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Cultivating Relationships

Side Dishes: Local refugees are out of Africa, into gardening


Most Africans know their way around a garden. Cultivating the land is an integral part of the culture, whether the gardener's native language is Somali, French, Mai-Mai or Lingala. But there are some challenges in making the transition from the dusty Sahel to the soon-to-be verdant valleys of Vermont. That's where the Old North End's Association of Africans Living in Vermont comes in.

This year, the 8-year-old AALV is starting a new program that will help some 20 African immigrants grow fruits and vegetables to sell at farmers' markets in Winooski and the Old North End, as well as at a proposed farm stand near Fletcher Allen Health Care. It will also provide produce for their families.

Along with standard crops such as watermelon, sweet potatoes and corn, adventurous cooks may be able to shop there for less common ingredients such as amaranth and okra. "We're giving them suggestions and guidance about what you can grow in Vermont and how much effort every crop takes," explains Support Services Associate Josie Weldon. "We're trying to transition them into thinking about the market." In the future, AALV - which will soon have a satellite space at the new Winooski Community Center - will work with its clients to create a line of value-added products.

Although each participant will have access to up to a quarter-acre of land on a 3-acre plot in the Winooski Valley Park District, marketing efforts will be cooperative under the name "New Farms for New Americans," says Weldon.

While the AALV staffers themselves don't have firsthand farming experience, they've partnered up with folks who do: local farmers and employees of The Intervale Center. "The Intervale Center totally buoyed us along and made me really confident about the project," Weldon enthuses. "A lot of the sustainable agriculture community has stepped up to support the integration of these minority 'New American' farmers."

One piece needs to fall into place before the project can proceed: transportation. Weldon reports: "A lot of the women don't drive, and they have young children. They need a safe way to get to the Winooski Valley Park District." In short, they need a van. "We've raised a lot of funds, but not enough for a van and the operational expenses," Weldon says. While she's eager to mention that AALV will happily accept assistance from anybody, she also notes, "If a business wants to donate, we're happy to place logos on the van and advertise the support."