Farm Business Training Comes Full Circle as Refugee Starts Urban Farm

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Three years ago, Lay Htoo (pronounced, TOO) took a courageous step. Born in Klay Thoo, a village in the jungles of Burma, she resettled in the United States. So while buying a home is an exciting and anxious time for anyone, it wasn’t something she had even imagined possible.

“Because the Burmese military came to our village to kill us, my family had to flee to Thailand,” Lay Htoo is quoted on the New Roots for Refugees blog, “we crossed the border and lived in the Tham Him refugee camp…for 10 years.”

Lay Htoo is one of 18 farmers enrolled in the Farm Business Development Program at Cultivate Kansas City. She is one of 16 refugees in Catholic Charities’ New Roots for Refugees program.

Four years ago, Cultivate Kansas City started the Farm Business Development Program in partnership with Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, combining a working farm with intensive one-on-one technical assistance–both key elements of its existing Gibbs Road Community Farm and Urban Farmer Development Programs. Operating on land owned by the Kansas City, KS, Housing Authority in the Juniper Gardens housing complex, the program provides farmers with a quarter acre of land, tools, seeds, and water as well as one-on-one technical assistance, training, and support to start their own urban farms.

“My family did not support my work my first year,” explains Lay Htoo, “but every day they saw what happened and tasted the food and liked it. Then I tell my husband we are going to buy a house with money from the garden. It is good for [me] and good for my family. Now they are happy and we don’t have stress.”

After two years in the program, Lay Htoo was able to save enough money selling her produce at market to capitalize her own farm. Most farmers are in the program between two and five years depending on their initial level of agricultural ability.

“Four years may sound like a long time to be subsidized,” explains Katherine Kelly, Executive Director of Cultivate Kansas City, “but the challenges these farmers face are often steep.” These challenges include acquiring a new language and financial literacy as well as adjusting to a new climate, new growing conditions and a very different culture around growing and selling vegetables.

This year the training farm produces its first graduating class consisting of four Burmese women. The program required them to save 20 percent of their sales revenue each growing season. In addition, working with the Family Conservancy, the four farmers enrolled in a federally funded Individualized Development Account (IDA) program, helping them build capital to start their own farms by providing matching funds of $3 for every $1 saved.

“I am excited and happy to see these women find land and a home where they can begin a life,” said Rachel Pollock, Program Coordinator for New Roots for Refugees. “This program not only gives these women the business skills they need to succeed, but it gives them back some dignity and hope,” according to Pollock. Catholic Charities has resettled nearly 1,500 refugees since 2008.

The support and assistance won’t end with graduation. “We are looking at how we can continue to provide less intense support,” explained Cathy Bylinowski, Farm Business Development Program Manager. Bylinowski added that “farming is a hard business and we are committed to helping these new community leaders succeed.”

When asked about the next few years, Lay Htoo explains that “it will be step by step. My first year may not have good sales because I have lots of work to get the soil ready.”

But she isn’t worried about running her own business, considering her new training and the 24 years of personal farming experience she brings from her homeland. She worries more about pests than how to manage her business.

“Without the good people at Cultivate Kansas City I could not find this,” she explains, listing the names of the staff that she worked closely with these past two years. “Working in a farm is a good job and now we have land and hope and I can build.”

She feels sad to be away from Juniper where she often provided support to the other farmers, but is optimistic about her future and confides that she hopes her children will enjoy the business so she can pass it on to them some day.

“People like me have a chance to start and now I can stand on my own,” she says looking me straight in the eye while our interpreter translates her words.

Thanks to all who have helped make this possible. Since 2005, outstanding support and contributions to Cultivate Kansas City have enabled us to teach and inspire urban farmers and help start 39 farms like Lay Htoo’s urban site.  

Photo of Lay Htoo’s future urban farm site taken by Jill Erickson 

Would you like to learn more about farmers enrolled in New Roots for Refugees? Visit their blog and read about other families and find out how you can get involved!

This article is reprinted with permission from the Urban Grown Newsletterpublished by Cultivate Kansas City.