Ali Isha used to work on a large family farm in Somalia, growing maize, rice, sweet potatoes, beans, bananas, onions, tobacco and livestock. Until the soldiers came.

They took the cows and the corn and everything else. The large food stocks on Somali Bantu farms had become valuable as war blew apart civil society. Rogue militias would rape and murder farming families as they robbed them. Isha’s family fled into the woods, cooking at night so the smoke wouldn’t give them away. It became clear they couldn’t return home. So Isha, about 20 years old at the time, began shuttling family members to refugee camps at the Kenyan border, a two-day walk each way.

“I came like this,” he said, holding up his outstretched palms. “Empty. We didn’t have anything.”

Isha, now 36, is now trying his hand at farming again, this time on a rocky farm east of Auburn run by Seattle Tilth. He has plenty to eat, but he’s not making enough money to support his family. Surrounded by head-high mustard greens that have gone to seed without finding a buyer, he’s learned hard lessons this summer about market realities.

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  • He’s one of thousands of refugees who cannot return to his home because of war or persecution and has resettled in the US. A top goal of Washington’s resettlement agency is to find jobs for these refugees, but everything from language barriers to culture shock to psychological damage can make that tough.

    Isha was lucky, comparatively. In the refugee camps, he saw that English speakers were in demand and paid a teacher to teach him. He was officially resettled in Texas in 2003, where he got a series of minimum wage jobs to support his growing family: fixing tractors as a mechanic’s assistant, waxing floors at a hospital, driving a forklift, operating a cleaning machine at the airport.

    Over time, he and his wife had seven kids. They moved to Washington State, which has welcomed a large refugee population and is in the top 10 states for resettlement, because she wanted to be closer to her sister. But the move upset whatever stability that his family had gained. He and his wife fought and divorced. Isha got fed up working on an assembly line at a meat processing plant and quit. He bounced around from couch to couch.

    Farm Works sign east of Auburn, WA. Photo: Jennifer Langston

    Then he heard about a farm incubator and education program in South King County that had worked with Somali Bantu and other African refugees. After several different incarnations and a search for a stable location, the incubator now called Seattle Tilth Farm Works was looking for new participants. They attend farm and business classes, tour farm operations, and gain hands-on experience growing and harvesting food using organic practices by working a small plot of land on the incubator’s farm.

    The idea is that aspiring farmers can cut down on costs by sharing expensive infrastructure such as tractors and greenhouses that are available to anyone farming at the incubator. They benefit from incubator managers who work to bridge cultural gaps, showing immigrants how to grow unfamiliar Northwest crops and marketing their produce to local customers. And by pooling their crops, they can handle larger orders from restaurants or groceries or customers who need products in bulk.

    FarmWorks greenhouse. Photo: Jennifer Langston

    So Isha began farming a quarter-acre plot this spring, which by mid-summer was overflowing with collard greens, chard, onions, carrots, bok choy, beets, radishes, and other vegetables. The problem wasn’t that he didn’t have enough vegetables, but that he had too many. Orders hadn’t materialized in the quantities he’d expected, and with no car and no bus service within walking distance of the farm, making deliveries or drumming up business on his own was challenging. Isha was contemplating ripping out all his kale, which hadn’t been bought and was about to go to seed anyway. He was making more money in food stamps than he was from his farm.

    Isha had originally hoped that he’d be able to sell $200 to $300 worth of produce a week, which is still less than he’d make working a full-time minimum wage job. By mid-summer, he said he was making considerably less than $100/week. As he put it:

    This farm is mine. Nobody is telling me to go to my job. Farming is good like that. But I need a market to sell. It broke my heart when my stuff is not getting to market and I’m not really getting what I need. It broke my heart to do farming so maybe next year, I’ll do something different. Maybe it’s not enough for me.

    Refugee farmers dig in

    Since 1998, dozens of incubators have been established, some with government assistance for sustainable agriculture programs, to help refugees with agricultural experience overcome significant barriers to profitable farming or farm ownership. The usual challenges that bedevil any aspiring farmer—acquiring land, equipment, start-up money, and customers—are typically made far more complicated by language and cultural barriers.

    In Boise, a network of urban gardens and farms provide food or income for Somali, Burundi, Congolese, Rwandan, Bosnian, Russian, Bhutanese, Syrian and other refugees. In Portland, MercyCorps’ agriculture program connects individuals and families from Burma, Nepal, Moldova, Russia, and Tajikistan with affordable land, supplies, and markets, such as the Lent’s International Farmer’s Market. And growing food can provide a sense of community for elderly refugees who struggle with isolation, a problem that some Seattle community gardens are addressing.

    Some refugee farmers are looking to feed family and friends, others to launch a viable business. But farming is an inherently risky business, even for people who aren’t trying to navigate wholly unfamiliar territory. And it’s certainly not going to solve all the problems that refugees face. Eddie Hill, the program manager of Farm Works, describes some of the challenges:

    They’re trying to figure out how to hustle in the US and survive. Are they thinking about their business model five years down the road? Sometimes yes, most times no. Most of us aren’t. At the same time, some of them were in civil wars, they have stress disorders, disaggregated lifestyles. In terms of social services, we try to help them stay connected to their services, but we don’t have the staff or services to do that.

