Growing roots

A program in Aurora trains refugees to become Colorado farmers

Sung Ei and Yashoda work on laying down irrigation lines at a plot at DeLaney Community Farm in Aurora. They are two of five refugees employeed by the farm through Project Worthmore's Yu Meh Community Farmer Training Program.
Caitlin Rockett | Boulder Weekly

It’s a cold day in late April, blustery and damp, so the farmers at DeLaney Community Farm in Aurora are bundled up. It’s the second week of the Yu Meh Community Farmer Training Program, and the water hasn’t been turned on yet — the city will do that next week — so today is inventory.

But not until the crew exercises.

Relatively warm inside the farm’s multipurpose building, the seven farmers form a circle; there’s Heather DeLong, the farm director, and Leah Roco, the assistant director. Then there’s Hamadi, Thang Tee, Yashoda, Sung Ei and Ahmed — all refugees living in Colorado and learning to work the land.

This training program was developed to help refugees get the education they need to become successful local farmers. That means learning what grows well in Colorado and when to plant it; it means working with CSA members and restaurants; it means setting up stalls at the farmers’ market and working with the community; it means crunching numbers and learning about irrigation and making deliveries and knowing about food safety and managing volunteers.

And it means a lot of physical labor, which is part of the reason why they exercise together.

Plus, DeLong says, it’s just fun. It helps set the tone for the day, often with whacky moves like the “arugula dance,” which DeLong uses to close the day’s exercise circle. Before they move on to do inventory, the team stacks their hands on top of one another for a classic pre-game show of camaraderie.

Go team

DeLong has been a full-time employee with DeLaney for 13 years. During that time, the farm has engaged the larger community in a number of ways, from a six-month program that taught Somali Bantu refugees to farm, to one that gave mothers with food assistance access to healthy food, to CSA memberships and internship programs for students.

But a couple of years ago DeLong says she felt a need to shift the farm’s focus.

“People in grad school, after they leave the internship here they go on to get a job somewhere and that’s great, but I started to question what is it we’re trying to do or accomplish,” she says. “If someone as a refugee goes through a six-month program, then what? They still often have issues with taking the bus, with speaking English, a long laundry list of challenges. So we decided to come together and focus our energies on making this a refugee-training farm.”

With primary funding from Project Worthmore, a nonprofit that provides multifaceted support to the local refugee community, and Denver Urban Gardens, DeLaney is able to hire a few refugee farmers from mid-April to Oct. 31 for the Yu Meh Community Farmer Training Program. If the program suits the farmer, they are welcome to come back the following year. This is year one for Thang Tee, Yashoda and Ahmed, but it’s Sung Ei’s third year, having volunteered the previous two.

And then there’s Hamadi.

“Hamadi and I have been working together for 13 years,” DeLong says. “He was a part of the [Somali Buntu] program in 2006. When that ended in 2009, Hamadi showed up in 2010. I told him, ‘Hamadi, we don’t have any money to pay you.’ And Hamadi said, ‘I don’t care. This is my farm.’”

From 2010 to 2016, DeLong says Hamadi volunteered at DeLaney between 15 and 25 hours a week.

“So in 2017 when we started [the Yu Meh program], he was the first person we hired.”

Hamadi digs a trench to lay down irrigation lines.

Before he was able to come to the U.S., Hamadi lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for 15 years after fleeing civil war in Somalia. He says the majority of his children were born in that refugee camp. During post-season interviews at DeLaney, Hamadi has called the farm “life.”

Born in Burma, Sung Ei lived in refugee camps in Malaysia, India and Thailand before finally making it to the U.S. She’s told translators that she’s proud of the new skills she’s learned and how she can feed her family now.

Still, life hasn’t been easy or fair for Sung Ei (or her fellow farmers), and DeLong has to pick up her spirits from time to time.

“Sometimes she’ll tell me, ‘I didn’t go to school and I had to farm growing up and my siblings went to school, so my brain’s no good.’ And I’m like, ‘Sung Ei, you know irrigation, you know how to grow in Colorado, you know how to set up markets and farm stands and distribution,’ and she’ll just laugh and say, ‘I do know things. I know a lot.’”

Yashoda is from Bhutan, Thang Tee is from Burma and Ahmed is from Somalia, all with similar stories of living in refugee camps for years while they sought a new place they could put down roots and call home. Translators are brought to the farm for the first week of orientation and to help with interviews pre- and post-season. Roco, the assistant director, just started in January, fluent in Burmese and bringing with her several years of experience farming in Burma. Still, most communication is done in English, however much is possible, and even when words fail, the job gets done. 

Galoshes sit in the multipurpose building at DeLaney Community Farm in Aurora. The Farm currently has five refugees on staff in a farmer training program.

Most of the farmers-in-training come from agricultural backgrounds. Their training now involves learning how to farm in a different climate in a different country with a different culture.

“During one of our orientation classes last week, one of the teachers said, ‘I’m not sure you should call this a training program — they know what they’re doing,’” DeLong says. “And it’s true, they do. And a lot of days people have different ideas and we’ll try those out.”

It’s this team mentality that keeps DeLaney running. The farm provides produce to around 35 CSA members and five local restaurants (including City O’ City, Mercury Cafe, Annette, Beast and Bottle and its sister restaurant, Coperta). Even the CSA members are a part of the team.

“The focus has shifted where we want people who care about refugees, first and foremost, but also people who care about local food systems and creating a really safe, open place for everybody to come, where everybody can feel included and heard,” DeLong explains. “All of our members are asked to supervise two of our pick-ups. At pick-up, a couple of members and two of our farmers will stay together and manage the pick-up. We teach them some cues and talking points to get the conversion started and hopefully that opens up lines of communication.”

There are plenty of opportunities for community connection and communication for the farmers. More than 100 local volunteers come and help the team throughout the season, with planting, harvesting, washing and distribution prep. Then there are the deliveries to the restaurants, and this year the farm has a stand at the food-centric Stanley Marketplace in Aurora where the farmers will sell produce. Every day is an education in Colorado agriculture and agroeconomics, but it’s also a constant community building experience.

Things have grown quickly for the nascent program, with Project Worthmore securing a four-year, $100,000-a-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture just this year for the Yu Meh program. The dream, DeLong says, is to secure enough funding to purchase a greenhouse and be able to provide year-round employment to refugee farmers.

“People shine in different ways,” DeLong says. “I’d like to see someone come on as the volunteer coordinator and someone come on as the marketing coordinator or the field coordinator … there are so many beautiful directions this could go, but it’s just getting there.”

The GrowHaus in Denver supplies DeLaney with seedlings to plant.

Regardless, it’s easy to see how the program is already changing lives. During a seed saving class, the teacher spoke about adaptability, a very familiar concept to a roomful of refugees.

“So they were saying you take a seed from California and bring it to Colorado and it might grow, but it’s a struggle; it’s not going to produce as much fruit, it’s not going to be as big and strong and beautiful and hold itself against all these challenges,” DeLong says. “And Yashoda chimes in and says, ‘Like me: I was taken from Bhutan and I was sent to Denver and it’s really difficult for me to survive well but every year it’s a little better, a little easier.’”