Friday, August 15, 2008

Flats Mentor Farm, Lancaster, MA, USA

The roots of the Flats Mentor Farm program run long and deep with its beginnings going back to the mid 80s, when Maria Moreira, an immigrant from Portugal, befriended a group of Hmong in the Fitchburg area. She was approached by a Hmong woman from the group who asked if she could start a small garden on an unused corner of her dairy farm. Maria was astonished at the yield of vegetables that were produced from the small plot: cucumbers, squash, and zucchini. This encouraged her to rent other parcels of land to others in the group who were now eager to try their hand at growing vegetables too. She watched the farmers’ from a distance as she raised her family and ran her cheese business but realized that without funds the Hmong would not be able to progress far.

As a working farmer Maria had access to many government programs available to farmers as well as connections within the agricultural community. It was through these connections that various government agencies approached Maria to help the farmers working on her land but none of them provided much culturally appropriate expertise to the Hmong farmers. Maria decided to take over the helm herself in 2005. By this time Maria had rented out most of her land to immigrant farmers. She told me that she has never turned anyone away who wants to learn to farm but “I tell them it is hard work, you have to have motivation, and you have to take care of your weeds. If you don’t take care of your weeds, you can’t stay on the land.”
In 2005, the program was formally organized under the name Flats Mentor Farm and filed for 501c3 status with the University of Massachusetts Amherst Extension acting as their fiscal agent. Heifer International, U.S. Department of Agricultural, Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) and the University of Massachusetts Extension teamed up to provide financial support for the program. This allowed Maria to hire four (two part-time) Hmong employees including a full time farm manager.

Maria told me that the goal of the program is “to mainstream immigrant farmers” and with this in mind she has devised a hands-on training program that is sensitive to the various cultures that she works with. The University of Massachusetts is providing training and technical assistance to the group on pest and weed management; farmers have attended conferences, and attended courses at the New England Vegetable and Fruit Growers Association, New England Sustainable Small Farm Project and various others.

In 2007, there were 50 families in the mentoring program and in 2008 they have already exceeded that number with five Kenyans joining them in June. Twelve farmers have moved through the program and are now independent commercial farmers farming on land that constitutes the FMF. Maria told me that based on the goals of the program “success has been achieved when either the farmer starts a farming enterprise at the Flats Mentor Farm or anywhere else and is making most of his/her income from farming. If s/he decides to stay that s/he passes on to another novice farmer what s/he learned. Maria’s family has owned the farm since 1980 but rent parcels of land out to anyone who wishes to take up farming.

In 2008, the Massachusetts Society for the Promotion of Agriculture donated a new tractor to the farm and this year they had the money to lay pipes to drain water from the very flat land. Equipment such as the tractor, two washing sheds, and the irrigation system are shared by all. The results of this funding are easy to see as in 2005 they attended only six farmers’ markets, in 2007, twenty three (23) and planned for 2008 will be 32.

The farmers grow traditional ethnic crops such as: melons, Mustard greens, red and green Amaranth squash, Asian cucumbers, arrugula, mustard, and Broccoli. Bitter melon, baby boc choi, Shanghi boc choi, water spinach, greens and herbs. In their homeland they farmed these vegetables among rice, maize, and poppy plants. It is generally agreed that vegetables planted among poppies are the most delicious. However, at FMF they do not grow rice, maize or poppies! All of these vegetables are particularly popular with Asian and Hmong customers. However others are largely unfamiliar with these vegetables and they won’t buy them in any kind of quantity. To combat this problem they have spent the spring working on a recipe booklet that will be available in the summer at all the farmers’ market that they will be attending. Most of the vegetables just need to be stir fried, for example water spinach, yam leaves, bitter melons, and angled luffas (also called sinqua).
Making the Connections

The Hmong market their produce through Russo’s, Whole Foods (Fresh Pond, Woburn, Newton, and Newtonville and at 32 farmers markets in the Greater Boston area. Because the customer base at each farmers’ market is not that large for Asian vegetables the group meets as a whole to decide on what farmer will go to which market. The farmers are then responsible for building relationships with their customers and knowing what vegetables they will buy. For the wholesale side of the operation all the farmers pool their produce but each farmer knows exactly what he has sent.