    One of FarmWorks greenhouses and bikes. Photo: Jennifer Langston

    The Farm Works program does offer months of instruction in seed planting, soil amendment, greenhouse techniques, Northwest pest management, and other sustainable farming practices, which is translated into appropriate languages. It also teaches basic business skills necessary for farming, from how bank accounts and business licenses work to cash flow projections and business planning. This year, the incubator is hosting a mix of farmers from Somalia, Iraq, and Ethiopia, as well as local families and individuals.

    The plots managed by the Somali Bantu farmers on the 39-acre Red Barn Ranch owned by the city of Seattle are stacked with food. Refugees tend to have more time and motivation than their native counterparts, Hill said:

    Ali is a monster producer. His stuff is growing. He doesn’t fully understand what he’s growing yet, but it’s growing. His plants are well ordered, he follows rules, picks up harvesting fast. He’s got skills. And he works harder than just about anybody on the farm.

    Yet there has been a learning curve for everyone involved. Farm managers advised the growers to plant crops that have sold well in the past. Last year, the market couldn’t get enough kale. This year, everyone’s sick of it. Farm managers talked to a local pizza company who was interested in buying spinach, but a couple of the farmers bought and planted large leaf spinach seeds instead of small leaf. And even though farmers were advised to stagger their plantings, some tended to put all the seeds in the ground at once, which meant that all their lettuce was ready to be harvested at once.

    The incubator has secured spots for producers at the Pike Place Market, Virginia Mason, and Highline Community College. It has relationships with some institutional buyers and is actively soliciting new customers. But markets have been fickle this year. Schools and mental health institutions have been interested in buying from Farm Works but want processed products, like carrots that have already been peeled and cut. And they only want to pay 32 cents a unit, when farmers would need to sell them for $1.20. Those economies of scale are only possible if you’re monocropping or growing on a larger scale.

    Out of 50 customers who said they were interested in buying produce at the beginning of the season, about 10 wound up placing orders. And among smaller-scale farmers, there’s stiff competition in the Northwest, Hill said:

    As a smaller farmer, you’re a slave to the market. And if you can’t sell it, you have to compost it…Some people I talk to say, well, I was already buying my stuff from this person and it’s really about relationships or I changed my menu and don’t need that anymore or my business isn’t doing as well as I thought…

    The last two years we also had a blast of market-capable, fully-English- speaking, bachelor-degree or masters-degree majority population folks jumping into the market and becoming farmers. They can run to the market on Capitol Hill and are savvy and connected to the hipsters. And they don’t have all those other issues.

    While many incubators and foodies presume that aspiring farmers want to start their own farms, another track could prove beneficial to some of Farm Works’ growers: cultivating skills to help them land other agricultural jobs. After the incubator’s most prolific grower last year wound up losing his subsidized housing in King County, he was able to find a job and housing in Eastern Washington working on a farm. And that was a success, Hill said.

    Everybody pushes the business thing, but not everybody can be in business for themselves. Everybody can’t be an architect. Some people have to be carpenters and plumbers and wire runners and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’d rather have my farmers become farm laborers and work themselves up and out of positions rather than thinking they’re going to step into business ownership.

    Using food to address social justice and economic justice issues without following through and discussing the painful realities of agriculture to me is a disservice. We’re designing this thing not to hide the truth about farming—the lack of a livable wage, the lack of infrastructure. If you think you’re going to get a perfectly manicured turn-key farm for $100 a month, that’s not how the land of opportunity works.

    An uncertain future

    Isha with mustard plants gone to seed. Photo: Jennifer Langston

    That’s not really the message that Isha wanted to hear. With seven children to feed, no permanent place to live, and no income other than what the farm is offering, he had hoped for more. He waits for his weekly turn to sell at the established markets and waits for orders to come in. He’s rich in food again, just like his family was in Somalia. But he’s still poor in money, which is what he really needs here.

    I was feeling like maybe we could have a life here like we had there, but it’s different. Maybe if I could get enough markets, I could get a half acre next year.

    But he’s not sure even that is worth the trouble, when he could make $1400 a month working a full-time, minimum-wage job. He’s not sure what he’ll do next, or how long he’ll try to make a go of farming.

    The frustrations that the Somali Bantu farmers have had this season are the crux of a larger problem, and illustrate tough realities that get overlooked when people wax poetic about the food revolution, Hill said. Unless the food system is overhauled, a lot of people pursuing smaller-scale and sustainably grown agriculture will continue to work on small margins, as will some of their customers. As Hill put it:

    The market doesn’t care if you’re an African immigrant or if you have issues or if you’re broke and poor. The customer wants what it wants and wants it on time.