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Plant it Forward

Plant it Forward is an organization that trains and certifies refugee farmers and distributes their produce to local markets.

The Food Hub

Tucked in a quiet corner of southwest Houston is Plant It Forward, an organization that trains and certifies refugee farmers and distributes their produce to local markets. An attractive delivery van was parked in the front lot. This local food hub serves as a vital link between immigrant farmers and the local Houston community. We entered a large garage that housed two mobile coolers and then into the office where the food hub distribution team was planning their next market day.

Missouri Wilkinson, Food Hub Coordinator, and Mal Sanchez, her associate, emerged from their distribution conference call to greet us. Since 2011, they have been working to empower refugees to continue their craft as farmers. Missouri came from Whole Foods and finds even greater satisfaction in this work. Working as a team of three with Daniella Lewis, Enterprise Programs Director, they utilize their knowledge of the unique produce varieties, the local customers, and how to sell this delicious produce so as to connect the farmer to the consumer. The other wing of the organization focuses on land access, farmer mentorship, and training, continuously looking to improve and economize their “bio-intensive” growing practices.

PIF’s Roots

Plant It Forward (PIF) was founded by a family of philanthropic entrepreneurs — the O’Donnells — who wanted to enable the similar entrepreneurial ambitions of refugees being resettled in Houston. Refugees with agricultural backgrounds are resettled here with few options for finding meaningful, dignified work that utilizes their crucial skill sets. In collaboration with Catholic Charities’ local refugee resettlement office and Urban Harvest, the family worked with a group of skilled Congolese refugees to deliberately craft an urban market farming project.

Missouri shared, “There are so many challenges with farming and then you add the social needs on top of that.  My main focus is on fulfillment. We run a CSA that facilitates farmers. We buy their produce from them and then sell to our customers.  We provide cooling, packaging, and distribution.” She added, “Supply and demand, considering the capacity of our farmers, are tricky. While we want more customers, we need to make sure we can supply them. We partner with organizations like Urban Harvest and participate in events with partners like the Nature Discovery Center or Edible Natives Cooperative.”

When asked what Plant It Forward's biggest struggles were she said, “it’s finding land for the immigrant farmers. After that, it’s distribution. We manage delivery and pickup with our portable coolers which often get damaged.  Wouldn’t it be great if we had lockers where we could drop off the vegetables for the customer?” she suggested.

Farmer Internships

It’s a marvel what can be done with limited resources to empower refugee farmers, mostly from Congo. Most farm with half an acre of land and a negotiated, guaranteed market outlet for their produce. “Our program includes a one-year growing season internship where we mentor them on how to grow crops here in Houston. We try to get a long-term lease on the properties to revitalize the soil with minimum investment and set up irrigation with water tanks. Land like that is hard to find!” Missouri shared.  “We have 13 farmers now contributing on a larger scale. Soon a local grocery store Fresh Houz will be opening where we can sell their produce.”

Job Satisfaction

“I’ve seen how the farm reestablishes self-reliance and community resilience,” Mal said. When Mal was asked about his job, he said, “I love this job! I don’t mind staying late because I know I’m really making a difference.”

We drove just two miles to their largest farm site next to the Westbury Community Garden. The sponsoring organizations have done a nice job to make a site that is inviting and environmentally educational. A central pavilion provided shade. That’s when we met Farmer Pierre.

Farmer Pierre

Pierre Ruchinagiza is a refugee from Congo for 11 years. He found this farm through the local church. That’s where he heard about refugees being offered the chance to farm via a brochure distributed at the church. While a refugee in Nairobi, Kenya, he trained other farmers on good agricultural practices. He taught compost-making, proper drainage, and how to raise chickens. “I was able to get my chickens to produce more eggs and increased my flock from 5 to 500,” he proudly shared. “God helped me to be a good associate in my company.”

“From August 2017 to June 2018 I completed my farm internship training here. Then they gave me 0.67 acres to farm for myself. I love to preach His gospel. Now I am 70 years old!” Pierre walked us through his raised-bed farm. He pointed out the persimmons, the beans, arugula (3 types), figs, the bok choi, green onion, sweet potato, mint, sugar cane, and Malabar spinach which grows really well in Houston heat. He showed us his okra and the African vegetables we had never heard of: white roselle, cassava, African eggplant, garlic chives, rose porti, which tastes like grapes. “I can get $10 per pound for that!” he stated. He uses sorghum to make cornbread. There’s a type of amaranth which is great for treating indigestion. “All these are organic!” Pierre exclaimed. As I sensed his enthusiasm, I thought about how much I have to learn from other farmers like Pierre - even about vegetables that are easily grown here that are really full of vitamins and tasty, too!

What it takes to succeed

Pierre buys his compost to help loosen the heavy, clay-rich soil. Volunteers from the community come to help him about once a month. He can get them to help with bigger projects like irrigation set up or bed-making or seeding. From June through September, Pierre uses dark shade netting so the plants don’t get scorched. With simple used dripline and stakes, he makes a tent over the plants he is growing. “A farmer needs to be resourceful! You’ve got to use what you have,” he said.  He wants to plant more cassava because the demand for it is going up. Pierre explained, “You must plant at the right time to get the most harvest.” He advised, “Start small. Work slowly step by step. Each year you will learn how to do it better.”

Pierre represents one of three farmers who operate independently on the same site. His neighboring farmers use yet other techniques for growing vegetables. They get to share a greenhouse and compare notes when they bring their produce to the food hub. He is proud to be a part of his new community in America.

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