“Hello, I would like some arugula...and I would like to know what this is,” a young woman customer says, pointing to a leafy, green plant at the Nashville Farmers’ Market. Market Manager Jennifer Justus, who mans the Growing Together booth with the help of two farmers, explains that she’s pointing to komatsuna, a Japanese mustard spinach.
“The farmers with this program are refugees from Bhutan and Burma, so they grow a lot of food that they knew in their native country,” Justus explains to the customers. Komatsuna, roselle, suehling, amaranth, lamb’s quarters — these are all vegetables that are now available at the Nashville Farmers’ Market and at some local restaurants starting this summer through the Growing Together program.
The refugees in the program are primarily from Bhutan, and some are from Burma. These Asian countries have intensely agrarian-based cultures. Many of the refugees were farmers in their native countries, and for three years, the Center for Refugees and Immigrants in Tennessee (CRIT) program has offered an opportunity for them to practice their skills. Most of the farmers live in urban apartments in the city without access to land. This summer, the program is expanding to include a new market garden that will allow the refugee farmers to sell produce around Nashville.
“One really cool thing is that recruitment was not very hard because this is something that lots of people wanted to do,” said Lauren Bailey, program director. “We recruited within the two communities from Burma and Bhutan because they have such close agricultural ties, so most if not all the participants in our gardens have extensive growing experience.”
It’s an exciting opportunity for refugee families like the Poudels. They arrived in Nashville about five years ago. At 5 years old, Mon Poudel was forced from his home due to the Bhutanese government’s eviction of Nepali people. He, his parents and his sisters spent 20 years in a refugee camp in Nepal before they were resettled to the United States.
“When (my parents) were in Bhutan, they had a big farm,” Mon said. “They spent their life in the farming system...They never have been to a school. Then when we are in Nepal, they don’t have any kind of land for farming. They work in a local place in construction of houses and construction of road.”
Mon and his sisters speak English, but his parents — Chandra and Tanka — do not. So while the kids were able to get jobs upon arriving in Nashville (Mon works as a technician at Nissan), it wasn’t as easy for his parents.
“Those people who have barriers of language, they can do farming. Farming does not need any kind of good language,” Mon explained. This program allowed Chandra and Tanka to utilize their skill set and do what they had devoted their lives to in their home country. With the new market program, they can also supplement their family’s income.
CRIT launched the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program (RAPP) in Nashville about two years ago with funding from a federal grant. CRIT applied for the grant in conjunction with the Nashville Food Project, a nonprofit that focuses on growing, cooking, and distributing food to people in need. Growing Together is the branch of the RAPP program — new this summer — that focuses on selling the produce.
“If you think about the nature of being a refugee – you’ve been uprooted from your home, you’ve been through trauma,” said Tallu Quinn, Executive Director of the Nashville Food Project. “And to be able then to create beauty in a place I think is a pretty powerful thing, and to at the same time get integrated more into this new American culture.”
Sometimes it’s not so easy. Most of the farmers are older people who don’t speak English, so the grant pays for interpreters to help translate between program staff and the refugee farmers. And farming in Bhutan and Tennessee are different, so Monday training sessions help ease the transition — teaching the farmers about irrigation techniques, adjusting to the Tennessee climate, and coping with insects.
But Bailey, who has been involved with urban farming for a number of years, has an opportunity to learn from the refugee growers, too.
“The first year, I remember I was worried we wouldnt have enough stakes for everyone to stake their tomatoes,” Bailey said. “Then I realized that everyone was very accustomed to cutting their own stakes from the woods.” The result is a network of elaborate trellising constructed from sticks and rope.
“Most people would go to Home Depot and buy a premade metal trellis, for beans to grow up, or tomatoes,” Quinn said.
Bailey said despite some communication challenges, one of her favorite parts is the learning that occurs across cultures. “What’s unique about this space is the opportunity to exchange and sort of learn from each other,” she said. Bailey’s been learning Nepalese languages — mostly words like “sun,” “rain,” and “water.”
“That’s fun, because I can practice, and probably butcher it, and everyone laughs,” she said.
At the Farmers’ Market, customers frequently stop by the booth to ask Justus about the exotic vegetables, and she supplies them with recipes and cooking tips. All 10 farmers contribute to the one booth, and earn a portion of the profit based on how much veggies they put in and how much is sold. Growing Together also sells food on NashvilleGrown, a website that connects produce vendors to restaurants.
A new effort this season will connect Growing Together produce directly to individual restaurants. Jess Benefield is a chef and partner at Two Ten Jack, a popular ramen restaurant in East Nashville. Two Ten Jack was a natural fit to be Growing Together’s first direct restaurant customer, because of its use of Asian ingredients that aren’t mainstream crops grown in Tennessee. Benefield is particularly excited about the farmers’ willingness to grow Tokyo negi, a specific type of green onion.
“You have to very patiently grow each stalk and continue to meld dirt up around it, because the main goal is to have a lot of white,” she described. “We’re super excited about that. It’s the first time this item will be grown on any kind of scale in the southeast region.”
The federal grant runs out in October. The plan is for the Nashville Food Project to take over as the leader of the program and maintain its current structure. Quinn said that any expansion of the program would require more land — which is hard to come by in Davidson County.
“It’s dependent on that, but I think — pardon the pun — we’re planting seeds for something that can really sort of grab hold and take root in the community, but we don’t want to grow it too fast too quick,” Quinn said. Mon said his family is also eager for the opportunity to farm additional land.
Refugees have been in the news recently, internationally — with conflicts including the civil war in Syria — as well as locally. Recently, Gov. Bill Haslam announced he would allow Tennessee lawmakers to sue the federal government for noncompliance with the Refugee Act of 1980, which directs the resettlement of refugees in the U.S., according to The Tennessean. For Bailey, working with individual families in the gardens makes issues like this more visible.
“I think it’s just really disappointing that there isn’t a welcoming spirit,” she said. “Because the farmers that we work with and the individuals that I know are very resilient, and contribute so much energy and joy and laughter and all kinds of things to this particular space. So I know Nashville’s a better place because of the diversity and the different cultures, just like our garden’s much better because of the diverse crops that are grown. It’s stronger and healthier.”
For Justus, who is also a freelance food writer, there’s something special about food’s ability to connect people.
“Food is a common denominator, it brings people together,” she said. “I always say that if you’re talking to somebody, you can say, ‘oh this is how you do your mustard greens, but this is how I do my mustard greens,’ and then suddenly even though you have your differences, you’re finding the commonality in food.”
Mon said he’s just happy that his parents are able to live out their passion for farming in a foreign place.
“They are really happy to do the farming system. And then we feel happy if they are happy, you know?” Mon said. He likes farming himself, though, too. “It’s the traditional process. It should be known by every people...it’s the way of life, how we exist in the world.”