Plant It Forward

Refugee Farmers Growing in Houston's Food Desert

Plant It Forward | August 2017

The Harvest

"When you come in the garden, you can see...and I am very happy when I go selling my produce in my market."

Sarment struggles for words. English is not his first language. “I am from Congo. I speak French. French is my language,” he explains. No stranger to hard work, the refugee farmer labors to express himself in a language still very foreign to him.

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Jake Rutherford, Photographer

In front of the camera, he is a bit ill-at-ease, but in the field, he is at home. Throughout the last decade and a half of upheaval, the field has been a constant, a source of comfort. Were it not for Plant it Forward, he might have lost that. 

From war-torn Congo to Gabon to the U.S., Sarment and his family found themselves blazing an unfamiliar trail, starting over, and then starting over again. But this story moves beyond new beginnings, as Sarment and his family plant roots, literally and figuratively, in Houston, Texas.

Every year, thousands of refugees flee persecution and resettle in the United States. They leave their jobs, their homes, their friends, their churches and their livelihoods behind. But literal seeds of hope are being planted and those seeds are yielding real nourishment for nearby food deserts.

American Dreams

If someone were to ask you which city in America is the most racially diverse, you might answer New York City or Los Angeles. But what about Houston? 

In 2013, its metro area was home to 6.3 million people. About 20% of those people were foreign born. According to a report by NPR, “Despite crippling humidity, long commutes and a reputation for refineries, Houston's cheap land, affordable homes and low barriers to doing business have lured immigrants from all over.” The immigrant population is the fifth largest in the United States. 

A Rice University study found that Houston is the most ethnically and racially diverse city in the United States.

On top of that, Houston resettles more refugees than any other American city—and more than all but three countries globally. 

To be accepted into the United States as a “refugee,” an individual must have experienced persecution based on religion, race, nationality, or political opinion in their home country. By the time a refugee gets to Houston, they’ve endured years of tremendous conflict and fear, pain and persecution...and waiting, lots of waiting.

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Jake Rutherford, Photographer

This was the case for Sarment. After years of turmoil caused by the ongoing civil war in his home country of Congo-Braazaville, he fled for safety to the neighboring country of Gabon.  

Previously employed as a taxi driver, Sarment faced the challenge of finding work in a different country. In Gabon, foreigners are not allowed to drive taxis, so he took up farming instead. He planted a garden on a 150 square meter plot of land (that's about 10 parking spaces put together).

Sarment embraced his new life as a farmer until the threats began: If he continued farming, he would either be killed or put in jail. The United Nations determined Sarment was no longer safe in Gabon and began the process of resettlement…this time, in America.

Refugees wait for years to gain entrance to the United States. They wait for security clearance. They wait for a health screening. They wait for interviews and biometric screenings. They wait for travel arrangements. They wait to see where in the United States they will resettle. They wait for an apartment. All waiting in hopes of starting over. For Sarment, that opportunity arrived on February 22, 2010, when he, along with his wife and children, were resettled in Houston, Texas. 

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Jake Rutherford, Photographer

Finally safe, Sarment again faced the daunting task of finding a job in a new country, this time without mastery of the local language. 

Though refugees may begin working immediately after they arrive, it's often difficult to find a job. Imagine you had to pick up tomorrow, move your entire family to a foreign land and reinvent yourself, starting over from scratch, where your professional skills are no longer a road to meaningful work. You would, instead, have to start from the ground up—learning a new language, pursuing education or additional certification, building a resume and trying to create a network in hopes that these efforts might set you on a pathway toward someday re-entering the workforce in your former profession.

But now imagine that you had little to no education or professional marketable job skills to even begin that process of rebuilding. 

Nearly half of the refugees who resettle in the U.S. each year come from agrarian backgrounds. Many arrive from rural communities where subsistence farming is the standard way of life, and education is a luxury not afforded to families scraping to put food on the table.

These refugees arrive in their new city and find themselves staring in the face of yet another long journey—the journey of assimilation to a culture they neither recognize nor understand.

Through the U.S. resettlement program, refugees receive limited assistance—typically a $1,000 stipend to contribute toward their first three months of rent. After that, refugees are expected to maintain a job and become self-sufficient.

In the Houston area, you’re not likely to find a help wanted ad for a farmer. So what future is there for an under-educated refugee with an agrarian background? Where do they even begin?

Path to Sustainability

The Houston Chronicle ran an article about exactly that—the difficulty refugees face in finding jobs in the U.S.—one reader, Teresa O’Donnell, was gripped.

