On Saturdays at the Lee’s Summit Farmers Market, vendor Lee Meh sells her produce from a stall that shares much in common with others at the venue. Her baskets of kale, lettuce, basil, carrots and beets fill the table, and hand-written signs identify the vegetables and their prices.
For the past three years, Meh has been selling produce that she grows through a local farmers training program, New Roots for Refugees.
Meh’s journey to become a successful grower and vendor is unique. It began eight years ago and more than 8,000 miles from downtown Lee’s Summit.
For much of her life, Meh worked harvesting vegetables on large produce farms in her native Thailand. The hours were grueling and the pay a fraction of what was needed to support herself and her family.
She had no opportunity to purchase land and operate her own farm. Educational and economic opportunities for her children were limited, at best.
Meh determined this was not the life she wanted.
“The environment was not good in Thailand,” she said. “We had friends who’d already come to the United States and they inspired and encouraged us to come here. My husband and I wanted our children to have a good education. We wanted to take care of our family.”
Knowing prospects were bleak for a prosperous family future, Meh, her husband, Say Reh, and their children left Thailand for the United States in 2010. In 2013, they settled in the Kansas City area, and she discovered the New Roots program a couple of years later.
Established jointly by Catholic Charities and Cultivate KC in 2008, New Roots for Refugees is an agriculture nonprofit where people 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 in Kansas City, Kan. When they start the program, individuals or families are given a quarter-acre plot at the farm.
Meredith Walrafen, New Roots for Refugees program coordinator, says the first year, 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,” Walrafen said.
“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.”
During the New Roots program, refugees learn techniques for growing vegetables that will thrive in the Midwest and are also popular with market and their 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.
The chemical- and pesticide-free, non-GMO produce grown at Juniper Gardens helps feed the refugees’ families. Like Meh, the growers also sell their produce at local farmers markets and through the Community Assisted Agriculture program.
Meh’s son, Htay Reh, 17, often works side-by-side with his mother growing and harvesting the produce and accompanying her on market days.
“Coming to the United States was really scary at first,” said Htay Reh, who will be a high school senior this fall. “It was a big adjustment for our family when we got here. Language was the biggest adjustment.”
English language skills are 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 and options for cooking the produce.
Like many working women, Meh multitasks. She is responsible for growing and selling her produce, fulfilling New Root’s program requirements, and meeting the needs of her five children. Though her husband works full time in the food services industry, the family relies on the additional income from Meh’s produce sales.
“Money is a huge stresser for people,” Walrafen said. “New Roots opens the doors to possibilities for an income and provides a financial future for women who care for children and grandchildren.”
Meh is proud of the produce she grows and the decision to bring her family to the United States.
“My family and I are very happy here,” she said.
“This 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.”
To learn more about New Roots for Refugees and their CSA program, visit catholiccharitiesks.org/new-roots-for-refugees.