A small pile of wood scraps and four green stakes stand guard over a water pump at the end of a driveway on a dead-end street in Northeast Kansas City. A few hundred feet onto the property, the driveway gives way to muddy ruts, still wet from late-May storms.
A woman walks toward the backyard of a low-slung brick home. She wears green rubber waders that sink nearly an inch into the mud. Her fingers trace the air next to a dozen peach- and cherry-tree saplings — signs of life at the beginning of this 3-acre farm, which backs up to nearly every house on the block.
"Everything is very little," says Beh Paw Gaw, who runs Ki Koko Farm with her sister, Pay Lay. She gestures to rows of kale, chard, cilantro and scallions. "But the sun comes. It will get better."
Pay Lay nods, holding the end of her sarong to keep it out of the mud. They stood in this same field two years ago, surrounded by thickets of discarded tree branches and enough illegally dumped tires to outfit a used-car lot. They hauled away the tires and burned the branches; three blackened piles remain in a triangle around the garden. A severe allergic reaction to poison ivy put Beh Paw Gaw in the hospital. Preparing this land hasn't been easy for the Burmese sisters. But coming here, they've left behind something far more harsh: the refugee camp in Thailand where they fled following the civil war that tore through their home country.
Gaw and Lay are two of the seven graduates of the New Roots for Refugees program, a joint effort by Cultivate Kansas City and Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas City to teach refugees how to farm and how to sell what they produce. Since the four-year program started eight years ago, it has grown into a nearly 9-acre training farm, with a $200,000 annual budget and a current enrollment of 17 farmers.
Catholic Charities estimates that, from 2007 through 2011, 2,218 refugees from 28 ethnic groups arrived in Johnson and Wyandotte counties. Roughly half of those refugees have come from Burma.
Many of the male refugees are now part of the work force at Triumph Foods in St. Joseph, Missouri. Hundreds of men, most of whom had never seen a factory before they were hired at the slaughterhouse, make the daily 120-mile round-trip commute, returning home as late as 3 a.m. Their wives and sisters have found a different path, with New Roots, at the intersection of First Street and Richmond.
"This bridges the gap between refugees and Americans," says Meredith Walrafen, a 23-year-old program assistant with New Roots. "It uses the skills that people have, just in a different setting. You have all these different communities and language groups in one place."
At Juniper Gardens Training Farm, six or seven translators are often among the 20 people on hand during biweekly problem-solving sessions. Seed packets are labeled with pictures. People on the farm use their hands for talking as much as for tilling, communicating in the shorthand of agriculture.
"You put a farm and a bunch of people in the same place, and you can really accelerate the learning curve. By seeing what people do, you learn faster," says Cultivate Kansas City co-founder and executive director Katherine Kelly.
Each farmer works a quarter-acre plot; there also are 30 20-foot-square community-garden plots. Atop a hill that runs the length of the property is a shipping container that serves as a place for tool storage, a seed bank, and a cooler for produce that has been picked for market. The farmers pay for nothing in their first year, instead trading paper "Juniper bucks." By the fourth year, farmers are covering their own costs, from water to market fees, using money they've set aside in a checking account (which New Roots has helped them open). The farmers sold $125,000 of produce — radishes, dill, potatoes, hot peppers and other vegetables and herbs, grown organically — at market in 2012.
Farming aside, however, Juniper Gardens is still best known as the largest public-housing project in Kansas. A series of vinyl-clad structures bookend the gardens, which sit on land that was home to identical housing only eight years ago. Twenty-four thousand dollars' worth of organic compost and a regraded hillside have slowly turned this land into soil where something might grow, but not everybody in KCK knows the difference between a vacant lot and an urban farm.
On a Wednesday afternoon in late May, Rachel Pollock has just received distressing news, but she tries to keep her voice light as she bounces her 9-month-old daughter on her hip. The 32-year-old program coordinator for Catholic Charities sits down at the lone wooden picnic table at the Juniper Gardens training farm. Her daughter plays with a set of keys.
A motorcycle gang has ridden through a graduate farmer's newly tilled fields, in the middle of New Roots' busiest week — the start of farmers-market season and the community-supported agriculture program. (Walrafen coordinates the 58 CSA members who pick up their produce from 11 farmers at 11 different markets.) She now has a new item on her to-do list: Build a fence to keep bikers from turning a working farm into a dirt track.
