Thursday August 01, 2013 | 12:22 PM

Of the 3.3 million U.S. farm operators counted in the 2007 Census of Agriculture report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 30.2 percent — or more than 1 million — were women. The states with the highest percentage of women principal operators were recorded as Arizona (38.5 percent), New Hampshire (29.7 percent), Massachusetts (28.9 percent), Maine (25.1 percent) and Alaska (24.5 percent). Also recorded, was that a growing percentage of female farmers were not white. In New England, less than one percent of all principal farm operators are black or African American. We will soon find out how those numbers may have changed, when the 2012 census results are released. Until then, let’s concentrate on the less than one percent in Maine, at least in today's Root post.

Two weeks ago I visited the Packard-Littlefield Farm in Lisbon, Maine and found long rows of corn, carrots, beets, and beans basking in the summer sun primarily being tended to by women dressed in colorful Somali garb. Since 2007, the farm, owned by Robert and Ella Mae Littlefield Packard, has leased 30 acres to Cultivating Community for the New American Sustainable Agriculture Program (NASAP) as a training farm site for recently resettled refugee and immigrant farmers living in the greater Lewiston and Portland areas.

Cultivating Community provides land access and farmers’ market connections for Somali Bantu, Sudanese, and Latino growers, many of whom are single mothers with few if any other economic opportunities. Two-thirds of the farmers are Bantu (a minority ethnic group descended from slaves), for whom adjusting to a new life in the United States is particularly arduous with numerous challenges including learning English and using basic modern conveniences such as telephones and electricity. Likely, most Bantu will have spent years in a refugee camp in Kenya before arriving in Maine. Farming is often the primary common denominator between life in Africa and the United States; it is also a way to grow fresh and affordable food for their family.

All of the farmers at the NASAP site produce vegetables on their own plots and participate in 'Fresh Start Farms' selling produce to restaurants and grocers, at farmers’ markets, and through a CSA. Farmers are able to bring home extra produce and items that are not suitable for market (e.g. blemished, but perfectly edible). According to Daniel Unger, with Cultivating Community/NASAP, most people in the program have purchased chest freezers they gradually fill up during the course of the summer. He said the accessibility to the farm has a major impact on how many fresh vegetables participants and their families eat at home.

The first year of the program, participants receive seeds and transplants and each spring NASAP helps prepare the fields. After that, farmers are responsible for everything else they need to grow a healthy crop using organic growing practices.

When the program began, Cultivating Community staff assumed refugees from Somalia would know how to farm, since they had back home. However, what quickly became apparent is the agricultural models are so different that a lot really did not apply to the new system. In Southern Somalia, where the Bantu lived, they worked a floodplain agricultural system. The Bantu planted along the banks of the Juba and Shabelle rivers as they receded, then when the rivers flooded every year and washed things away after the harvest the land was revitalized. “That’s a very sustainable system, because there is a natural source of recurring fertility,” said Unger. “Obviously completely different from here. We’ve found we do spend a lot of time teaching people how to farm here and we try to be really conscientious of explaining it through the local context so we don’t create the impression that people didn’t know what they were doing at home.”

In Somalia, where there is a low population density, people also had access to vast amounts of land, unlike in the United States, where the Bantu have found themselves trying to squeeze the most out of a much smaller area. The fields at the Packard-Littlefield Farm site are full of densely planted rows of produce, something I was told one would not see in Somalia, where maximizing yields per square foot was not an issue. To have a productive farm here, it is critical a grower knows how to make the most out of a small space. Most of the rows I saw had weeds running through them. Unger said the growers might let their rows get covered in weeds and then spend a day cleaning everything out. Unger told me the intensity of the growing space at the farm introduces a weed pressure that is different than the Bantu have experienced, so the NASAP staff teach weed management.

Another big difference an observer to the NASAP farm will find is the Bantu traditionally farm bent over using pretty short handled tools as opposed to the longer tools preferred by growers in the United States. I asked Unger about this and he said a yoga instructor told him if you know how to bend your back correctly you can spend a whole day bending.

I look forward to returning to the site once Ramadan has ended and speaking with some of the Somali Bantu farmers who are single mothers. Their bravery, determination, and work ethic are astounding.

The Fresh Start Farms CSA has pick up sites in Lewiston, Portland, and throughout Southern Maine. There are still shares available for this Autumn (8 weeks, September through October). As an added bonus, Salt and Sea CSF is partnering with Fresh Start Farms to offer home deliveries of local fish and vegetables for the summer and fall 2013. 

Somalia (Country Profile):
In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed into a state of war. The same year, a drought struck the nation causing a famine, which ultimately claimed the lives of between one and two million people over a period of two years. Somalia’s once stable agricultural economy was ruined. People left their communities (likely primarily on foot) in search of food and protection from marauding heavily armed gangs.

The political system remains broken to this day. According to The World Bank continuing insecurity in the country, and poor access to services and infrastructure have made conditions worse than they were before the civil war. Poverty afflicts 73% of households.

