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In San Diego, a Project that Starts with Culture Leads to Economic Opportunity

In 1975, the International Rescue CommitteeThis is an external link or third-party site outside of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website. opened an office in San Diego focused on refugee resettlement. Three decades later, the group launched a new program to help its clients, many of whom came from agricultural areas or backgrounds, establish "new roots" in their adoptive home country. Today, the New Roots programThis is an external link or third-party site outside of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website. is serving as a model for IRC offices around the country and helping refugees generate income from local food production. Beginning farmers in San Diego attend a training program as part of the IRC's New Roots Program, which has received support from USDA.

But it didn't initially start as a microenterprise project. "Our Somali Bantu clients said that they felt that they were losing a cultural connection to their kids, who were growing up eating fast food," says Anchi Mei, who coordinates the program. "Getting their families involved in growing food was a way to regain that cultural connection and improve their kids' health. It was also a way to help them integrate into their neighborhoods and be less isolated. So we worked with them to develop a community garden." IRC also opened a youth garden to help educate the younger generation using the garden as a laboratory. This work was supported by the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program (RAPP), a project of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

RAPP has a strong connection with the U.S. Department of Agriculture; one of its goals is to help refugees and refugee-serving organizations learn about USDA resources. IRC is a case in point: as the community garden project evolved, the group was able to bridge to USDA resources and expand the project's reach. "Within a year, many of the gardeners had become very productive and a few were interested in selling their products," recalls Mei. A Community Food Project grant from USDA helped IRC develop a program to train these nascent entrepreneurs, and soon they were selling at a local farmers market. "There was initially some nervousness about selling at the market, but within a few months their booth at the market had expanded from 1 to 3 canopies," says Mei. "We had more people wanting to sell, and more gardeners increasing their productivity. The sales were contributing to their incomes."

Now, some of the refugee farmers want to move into farming full-time. "USDA support is helping us grow again," says Mei. A grant from USDA's Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program is helping microenterprise farmers move into full-time commercial farming. "This is a significant economic opportunity for the community," says Mei. "But it's also a challenge - the farmers need to make it work as a business."

IRC has developed a comprehensive farmer training program and leases 20 acres of land in northern San Diego County. "We have all the tools we need to work with clients from the beginning to when they become independent commercial farmers," says Mei. A small staff of farm educators work with clients in a three-month group class, where clients work the leased land together and attend classroom sessions on business planning and marketing. IRC helps connect them to farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) opportunities and restaurants.

In the second phase of the class, farmers have the option to sub-lease their own land at the site. During this time, farmers participate in a more in-depth series of business and marketing classes and continue to receive field-based technical assistance to improve their production skills. "We'll still be there if they need help," says Mei, "but we're taking one step back and letting them decide how they want to move forward, letting them learn by their own experience. There's more focus on marketing and business planning, skills and strategy." IRC makes land available to the farmers at 25 percent of market rate for the first year, climbing to 40 percent in year two, 75 percent in year three and full market rate in year four. "Starting this way, with the group, allows them to bulk purchase seeds and equipment and to share these resources until they've established capital," says Mei.

27 farmers are currently participating in the program. IRC is also developing an inventory of available farmland in the area with the hope that some of their program graduates will move onto their own land.

In that sense, IRC isn't just growing new farmers in San Diego County - it's helping to maintain the county's agricultural tradition and keep farmland in farming.