“We Plant a Seed, We Grow Our Future:” Larry Laverentz on Refugee Farmers in the United States

In November 2012, Nourishing the Planet’s Victoria Russo spoke with Larry Laverentz, a program manager with the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program (RAPP), about his efforts to educate and support refugee farmers in the United States.

Larry has been involved in agriculture for most of his life, from growing up on a cattle farm to working as an agriculture volunteer in Vietnam for International Voluntary Services. His experiences, including earning a bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Economics from Kansas State University and a master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Pittsburgh, have enabled him to run programs for the U.S. Agency for International Development and prepared him for his current position at RAPP.

RAPP helps refugee farmers bring familiar and nutritious foods home to their families. (Photo credit: RAPP)

How was the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program created?

In 2003, the director of the U.S. government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement began to track the trend of agrarian backgrounds of refugees, and decided to create a project that would enable refugees to get in touch with their agrarian roots. The project officially started in San Diego and Phoenix, and soon spread into a national program through support from the Institute for Social and Economic Development. The program is currently in its third round of three-year grants, totaling 24 projects nationwide.

What sorts of challenges do refugees face when they come to the United States and try to make a living through agriculture?

Many refugees come to this country wanting to get involved with agriculture. While they may be well-versed in farming practices, marketing their products and making a livelihood from farming in this country are complicated processes. Those who have lived in refugee camps for many years typically have limited education and few English and literacy skills, making it difficult to communicate. This creates barriers, for example, in finding land to rent or getting loans for farm equipment. If refugees have no credit history or practice balancing a budget or repaying loans, they are susceptible to falling into debt. Most refugee farmers must also find an off-farm income to supplement what they make through agriculture.

What strategies does RAPP use to break down these barriers and help refugees?

RAPP aims to educate and assist refugees in areas where they did not have previous experience. Each project uses grant funding to hire a garden coordinator, recruit volunteers, access land and supplies, and assess projects. In the first year, the team will typically build an incubator training farm, focused on intensive production tied to marketing. Perhaps after the first year the project will grow, and refugees will be able to expand or even start their own small farms. In conjunction with the farms, we teach classes on record-keeping and financial literacy, invite guests such as master gardeners to come speak, or coordinate ESL courses structured toward agricultural vocabulary. We try to give them the tools they need to grow their businesses.

Are most of the program participants experienced farmers, or are they new to agriculture?

Most of them are experienced in agriculture but were subsistence farmers in their countries of origin. This means that if they farmed, they were not typically involved in marketing, and they are not used to selling excess crops. Refugee camps do not usually allow farming due to limited space, and technology has advanced from what they knew before—so even if they are experienced farmers, there is still a learning curve. The question that we are trying to answer is “How do you create independence for refugees?” Dr. Hugh Joseph of Tufts University created the nation’s first refugee farming project in 1998, which focused on teaching them how to transition from being gardeners, to market gardeners, to independent farmers. We hope that our program allows them to eventually take their own produce to market, operate their own stand, and know what to plant each season.

In what ways does farming help refugees maintain other aspects of their culture?

Not all refugee farmers are involved with the aim of becoming full-time farmers. While the project can help them create a supplemental and sustainable income, many are involved for other reasons. They are able to bring familiar and more-nutritious foods home to their families, which gives the adults a sense of responsibility and accomplishment. Agriculture is often tied to their cultural events such as festivals, and ties them back to what they were doing in their country of origin. Farming gives them a reason to get out of the apartment and do something with which they are familiar, and it is often beneficial for their mental health. Typically, the children are enrolled in school and thus learn English first and become the spokesperson for the family, so it is important for the adults to get recognition as vital family members. As one refugee farmer comments, “It’s my own piece of the universe.”

How does the agricultural knowledge that refugees bring to the United States contribute to building a stronger food system domestically?

In their countries of origin, most refugees were accustomed to organic agriculture. They have knowledge about farming without pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and they don’t object to intensive farming or hands-on pest control. While much of American farming is mechanized, refugees come to the United States with an ability and willingness to work with their hands. They have introduced specialty crops from their countries of origin to farmers markets, and have added to the culinary arts. Gardening is also important for integrating refugees and community-building. When you have refugees and non-refugees in the same garden, they can exchange ideas and learn from each other.

What do you envision for the future of RAPP?

We see our project as consistent with what is happening in the broader context of society. Refugees are often resettled into food deserts, where their only options are unhealthy foods. We try to involve them in the broader food movement by working with institutions to expand their market options. Restaurants and grocery stores like to be able to sell local produce. Infrastructure is often limited for small-scale farmers, and we aim to help them understand when to harvest, methods of storage, and delivery transportation.

Ultimately, we would like to obtain additional funding to meet the demand for the project across the country. We are lucky to have a large national listserv that allows us to share information and resources, and we are looking to expand that network. Refugee farmers in the United States often face similar challenges to farmers in developing countries, and we are looking to expand this program to overseas refugee camps so that the program may be mutually supportive domestically and internationally. While we face similar challenges, we hope to take advantage of our common opportunities. As one refugee states, “We plant a seed, we grow our future.”

Victoria Russo is a research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project.

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