Last month, Rogerio Zandamela, International Monetary Fund Mission Chief for Somalia said, “Somalia faces significant challenges. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a history of internal conflicts that has taken its toll on human capital and infrastructure. Its economy has traditionally relied on fishing and agriculture. As it gradually emerges from a prolonged period of internal strife, few economic activities have survived, and much is needed to place it on the path to recovery.”

Somali Bantu
Between 2000 – 2007, thousands of Bantu immigrants arrived in the United States. The resettling of the Somali Bantu was one of the United States largest refugee resettlement efforts.

During the 19th century, members of the Bantu tribe from East Africa were captured and sold by Arab slave traders to (among others) plantation owners in Somalia. Most Somali Bantu were denied access to education and discriminated against and allowed only the most menial jobs. Approximately 25% of Bantu were farmers who lived along the Juba and Shebelle Rivers, where there was fertile soil for growing food crops. When the conflict began in the early 1990s Bantu were an easy target for armed thugs who destroyed entire communities. Ultimately placed in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, some Bantu only knew life in the camp before coming to the United States. For more information on the Somali Bantu visit this site. 

Somalian Recipe: Mixed Vegetable Sambusas from Seynab Ali, who farms at Packard Littlefield Farm 

Ingredients (for the filling)
1 lb. mixed vegetables (carrots, peas, beans) 1 green bell pepper, diced
1 yellow bell pepper, diced
2 large onions, diced
2 potatoes
Peanut oil
1 large clove elephant garlic, minced 2 cups cabbage, shredded
1 cup carrots, shredded
1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped

Directions (for the filling)
Boil whole potatoes for 7-10 minutes until tender. Run under cool water and peel when done. Dice the peeled potatoes into small cubes. Combine onions, garlic, diced bell peppers, shredded carrots and cabbage, and chopped cilantro in a large bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of oil to a large saucepan and heat over medium heat. Add frozen vegetables and cook until heated through. Season with 2 tablespoons of chicken bouillon and salt to taste.
Add remaining vegetables to the saucepan and cook until heated through. Add potatoes to vegetable pan, mix evenly, and remove from heat.

Ingredients (for the dough)
2 lbs. + 1 cup of white flour 3 cups + 1 cup of water Peanut oil

Directions (for the dough)
In a small bowl, combine 1 cup of flour with 1 cup of water and mix to form a paste. Mixture should have the consistency of pancake batter.
In a large bowl, slowly add 3 cups of water to the 2 lbs of flour and knead to form a soft, moist dough ball. Coat hands with peanut oil as needed to prevent dough from sticking to hands.
Separate the dough ball into 7 balls.
Roll each of the 7 balls into flat, 1⁄2” thick, 4” wide disks.
To prepare to roll the disks out, spread 1 tablespoon of oil on the top of a disk. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of flour on top of the oil and mix in with oil. Dust with an additional 1 tablespoon of flour prior to stacking the next disk on top, for a total of four disks. Do not put any oil/flour mixture on the top disk.
Begin to roll the stack of disks. Alternate rotating the stack 1⁄4 turn and flipping to ensure even rolling. When flipping the stack over, the bottom disk will likely be smaller, so stretch the edges of the bottom disk to overlap the edges of the other disks. The final combined stack should be 1⁄2” thick and the disks should be about 16” in diameter.
Trim about 1⁄2” from the edges so the stack is the shape of a large circle.
Cut the stack into quarters.
Repeat for the final 3 dough balls.

Heat a large skillet over high heat. When the skillet is hot, place one quarter of the stack (keeping the four layers together) in the skillet and heat for 2-3 minutes, flipping frequently.
Remove from heat and working one layer at a time, fold each layer into a cone. Stack the folded layers and place in a plastic bag or container to keep warm.

When all dough is folded into cones, fill the sambusas with the vegetable filling:
Seal the long seam with the flour water paste.
Fill the cone with the vegetable filling to the just under the top of the cone.
Tuck the front flap towards the back of the cone, sealing in the vegetable filling.
Add a line of flour paste along the seam with the back of the cone.
Fold the top flap over the cone and seal with flour paste. Check the corners and seal with flour paste if necessary.

To cook the sambusas:
Heat 1” of peanut oil in a large skillet on medium high heat.
When oil is hot, carefully slide the sambusas in the oil, seam side down first.
Spoon oil over the top of the cooking sambusas.
When the bottoms are brown and crispy, flip the sambusas and continue to fry until both sides are brown and crispy.

For more Somali recipes check out this recipe for Somali Beef and Flatbread Chapati on Immigrant Kitchens and the blog Somali Kitchen

The Lewiston Sun Journal has covered the relocation of Somali immigrants to Lewiston, including the positive contribution they have made to the downtown street where one can find revitalization happening in the form of incoming Somali shops and businesses.  I visited a few of the shops after my visit to the farm and picked up some wonderful Kenyan tea.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might want to check out this recent post on individuals from the Democratic Republic of Congo who traveled to Maine for a short course on farm business training. 

Bottom photo provided by Cultivating Community.

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog,

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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