Edible Omaha

Unintended Value

Mai’s garden offers a unique array of produce and flowers to Saturday morning customers at the Village Pointe Farmers Market each week.
Mai’s garden offers a unique array of produce and flowers to Saturday morning customers at the Village Pointe Farmers Market each week.

Refugee Gardens in the Middle of America
By Summer Miller
Photography by Alison Bickel

I stood in front of a red-and-white-checkered tablecloth, each square adorned with a star, while Mai Thao and her husband, Mai Lon, busily stacked long, fibrous strands of lemongrass next to piles of glowing orange carrots. Further down the row, small watermelon-esque orbs of Thai eggplant sat in line behind green beans and near bundles of red-hot Thai peppers.

Shoppers at the Village Pointe Farmers Market walked up to the couple requesting bunches of fresh mint or basil, and asked about “that long grass.” Each time, Mai Thao, in English that’s broken but better than she gives herself credit for, would explain that they were looking at lemongrass. “It very hard to grow here. In Laos, very easy,” she said, pausing to think of her next word and how it might sound when it left her friendly and smiling lips. “It good for you. You drink tea or eat with pork or chicken or beef. It good for you. Very good.” 
Lemongrass, a widely used herb in Asian cuisine.
Lemongrass, a widely used herb in Asian cuisine.
Sometimes the market shoppers handed her their crumpled dollar bills and took the lemongrass home, eager to try this locally grown exotic plant in their next curry dish or to drink as tea. Other shoppers moved on to more familiar things like beans or onions.
In Nebraska and Iowa, Asians comprise 1% or less of all principal farm operators, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture. Because the population is so small, the USDA does not have adequate numbers for our region. While the Hispanic population is the largest and fastest-growing ethnic community in our area, other emerging communities, specifically Asian, African and Middle Eastern, are slowly and subtly increasing food choices in Middle America. Many of these people come from agrarian backgrounds. Although the statistical data doesn’t say much, the effects of a diversified population of farmers and non-farmers alike are easily noticed on the frontlines of food.
As Omaha’s community continues to evolve and is enhanced by different ethnic groups, so do our locally grown food choices. Daikon radishes, various peppers, eggplants and herbs all represent emergent food cultures. Some products, such as bok choy and cilantro, have practically become adopted native plants, if only by our palates. We can hardly look at the flat, lemony leaves of cilantro or the umbrella-like shape of bok choy today and think of them as something outside of our native culinary repertoire.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Omaha Farmers Market, and 10 seasons of Heidi Walz’s involvement. As the market
manager, she has a unique vantage point. She has seen an increase in immigrant farmers applying and becoming vendors at the farmers market, specifically in the last three years.

“I don’t know that [shoppers] are looking specifically for ethnic produce, but they are looking for unique items. And because (a lot of ethnic produce) is not native to this area, then it’s seen as different,” she says. “People are experimenting more and are looking for foods they haven’t worked with before, which creates an opportunity for immigrant farmers to offer a successful product at the market.”

Authorities at the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Agriculture Department said they aren’t aware of formal government programs that are intent on working specifically with immigrant farmers in our region. One exception is a program run by the Center for Rural Affairs. There are, however, community-based programs that bridge the gap and provide opportunities to help immigrant communities stay connected to their agrarian roots. The Big Garden, based in Omaha, and Community CROPS in Lincoln, are the two most frequently mentioned.

The Big Garden started in 2005 as part of a program through the United Methodist Ministries, with a mission to address food insecurity concerns while building community involvement. Its gardens are affiliated with nonprofits, churches and neighborhood groups. The Big Garden doesn’t have a formal program to help transition immigrant communities into farming communities, but it does have many gardens in culturally diverse neighborhoods. Four gardens in particular are located at Bhutanese refugee sites in Omaha. Bhutan is a state in South Asia that has a rich agricultural heritage.

“Being separated from the land is something the refugees regret,” said Nathan Morgan, director of The Big Garden, with a soulful voice and slight southern tongue left over from his upbringing in Alabama. Community gardens provide only so much land, and much of the food grown in those spaces is used to feed the families who tend to them. Many refugee communities want the opportunity to farm as part of their livelihood, not as a hobby. “They are enjoying the gardening. They think it is wonderful, but they really want more access to land and are looking to start small farms. I think there is the potential to do great things,” Nathan said.

Two programs work to transition immigrant and refugee populations from gardeners to farmers: The Center for Rural Affairs’ Latino Beginning Farmer program and Community CROPS’ Growing Farmers Training Program. Ingrid Krist, executive director of Community CROPS, said during a recent interview that she launched the three-year training program to meet a need in the refugee community. “It really was just growth from our community garden program. We had people who said, ‘This is great that you provide this land for me to garden, but in my home country I was a farmer. Is there a way for me to do that here?’ We had interest from other people, so eventually we broadened it.” 

Program participants start by attending classes every Saturday for nine weeks during the winter months. From there, if they choose, they can transition into growing a garden for market at Community CROPS’ farm, Prairie Pines. It gives people who are either new to the community or new to farming the opportunity to test the market without putting their entire existence on the line. In addition to having limited resources, immigrant farmers face unfamiliar circumstances, including a new type of soil, a different climate and formalized systems to sell products that include contracts and permits.

This summer, eight families are participating in the Growing Farmers Training Program. Five families are from the United States, while the remaining three families are from Mexico, Sierra Leone (West Africa) and China. Once they’ve completed the three-year training program, they will purchase their own land, lease land or decide that farming isn’t in their future. The payoff for the surrounding community is exposure not only to new and interesting fruits, herbs and vegetables, but also to different cultures.

“For the families who come to the farmers markets, it gives them a chance to meet new folks that maybe they wouldn’t meet  otherwise,” Ingrid said. “An interest in food creates a commonality that brings people together. More connections are made, and you get a better appreciation for the diversity of our community.” Surely for Mai Thao, she feels that the garden and the market connect her in some way to a life that is familiar to her roots. A life that feels more real than sewing aprons all week at a textile factory in town. Her mother and father grew rice “and many, many things.” Although her five children and six grandchildren are busy with jobs and school, she is happy when they stand by her side at the market on Saturdays and tell people about the value of lemongrass.

Baskets of Thai eggplant are just some of the unique Asian produce offered. Right: Mai helping customers at Village Pointe’s Saturday morning market.
Baskets of Thai eggplant are just some of the unique Asian produce offered. Right: Mai helping customers at Village Pointe’s Saturday morning market.