She contacted a local resettlement agency, but was surprised by the response: “Yes, they [refugees with professional backgrounds] are having problems, but let me tell you who is really having problems…” The agency worker went on to describe refugees who come from rural war-torn regions of the world lacking education, English language or marketable job skills. 

Teresa didn’t know how she or her software company could help address this particular need, but found herself tagging along to pick up a newly arriving refugee family from the airport. 

Two adults and five children soon disembarked, exhausted, but relieved and amazed to have finally reached their destination, with the promise of safety and a new life ahead. 

Teresa was struck by their courage. The parents fled their home country of Somalia, ravaged by a decades-long civil war, bringing with them four children of their own along with two nieces and a nephew. Despite being orphaned and left without any other family to care for them, the nieces and nephew were not initially granted entry to the U.S. But their aunt refused to leave them behind.

"My heart had been changed. And my life was probably going to change." - Teresa O'Donnell


And so Teresa welcomed and helped introduce them to their new home—a small apartment in the city limits of Houston.

"By the time I left, I knew this had been a pivotal moment for me. My heart had been changed. And my life was probably going to change. But I really did not know what we were going to do," explains Teresa.

It was a PBS program that eventually sparked an idea. The program explored the roots of the billion-dollar nail salon industry and its role as a job market for Vietnamese immigrants. Its origins reportedly lie with a singular act—the moment when actress Tippi Hedren introduced women at a Vietnamese refugee camp outside of Sacramento to the art of the manicure. Decades later, Vietnamese-Americans still dominate the nail tech industry.

"My entrepreneurial brain started spinning. What could it be? What could it be for this new set of refugees?" asked Teresa O'Donnell.

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Houston may be known for its humid, muggy, subtropical temperature, but it’s a desert when it comes to sourcing fresh, locally grown food—Houston imports almost all the food it consumes. 

Yet, unlike many cities, Houston has quite a bit of open space—space that could serve as farmland. Teresa O’Donnell believed she could find a way to help refugees settle while also filling a local, fresh food void in her hometown of Houston. That's how Plant It Forward was born.

Today, Plant it Forward partners with social and religious groups to provide land and tools to refugees who settle in Houston with few other skills besides farming—refugees like Sarment.

Here’s how it works. 

Refugees apply to become a farmer for Plant It Forward. The application process is competitive. Plant It Forward looks for refugees who have significant agriculture experience, have strong entrepreneurial characteristics and are literate in their own language. This rigorous selection process fosters pride among the employees at Plant It Forward—they know they have worked hard and find fulfillment in being with a quality organization. 

Once accepted, the refugees receive training at a model farm and receive business assistance. In these training sessions, they learn about growing crops in the southern region of the United States and how to do so using sustainable farming practices. They learn how to sell their produce through farmers markets, farm stands and farm shares. 

Then, the farmer becomes an apprentice with a 2/3-acre plot of land to start. As a full-time employee of Plant It Forward, each farmer is mentored by an agriculture consultant and set on a path toward self-sufficiency.

By creating opportunities for refugees to use their skills and knowledge to contribute to their communities, Plant It Forward offers more than a job—It offers dignity and self-respect.

Jake Rutherford

The next level, Master Farmer, functions as an independent contractor, with more control over the business of the farm, but still maintaining baseline support. Master Farmers can choose where to sell their produce—whether to local restaurants, at farmer’s markets or through community subscriptions, like CSAs. 

The refugees enjoy the work because it is a good job, it's familiar and they can work alongside their families. They earn a living wage and have guaranteed income for the season. Through Plant It Forward Farms, refugees also become active and contributing citizens, helping Houston realize its potential as a leader in sustainable living.

The model is simple: sustainable jobs + sustainable land + sustainable food. The result is a healthier, more prosperous future for the refugees and for Houston.

Locally Grown

Plenty of abandoned lots and fields are just waiting to be turned into wellsprings of nourishment for the city of Houston. 

Urban farming has been called one of the most important practices of our time. It’s partly because of the “fresh-factor.” Local produce just tastes better because the crops go through less processing and often move from farm to table. 

Plant It Forward is using Houston's urban landscape to contribute to a farm-friendly, healthy food culture.

Jake Rutherford

Houston has the land and the climate to farm, yet Plant It Forward explains how fresh produce is in such high demand and short supply in Houston, that grocery stores are labeling produce from cities hundreds of miles away as “local.”

Residents throughout the city are in search of healthy food options and are finding just that through Plant It Forward Farms. 

Misha Laird grew up on a farm, but went to college to become an architect. Despite her farm roots, she was very disconnected from the process of growing food. She discovered Plant It Forward after hearing Teresa's Ted Talk and joined the CSA program.

