breaking down a lot of barriers for what they need, especially infrastructure.”

The income that farmers make is meant to be supplemental to their job or a spouse’s job. In the first year, they usually earn $3,000 to $6,000 in sales. In their last year, farmers who commit full time have made as much as $20,000.

In his first year of the program, Ca Saw learned a lot. He didn’t plant enough of some crops that grew in, like his cilantro, to sell them. And for others, he grew too much. Last year, he didn’t space his carrots out enough.

The Juniper Gardens Training Farm in Kansas City, Kansas, is a 9-acre farm ran by refugees who produced sustainable produce from small gardens plots. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

“The leaves were all very beautiful, all green, and I thought I would have a lot, but then I had little carrots, like pencil-sized,” he said. “This year, they’re regular-sized and have spacing.”

He also learned about farming in Kansas City’s climate.

“I never knew that here in the winter, you can grow garlic,” he said. “In our community, they grow garlic after March.”

Ca Saw also has the freedom to experiment. He learned how to install sprinklers made of PVC pipes from YouTube and started using plastic mulch.

Ca Saw is excited for New Roots for Refugees to move to the larger plot sometime next year.

“They teach me a lot, and I will learn more and more,” he said. 

Where you can find the produce in Kansas City

All the farmers in New Roots for Refugees are required to sell produce to at least one market to build skills in sales and networking. Program participants can be found anywhere from the Gladstone Farmers Market to the KCK Farmer’s Market.

The program also sells farm shares, also known as community supported agriculture, to the public. Customers who buy a farm share can pick up shares of vegetables each week during the season when they purchase.

The produce also becomes ingredients for local Kansas City restaurants, like The Antler Room, The Homesteader Cafe and Heirloom Bakery.

Kathy Hale, owner of Canihaveabite, a meal prep business with an environmental focus, found out about New Roots for Refugees by attending the Brookside Farmers Market.

“I just loved buying from them because they have things I didn’t know about that I can kind of study up on,” she said.

One example is long beans.

“Green beans can be a little hard to find where they aren’t stringy, because our weather is so odd,” Hale said. “It’s hit and miss, but long beans are tender.”

Hale orders food from the organization online and gets it delivered the next day.

“Buying from them fits my business because I try to buy as much local as I can,” she said. “I encourage people to look for them.”

Teaching refugees sustainability and business skills 

As New Roots for Refugees expands, it keeps a focus on sustainability.

The program exclusively teaches sustainable practices for pest and soil management. It also provides organic materials for farmers on site and does bulk orders for things like seed potatoes or fertilizer that would be hard for farmers to get at an affordable price point.

“We base what we do off of organic practices,” Fetahovic said. “We’re not certified because it would be very difficult with 13 farmers that speak different languages.”

Fetahovic said the biggest reason for teaching sustainable farming is to protect the environment. 

“Obviously, being in an urban area, we don’t have a lot of access to clear air and clean water,” she said. “There’s a need for supporting the wildlife and pollinators that exist and make agriculture possible. Without pollinators, we can’t have fruiting plants.”

Sustainable practices also prioritize human health and protect future generations. A lot of the farmers in the New Roots for Refugees program have families, Fetahovic said. 

I don’t want to go to, like, a factory job. I would buy a plot and raise pigs and chickens, maybe goats. Grow produce. That is my goal.

Ca Saw

Program participants also gain other skills, such as learning English and marketing and communication so they can interact with customers. 

It also helps graduates with complicated tasks like filling out market applications, paying sales tax and applying for liability insurance. Graduates have access to the program’s aggregated sales and seeds and supplies the organization sells on site.

As more farmers graduate from the program, New Roots for Refugees is learning they still need support. It hired a support specialist to help graduates with applying for grants to pay for equipment and infrastructure. 

Currently, three graduates lease land from New Roots for Refugees at its current location. But the new location will have plenty of room for both program graduates and community members to lease land.

How to get involved with New Roots for Refugees

Editor’s note: The original version of this story mischaracterized the status of public housing by Juniper Gardens.

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Brittany Callan covered health and environment at The Beacon, and was a Report for America corps member for 2020-2021. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.