New Roots Cooperative farm Biography 

From left, Seynab Ali, Batula Ismail, Abdi and Mohammed Abukar. At New Roots Cooperative Farm they’ll be owner-operators rather than guests on someone else’s land. Somali-born, they are all graduates of Cultivating Community’s farmer training program. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup from Portlandpressherald

Four Somali Bantu farmers came together in Lewiston, Maine to create a farm cooperative named “New Roots Cooperative Farm”.  The farmers have come here, learned our agricultural practices and created a business.  Now, they are trying to determine what to produce.  The organization’s aim is to build a business to make money, to give back to the community, and to support themselves.  New Roots is like a new plant that is just getting settled in the ground.  Like a new plant, New Roots needs time to further develop, along with support and help — hence the organization’s name. We can support New Roots by communicating demand and buying produce.
         New Roots provides a perfect example of how people from other countries can come to the United States and contribute to American society through the use of their traditional skills and interests, adapted to American conditions and American life.  The New Roots farm cooperative has provided a bridge from farmer’s traditional farming activities in Somalia to actively participating in the farming community here.  It has provided an opportunity for refugees to settle down, become socially integrated, and make a living.  It also gives them an opportunity to share their knowledge and culture with Americans.  The organization encourages anyone who is interested to join New Roots and/or learn more about cooperative farming communities.

The four primary farmers of New Roots are linked by common origins and past experience, as they move forward with establishing their farm in Lewiston Maine this year.  They all share a background of growing up in Somalia, and farming there, albeit in different regions   At the same time, these farmers are united by a mutual history of leaving Somalia because of civil war, and of living for a couple of years in the refugee camps where they met.  Yet the world of these farmers to forge their future in farming, together, on new soil, perhaps connects them most strongly.  New Roots farmers have studied about farming and marketing, and have farmed collectively since 2006; all are graduates of Cultivating Community’s New American Sustainable Agriculture Program (NASAP).  Their project of establishing their own cooperative farm seems to stem from a process of learning together, also founded with a strong bond of friendship and community.  A key part of what prepared them to start New Roots was learning about the how the practice and trade of farming differs here compared to in Somalia.  According to Hussein, the son of a primary New Roots farmer Seynab: “We have worked to learn the system of farming in this country so that once we learn also keep continuing farming the rest of our lives.”  In the words of Batula, another primary New Roots farmer, the farming community in Somalia was characterized by connection and interaction.  These farmers are currently embodying this practice, both in having learned together about farming, in building a community around farming via their project of New Roots.  After they chatted amongst themselves about their vision for New Roots, one farmer summarized, “Our idea for farming at New Roots is to help and support each other . . . to bring economy and jobs [to] our community . . . having New Roots cooperative farming will help a lot of our people to have farming practices in communities.”  The producer cooperative seems to well-match these farmers’ vision for their farming community and business. It represents an economic structure of mutual ownership of farmland and equipment, which involves democratic decisions-making among them about marketing of their produce, as well as about distribution of the surplus they collectively generate.  The New Roots farmers hopes that their farm produce will benefit others in the greater Lewiston and Maine communities: “Our goal is to bring the communities together . . . and have farm activities going on in the community area.”  The farmers expressed both challenges and successes thus far in making this last aim a reality.  Given that the farmers largely speak Somali, the language barrier can be a difficulty when communicating with customers at farmers’ markets, for instance.  When reflecting more broadly on their reception of American-born people, and their interactions with them, especially as farmers, they agreed: “We feel welcomed and supported, and [we’ve] worked together . . . It’s been a long time, long effort, and [required] being patient. We appreciate those people who help, their time and supported us and put us to the level we are at today.”  Jonah Fertig, a cooperative farmer himself, has worked with New Roots farmers for a number of years through Cooperative Food Systems, providing guidance and support.  

The farmers’ focus on community – both among themselves and with other Maine folks – and their groundedness in history and culture of farming in Somalia serves as key sources of strength for their new farm.  This strength is reflected in their name: New Roots. “New roots are like the roots of trees . . . this is our veins . . . if we have a strong connection, strong roots, then the tree will be healthy – the farm will have health.”  The roots of the past, the bond among them, and the new connections they are making in community – all of this will help their “new roots” flourish as they launch their first planting season on Lewiston soil.  Finally, the community New Roots is creating around farming, based upon long-standing tradition amongst them, is done with eyes turned towards the future.  Hussein related the group’s sentiment that New Roots will “help our kids to see what we have done in the past and also what we are doing here now, so that they can have that in the future.”  With past histories, common vision, and new connections, New Roots farmers are looking forward with enthusiasm to the very first planting season on their Lewiston acreage this year.  Hussein concluded our conversation by stating: “I can’t wait to be outside – to be at the new farm . . . saying this is my new farm, my new life. We are so excited; it’s not only us – but other people in the community.”  After learning New Roots farmers’ stories during our community partnership, we can’t help but feel excited alongside them; we hope to stay connected as their roots grow for years to come.

written by Kiera, Katherine edited/written by misha

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