New Roots for Refugees can trace its own roots back to a second-floor bathroom at an elementary school.
In 2005, Catholic Charities was searching for a way to give a group of Somali women a sense of home. Its members turned to what the women knew before they'd arrived in the United States: land. Soon, the women were growing crops in a community garden, enough for their families and friends. The water for that garden came from a bathroom tap in the St. Benedict's School on Eighth Street. The following year, Catholic Charities approached Cultivate Kansas City (then the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture) for help turning its gardeners into market farmers. And that's how five Somali women found themselves behind a table with bunches of greens and no idea what would happen.
"It was a couple of hundred dollars, but it was meaningful because it paid for an electric bill or got them out of the house," Kelly says.
In 2007, Pollock received a three-year, $300,000 grant from the federal government's Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program. In the application, she laid out the framework for the training farm. It would be managed by Cultivate KC, with Catholic Charities providing support services to help refugees rebuild their lives, both on the farm and outside it. The project was set for Coronado Park, on Parallel Parkway, but when the KCK Housing Authority agreed to give the program a three-year lease (at a rate of $1 a year) on just less than 7 acres in Juniper Gardens, New Roots for Refugees had found its place. (Cultivate later acquired an additional 2 acres of the city's land on the other side of Richmond Street.) Eight farmers sold at the Brookside Farmers Market in 2007.
"We flooded that market," Pollock says. "But it planted the seeds in our mind of what we could do."
New Roots came along at a good moment for Cultivate KC. Kelly had been working directly with farmers; now she hoped to construct an entire sustainable food system — one that would connect growers, markets, consumers and funding entities. While Kelly serves as an advocate for urban agriculture, Pollock helps the refugees in the program learn how to set up bank accounts, pay taxes and even drive a car.
"To see our farmers from Burma get picked up in Juniper Gardens and then drive them through Mission Hills to the Brookside Farmers Market — they would ordinarily never be in Brookside. But they're there and providing a service. There are people there that just love to get their food," Pollock says.
The land is helping farmers find their place.
Sitting on a black-leather couch with her granddaughter, Angel, balanced on one knee, Maku Gurung is surrounded by family. Gurung's husband, Nar, who can't work because of a bad back and diabetes, sits next to her in the townhome they share with her son and daughter-in-law. There are happy pictures on the walls, smiling relatives with arms around shoulders. But there are no pictures of Bhutan, the homeland she hasn't seen in more than two decades.
"She likes it here, but she loves her homeland," says Bishnu Rai, Gurung's daughter-in-law, who is translating for her on a recent Friday morning.
Nestled between India and China, Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom that has been celebrated for its decision to adopt a goal of "Gross National Happiness" in lieu of a gross national product. In 2006, Businessweek listed Bhutan as "the eighth-happiest nation on Earth." But that hasn't kept its citizens from leaving, and its refugees have often been troubled. The Atlantic published a disturbing article in April of this year, noting the high suicide rate of Bhutanese refugees resettled in the United States — 20.3 per 100,000 people, a rate well above the U.S. average of 12.4.
Gurung, 48, says she had a happy childhood. She grew up in the southern part of the country, with a garden in sight of the Himalayas. She milked the cows in the morning and tended to the rice fields after that. Her family farmed. But Bhutan was riven by ethnic conflict before she could take her place in the family tradition.
In the 1980s, the country sought to hold a census that would fix the definition of citizenship and stop immigration from bordering Nepal. As protests and arrests made news in cities, Gurung's family decided to leave. She says the king said they couldn't stay in their home.
She walked for two days through the jungle to India. Her family was turned away at the border and spent another two days on a bus to Nepal, part of a stream of 107,000 refugees over the next decade. Her family settled in a camp run by the United Nations' High Commission for Refugees.
"In Bhutan, she had her own private home and garden," Rai says. "In Nepal, she had no home but had a community garden."
She lived in a bamboo-and-thatch hut for the next 18 years, until the Nepalese government agreed to issue exit permits that would allow refugees to leave the country beginning in 2008. Two years later, the United Nations approved her application for resettlement and sent her to Spokane, Washington. After a year, she was able to come to Kansas City to live with her son. A friend in the Bhutanese community told her about New Roots; in April 2011, she began farming at Juniper Gardens.
"The garden gave her a chance to learn many things and make friends," Rai says. "She loves being able to talk to people and take home money and fresh vegetables."
