Thursday November 14, 2013 | 09:39 AM

Learning pressure canning at U. Maine Extension's office in Falmouth.

America is built on the determination and vision of brave immigrants who traveled here to start a new life. A century ago, immigrant laws were different, but the motivations were the same. Seeking a better economic situation based on determination and hard work, millions of people came from around the globe. Today, people still travel here from different countries to understand the “Do It Yourself” spirit. This past summer four people from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) came to Maine for farm business training with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Last month one of those persons and five more from the DRC traveled to Maine for Food Safety and Preservation Training with U.Maine Extension.

The two-part training program was a result of M'Vita M'Bambi of the Congolese American Sustainable Economic Development Foundation, having been a student in one of the U. Maine Extension “So, You Want to Farm in Maine?”  classes held in Falmouth in 2013. At the end of the class, he asked staff for assistance in educating persons from the Congo (visitors and recent immigrants living in the Portland area) by organizing a farm training program for them.

Mr. Bambi envisioned participants from the DRC learning practical skills related to food production and going home with the knowledge of what it takes to run a successful food-oriented business. “Most who returned to the Congo will learn how to apply what they learned here,” he said. “In the Congo they will be among the first doing this in the American way.”

In addition to pressure canning and freezing demonstrations this time around, participants went on several field trips to food processing businesses where they found owners who created family run companies by sheer will and determination. “The most important thing they learned about American culture while touring and meeting the owners, is that most of them did not go to school to learn how to do it,” Bambi said. “They liked something and they pushed themselves to learn it.”

"Many who work in agriculture and food production and processing develop their skills and know-how on the job," said Richard Brzozowski, Extension Professor/Educator. "They have the work ethic that is reflective of the American spirit." 

David Fillinger, Owner of Pemberton Gourmet Foods in Gray, which was one of the stops on the tour, said running a small food processing operation is not rocket science. “This is clearly a business model that could be taught to someone with desire and the ability to learn,” he said. “It is easy to get your arms around it and learn how to do it. It is about getting more money coming in than going out. The learning curve is pretty good, so you could be on your own in a fairly short amount of time.” Note, Fillinger taught himself the business after being unsatisfied in his former career.  

Touring Pemberton Gourmet Foods in Gray.

Brzozowski organized visits to small, primarily manual operations where participants from the DRC could see examples of something they could actually put together back home. At Thompson’s Orchard in New Gloucester they witnessed cider making (while apples are not grown in the DRC, this was an excellent example of how foods could be grown and squeezed into a juice). Pemberton Gourmet Foods offered the group an opportunity to see how they create their barbecue sauce, packaging, and storage. At Bruns Brothers in Gray, which makes some of the equipment in use at Pemberton Gourmet Foods, the group was able to see a simple plant design, learn about different steel grades, and pasteurizers.

The visits were a win-win for participants and business owners. “I got involved when Richard Brzozowski contacted me this summer,” Fillinger said. “I was very interested from the start and enjoyed the tour and questions very much. I think the small, versatile type production I have, has the potential to allow safe long-term storage of many foods (no meat or fish), for the students back home. I have more questions than advice, but I think there is great potential to install small, food safety friendly, facilities that would greatly increase efficient storage of foods.” Fillinger stressed the difference in making a business successful is the willingness to take risks.

According to Mr. Bambi, in most developing countries only people who go to universities and obtain a high diploma can own their own business. He felt the group was greatly encouraged to meet business owners who learned by themselves how to put a successful company together. “The freedom of thinking on your own and doing things – they don’t have it,” he said. “ They learned to be free to use their minds the way they want to.”

Group pic at Bruns Brothers in Gray.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (Country Profile)
The DRC is the size of all Western Europe combined. It has been home to the deadliest conflicts in the last half-century and hosts one of the largest United Nations peacekeeping efforts in the world. It also inspired one of the masterpieces of modern cinema. Francis Ford Coppola's epic film “Apocalypse Now”  transposed Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness about King Leopold of Belgium’s genocidal regime, to Southeast Asia. Since the mid-1990s, the country has been at once the subject of a dozen excellent books on the monsters and tragedies that have resided there, and the focus of government and international financial institutions attention over the rich minerals there.

What most people, who are not from the DRC, aside from aid workers and scholars, are unaware of is that aside from the bloodied eastern Kivu provinces, where people have to regularly flee their homes to avoid fighting, there has been great progress in the last few years. Less than 500 miles from the epicenter of violence in North Kivu, former soldiers are being taught to farm. Several miles outside a formerly mineral rich area in south central DRC, where combatants profited from the exploitation of the mines and families worked in slave conditions, there is now an education and farming project in a small town where any week now a well will have been installed. The roads may be rough and slow, but the people are incredibly kind (at least those I have met and/or been in touch with in the last few months) and their music makes you want to dance.

In a country where many people live on less than a dollar a day and are being forced to buy expensive imported goods (tomatoes, sugar, rice, etc.), let us hope Mr. Bambi and his friends flourish back in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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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, deliciousmusings.com.

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 kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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