What work does Liberation Farms do?
Liberation Farms was founded in 2014 by the Somali Bantu Community Association (SBCA) of Maine in response to a call from the Somali Bantu community to return to its agricultural roots. SBCA, an organization led and run by Somali Bantus, has been providing vital transitional services, advocacy, and programming since 2005 to the 3,000+ Bantus who resettled in Lewiston after escaping the civil war in Somalia.
The mission of Liberation Farms is to provide new American farmers access to, and culturally-appropriate resources for, the means of sustainable food production for themselves, their families, and their communities. The program goals are:
Food Justice – Access to growing fresh, chemical-free, culturally-relevant produce for themselves and their families
Community Building – Enhancing the economic, social, environmental, and cultural vibrancy and health of Lewiston, ME
Education – Intercultural and intergenerational exchange and reciprocal learning of farming traditions
Farmers are given access to land, seeds of their choosing, technical assistance, and targeted trainings. Every family farmer receives access to 1/10 of an acre to grow food for themselves and their families. Those who are interested in commercial growing can also join an iskashito group, a traditional Somali method of cooperative growing, that involves a small group of farmers working the same ¼ an acre of land and then dividing the profits and surplus food equally. African corn, molokhia, tomatoes, beans, collard greens, and African melons have been popular crop choices for the family farmers and the iskashito groups grew more than 60 different offerings for wholesale.
The program is currently staffed by one full-time Farm Operations Manager, a part-time Markets Manager, and two part-time Farm Managers with a budget of $250,000 for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.
How well did Liberation Farms do the work?
Liberation Farms has become the heart of the SBCA and is its most popular program. In 2014, the program started with 20 family farmers on three acres of leased land. Four years later, in 2018, land access grew to 35 acres with more than 140 family farmers working the land.
Commercial selling has also grown. In 2016, commercial farmers earned $1,200 in sales through a partnership with Good Shepard Food Bank’s Mainers Feeding Mainers Program. In 2017, a part-time Markets Manager was hired to manage aggregation, marketing, and distribution for 45 individual commercial farmers. Sales grew to $5,500 that year. In 2018, SBCA leadership conducted a listening campaign that resulted in commercial growing shifting from individual growers to eight Iskashito groups. As a result, gross sales rose to $22,000 from 13 affiliates, including the Center for Women’s Wisdom, farm-to-pantry partnerships, area farmers markets, and large institutions such as Portland Public Schools Central Kitchen, Bates College, and St. Joseph’s College.
Moving forward, Liberation Farms is prioritizing a plan for building capacity and making the program sustainable. Goals for the future include creating a comprehensive soil fertility plan and educating the community on how to care for the land in Maine versus Somalia. In particular, African flint corn, a staple crop for the farmers, is tough on soil so a plan will be created to maximize the crop and replenish the soil. Bates College environmental science students have assisted the farmers in monitoring and protecting the farm’s soil fertility.
Is anyone better off?
The work done by Liberation Farms has positively impacted Goal V in the Maine Food Strategy Framework in the following ways:
Alleviating food insecurity for the Somali Bantu Community - Food security is a challenge for the Somali Bantu community. 100% of the farmers access SNAP benefits. Because of Liberation Farms, they can provide their families with chemical-free, culturally-appropriate, fresh produce during the growing season. Additionally, in 2018, Liberation Farms was a recipient of Cultivating Community’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Grant, which meant they were able to double the value of a consumer’s SNAP benefits at the local farmers markets. This greatly impacted the purchasing power within the Bantu community. Liberation Farms is also certified to accept WIC vouchers, another way the program is increasing access to fresh produce. Additionally, surplus commercial crops are distributed free of charge to the Bantu community.
Alleviating food insecurity for broader community - Liberation Farms sells fresh produce to the Gray Food Pantry, Bread of Life Food Pantry, and New Gloucester Food Pantry through the Mainers Feeding Mainers program in addition to selling wholesale produce to the North Pownal United Methodist Church food pantry. As a result of these partnerships, more than 400 food insecure families now receive locally-grown, chemical-free vegetables. In 2018, Liberation Farms partnered with the Cumberland County Gleaning Initiative to glean several hundred pounds of food that was shared among the Bantu community and with Wayside Food Programs.
Empowering female farmers - In a typically male-dominated industry, 90% of Liberation Farm’s farmers are women, a point of pride for SBCA. Since first generation Somali Bantu refugees typically have limited English language and literacy skills and face prohibitive childcare costs, it can be near impossible to find paid work. The commercial growers are able to bring their children to the farm with them while they work, a huge benefit, and earn a small income.
Providing a sense of purpose - The farmers have been given the opportunity to reconnect with the land and use their specialized skills, which are rooted in generations of agricultural knowledge.
Increasing mental and physical health for a disenfranchised community - Since most of the refugees live in public housing and don’t have access to outside spaces, being on the farm throughout the growing season with their families and connecting with their community has been a real gift. Farmers have reported they are sleeping better and getting more exercise and movement in their days, thanks to farming.
Introducing African corn to Maine’s food system - The Somali Bantus have introduced Maine to African flint corn, a Somali staple crop. The Somali Bantu are among a handful of farmers successful in growing flint corn in Maine. Lynne Rowe of Tortillería Pachanga, a small business in Portland, Maine, that makes corn tortillas, is partnering with Liberation Farms and the Maine Grain Alliance to create a tortilla made from the African corn.
Increasing intercultural exchange and diversifying the local food system - Every fall, Lewiston High School students visit the farm to learn how to make tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes. Additionally, by offering African flint corn and lesser known varieties of produce, such as molokhia and African melons, the farmers are diversifying the local food economy. Through the institutional partnerships with Portland Public Schools Central Kitchen, Bates College, and St. Joseph’s College, more than 12,000 students and faculty benefit from this locally grown food.
Contributing to the local food economy - Institutional partnerships with Bates College, St. Joseph’s College, and Portland Public Schools have bolstered the local food economy. Having a presence at the Yarmouth and Auburn Farmers markets has helped increased awareness of Liberation Farms and command higher prices for produce.
SBCA leadership is looking for more standardized ways to evaluate the program in the future.