For Misha, food is more than a means to an end now. It is a way of connecting—with the farmer who planted and harvested her produce, with her community who comes together to pick up their weekly farm share, with her daughter as they prep their weekly lot of fruits and vegetables together, and with food itself. Misha now knows where her food comes from and how it was grown; she eats seasonal produce and approaches cooking in a different way.

"I was first introduced to Plant It Forward because of my interest in locally grown healthy foods. I want my family to be more connected to the food we eat and where it comes from. However, I also believe in the work of helping refugees and the importance of providing dignified work opportunities so that has contributed to my involvement as well."

The CSA program allows customers to make an investment in locally grown food, connect with where their food comes from and access a weekly share of healthy produce.

Jake Rutherford

Farmers markets also contribute healthy food options for Houston residents, while again cultivating human connection and relationship between consumer and grower. 

As Sarment explains it, "When the people come, they say, 'Ah, Sarment, ah... you plant it forward?' I say 'yes.' The people buy my produce. Is very good, very good. That's why I work every day." Though English is not his first language, Sarment's produce speaks for itself, and people know him and appreciate his bright smile and the quality of his crops.

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Jake Rutherford, Photographer

Chefs throughout the city are also drawn to locally grown produce. Chefs like Richard Kaplan of Weights + Measures buy ingredients from Plant It Forward Farms because of the quality of the produce and the human connection behind it. More and more people want to know where their food comes from. Chef Richard and other Plant It Forward partners can easily and enthusiastically answer that question. 

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Jake Rutherford, Photographer

By selling produce through CSA programs, farmers markets, farm stands and to local restaurants, refugee farmers are making local produce available to more people in Houston.

One Farm at a Time

Plant It Forward started its mission with just one farm. It has since expanded to seven locations and continues to grow. Today, the organization has a dream of having a farm in every neighborhood in Houston.

At 655 square miles, the city limits are sprawling, so this dream is no small undertaking. To give you a better idea, the city of Houston could contain the cities of New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis or Miami.

But Plant It Forward sees this as an opportunity and will target 20 urban farms in the next three years and 100 urban farms within ten years. A new class of prospective farmers will begin training this fall (October 2017), with plans to open 12 new farms by fall of the following year (2018).

The farmers who graduate through Plant It Forward's training program find meaningful work, develop community and contribute to a healthier food culture in Houston.

Farmers feed the world. And Plant It Forward farmers offer an especially inspiring crop.

Current President Liz Vallette describes it this way, "Urban farming allows these new Houstonians to earn a living off their agricultural skills, and it aids in their assimilation into local culture by connecting them with a diverse array of Houstonian customers."

She adds, "I think our customers have much to gain through our program, by interacting with entrepreneurial refugees who are working hard and positively contributing to a greener and healthier Houston."

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Jake Rutherford, Photographer

The mission and the needs of Plant It Forward are practical. It is a farming organization, so land and equipment are essential resources. Each of the plots it currently operates has been generously donated to Plant It Forward, and it continues to look for opportunities to partner with land owners. The refugees need access to equipment like wheelbarrows, shovels, harvesting knives, small tractors, and lawn mowers so they can maintain their farms. 

Additionally, it costs a lot to convert abandoned lots or transform utility easements into productive farm plots, so the organization relies on financial supporters to partner with its mission. It also depends on customers! Customers are the driving engine for this social enterprise. They are the stakeholders and investors and integral part of the Plant It Forward community. 

Plant it Forward is doing far more than growing food—it is creating community around food and offering hope to the marginalized. ​

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Editor's Note

Six and half years ago, I left my job on Capitol Hill and started working for BitterSweet (then Zine, now Monthly). Part of what attracted me to BitterSweet was the desire to bridge a gap —find a need and meet it in an immediate and tangible way.

Something about Plant It Forward Farm's origins struck a similar cord in me. Teresa's encounter with courage, struggle and hope all mingled together resonates with me. And so does that feeling of wanting to DO something—find the gap and fill it.

It is an honor to tell stories like these—to shed light on the efforts of an organization capturing the entrepreneurial spirit and unique skills of refugees in order to meet an already existing need for local healthy produce in the city of Houston.

And we could not do what we do without our team, so I want to end with a huge thank you to the contributors that helped put this story together! Spencer, Jake, and Jessica generously dedicated their time and talent to afford us a glimpse into perhaps the most uniquely compelling aspect of the Plant It Forward story—a community of people brought together by food, farms and friendship.

Amanda Sig

Amanda Lahr

Editor, BitterSweet Monthly

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