BY CHRISTOPHER WHEELOCK
Tuesday September 20, 2022
WALES — Harvest time at most farms is fast-paced and largely mechanized.“We are learning as we go,” explained Muhidin Libah, executive director of the Somali Bantu Community Association. “We were never business people in Somalia especially (the) farm businesses. We never thought somebody could make a good business out of farming — because we were farmers but we didn’t have resources, we didn’t have money.”
Not at the Somali Bantu Community Association’s Liberation Farms, where virtually everything is done by hand, from planting to picking, washing to packing up. It’s not the din of a roaring combine in the fields off Gardiner Road, but the occasional small talk in Somali, or chickens and roosters clucking and crowing as they escape from a pen they share with the goats.
Make no mistake, this is a business, albeit a nonprofit business, with product to be grown and orders fulfilled constantly from May through November. As the growing season winds down, the group’s executive director says it’s been a huge success in this very first year of owning and operating the farm, although Somali farmers have had a presence there since 2014.
The organization's leader explains what's different about this farm is that an estimated 80% of what the commercial side of the farm produces goes directly to food pantries in Maine. As a member of the Mainers Feeding Mainers program run by the Good Shepherd Food Bank, the farm takes orders from and grows specifically for all its customers, including the food pantries, churches and the Good Shepherd Food Bank.
Mainers Feeding Mainers was founded in 2010 and since then has aggregated 80 farm partners to acquire and distribute more than 2 million pounds of fresh, Maine-grown food per year to families in need.
Under the Iskashito, or traditional Somali cooperative farming business model, there are nine groups of farmers consisting of five farmers in each group. Collectively, they decide where they want to grow the various crop offerings within their designated plot. Each group evenly splits the proceeds from what they grow, minus 15% that goes back to the farm to help cover expenses like fuel, maintenance and drip hoses for the plots.
Liberation farms is also home to just over 200 subsistence farmers who get plots of one-tenth of an acre to grow crops to feed their families.
Libah said now it's pumpkins, squash, zucchini and cucumbers dominating the fields. There's also plenty of sunflowers and amaranth that are cut fresh and sold in bunches at farmers markets. While Liberation Farms does sell some product to small restaurants and stores, their work with the Mainers Feeding Mainers program is closely connected to their nonprofit model and Somali values.
"This is the way we want to be," Libah explained. "We are a nonprofit organization and we would like to see our produce go to needy people. So that is why we collaborated with the Mainers Feeding Mainers program."
The spike in Mainers seeking food assistance this summer is something that Libah is very much aware of and says it's happening within the Somali community in Lewiston as well. "It affects everybody, but we are seeing more in the Somali community getting needier and needier."
In response, the Somali Bantu Association has boosted its free produce donations to people seeking food through three food pantries and at the organization's main office at 222 Pine St. in Lewiston.
The farm did not set a production goal for this first year, but rather the goal was to fulfill all their orders. Last year, if there was a shortfall of a specific offering, like say Swiss chard, they would have to add in another product like kale to fill incomplete orders.
Libah said they are on track to meeting the stated goal of fulfilling all their orders. Before the planting season gets under way, the wholesale clients preorder what they want from a list of crops the farmers collectively decide to grow. Every seed that goes in the ground is tied to the list of orders.
At the end of the season Libah and other leaders will sit down with all the farmers to talk about what did and did not work well, and to try and find solutions to any problems for the next season. Having one central location has been especially helpful, saving valuable travel time and expenses from previous years, when the Somali farmers had to lease land to grow their crops.
Liberation Farms also serves as a community gathering place, where Somalis can gather to roast corn, talk freely and socialize outside, something that is customary in Somali culture, Libah explained. Now they can get away from their apartment living in Lewiston and come to the farm, where they feel comfortable.
"Around 5 o'clock you see a bunch of people fire-roasting corn," he said. "There's a sense of community — talking and sitting in groups — so this is replacing sitting in Kennedy Park and other parks in town. This is away from home."
Some of the lessons learned: Beets and onions need more water, which the farm didn't have before the season started. They now have a well with drip irrigation. The farm stand, or Suuq as they call it, will likely open on different days next year.
"We chose the wrong days, Libah said. "We chose Wednesday and Thursday and we figured out Saturday and Sunday are the best days."
As part of the learning curve, Libah and other leaders are stressing the importance of being on time for appointments and events. Libah explained Somalis aren't hard-wired for time like most Americans. If you have an appointment at 9 o'clock, he explained, that means get off the couch at 9 o'clock." Now he said they are learning to factor in travel time and emphasizing to newcomers that they need to wake up at 8 a.m. to be somewhere at 9 a.m.
Besides, he said it's less stressful and people are more organized than before. But, it's a work in progress out at Liberation Farms.