Carrying his dreams and a gift for growing produce, Dhan Rai came to United States in 2009 with goal of building a better life. After a nine-year journey, the Bhutan native has found a home for those dreams — and hope for a future doing the work he loves.
For the past three years, the Parkville Farmer’s Market vendor has been selling the produce he grows through New Roots for Refugees, a local farmer’s training program.
“I can make a living from growing. I dreamed of being an entrepreneur in agriculture and now, I’m learning how to make my living as an entrepreneur.”
Established jointly by Catholic Charities and Cultivate KC in 2008, New Roots for Refugees is an agriculture nonprofit where refugees learn to start their own small produce farms in the Midwest. Each year, 16 new families from around the world enroll in the four-year program.
New Roots’ 9-acre training site, Juniper Gardens, is located in Kansas City, Kan. When starting the program, each individual or family is given a quarter-acre plot at the farm.
“The first year, the farmers are provided tools and supplies at no cost. Along with training, staff also accompanies them to farmers markets and on visits to wholesale customers,” said Meredith Walrafen, New Roots for Refugees program coordinator.
“As they move through the program, trainees gradually take on more responsibility with the goal that, by the fourth year, they can operate a produce farm and are paying for most of the associated costs.”
In the New Roots program, refugees learn growing techniques for vegetables that will thrive in the Midwest and are popular with market and Community Supported Agriculture Program customers. They study area weather patterns, federal rules and regulations applicable to commercial growing, where to purchase supplies and how to negotiate prices.
English language skills are also a key element of the New Roots year-round curriculum.
“Most of our trainees bring farming skills from their home country,” Walrafen said. “Language proficiencies are the primary thing that keeps them from starting their own farms here.”
English language skills are taught in the program’s winter months. The focus is on farm vocabulary and conversation skills, so growers can talk with customers about how their vegetables are grown.
The chemical- and pesticide-free, non-GMO produce grown at Juniper Gardens helps feed the refugees’ families. In addition, like Rai, the growers also sell their produce at local farmers markets and through a Community Supported Agriculture program. Several also wholesale to local restaurants.
“Money is a huge stressor for people,” Walrafen said. “New Roots opens the doors to possibilities for an income and also provides a financial future for women who care for children and grandchildren.”
Currently in his third year of the New Roots program, Rai resettled in the United States in 2009 and has lived in Kansas City for the past five years.
However, his journey toward a better life began nearly 20 years before he arrived in the United States.
Between 1991 and 1996, more than one-sixth of Bhutan’s people fled their country to escape rampant ethnic cleansing. Rai was among them.
For 18 years, Rai lived as a refugee in Nepal. Though he had learned basic growing skills as part of his early childhood education in Bhutan, it was in Nepal that he acquired the expertise to grow and operate a farm.
Though he brought that expertise to the United States, Rai held several non-farming jobs before starting the New Roots program, including in warehouse shipping and restaurants.
For Rai, these work experiences were marked with challenges and disappointment.
“I was hopeless because they said I had no experience or speed. I had no idea how I was going to make a living.”
Today, Rai is not only making a living but preparing to start his own farm when he finishes the program in 2019.
“I’m looking for land now and talking with banks about a loan,” he said. “In Nepal, I learned to grow mushrooms and I hope to have a mushroom farm.”
The program transforms lives, Walrafen said.
“I’m a believer in the power of food to connect people. In every culture, it’s a way for people get to know each other.
“Our growers have fled a negative situation to come to this new place. They bring experience and expertise — and growing is something they know how to do. They come with this valuable skill set and farming is something everyone needs.”
To learn more about New Roots for Refugees and their CSA program, go to catholiccharitiesks.org/new-roots-for-refugees.