Gurung is in her third year in the program. Pollock says she is the farm's hardest worker. She also works as a package handler for FedEx. She has a sister in Colorado, a daughter in Virginia and another daughter in St. Louis. She's hoping that they can be closer together in the future. Gurung calls her father, her brother and her sister, who are still in Nepal, once a month. When they ask about life in Kansas, she tells them that everything is relative.
"She says it's better than there," Rai says.
Gurung is part of KCK's changing landscape — one that New Roots' leaders envision as a patchwork of urban farms and farmers, strengthening the community.
"We're seeing blight in Wyandotte County or vacant housing turned into this vibrant place where people are working and contributing to the health of their community," Pollock says.
Off 14th Street and Central, there's a Bhutanese community garden where 40 families have small plots. It's one of three planned community gardens, each centered on a specific ethnic group. The nonprofit Somali Bantu Foundation just received the deed to a property on Third Street from a private donor. The Somalis there are cultivating a patch of ferns (they eat the curls) and blackberries. Another garden, run by Burmese farmers in partnership with a church on Parallel Parkway, is expected to break ground in a few weeks.
"We're changing the makeup and fabric of a neighborhood," Pollock says. "Built space affects kids. When you integrate farms and gardens into neighborhoods, it changes the dynamic."
While those community gardens are intended to help New Roots identify its next crop of farmers, five working farms in Kansas City, Kansas, also have launched in the past two years. Gaw purchased the land in 2011 that would become Ki Koko (which means "two sisters" in Burmese), and her daughter-in-law purchased the adjacent home.
Sitting on the carpeted living-room floor of her daughter-in-law's house, Gaw says if she ever returned to Burma, it would be to visit, not to stay.
"She's happy here because she has more freedom," her daughter, Beh Say, translates. "Back there, she'd be in jail. But it's hard not to think about the way they had to leave."
A 60-year war between the Karen people and the Burmese government left the sisters' family with little choice six years ago. They could flee into the jungle or stay and be killed. They left behind the garden where their grandfather had grown okra and rice and areca nuts.
The U.N. brought Lay to the United States in 2007; her older sister followed a year later. Their husbands both found work at Triumph Foods.
In the sisters' first year with New Roots, their crops struggled and so did their families. They had entered a new culture, one in which the food was packaged. Gaw warned her family not to eat cereal, fearing it was dog food. In time, they came to find catfish in the Missouri River, and they learned to like Kelly Clarkson. But nothing came easily, so they worked harder.
"There, they would just spread the seeds, and it would grow," Beh Say says. "Here, you really have to take care of it."
Now they care for broccoli and beets and tomatoes, seed packets stored in an empty ice-cream tub to remind them what they're growing. They sell at the Overland Park Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and at the KCK Greenmarket on Mondays.
The fruit trees at the entrance to Gaw's lot are her retirement plan. When she's older, she wants only to tend the orchard. She's 52, and that future seems far off. Her days start at 6 a.m. and end close to 10 p.m. She wants to see New Roots grow, especially because her younger sister is a new farmer in the program.
"She wants them to be proud of her," Beh Say says. "The people who helped her grow and gave her their time — she wants to be able to help them."
Gaw is helping Pollock. Her success can convince prospective farmers that what seems unattainable is only four years away, and Catholic Charities can point to Gaw when courting potential donors. The latter is important, given the project's potentially shrinking budget.
When the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program funds expired in 2009, Pollock applied for a grant from the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The farm incubator, managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is designed to help kick-start fledgling growers (those with less than 10 years' experience), who can eventually replace an aging population of farmers. New Roots received a three-year $150,000 grant; that's set to expire this summer, and the final payment is in limbo because the Farm Bill (which includes funding for the BFRDP) has not yet been passed by Congress.
Private donations and foundation funds ensure that the program continues to run, but Pollock expects to make some tough choices about the services offered. She has applied for additional grant funding, recently securing resources to offer Juniper Gardens produce to the Catholic Charities' food pantry.
"We are just at the start of something," Kelly says. "Supporting farmers doesn't have to come at the expense of the consumer. Urban agriculture and economic development don't have to be mutually exclusive."
It's a few minutes after 5 p.m. when several older-model sedans turn in through the gate off Richmond, their tires bouncing over the pitted gravel road. Pollock greets several farmers by name. In a few minutes, they'll discover that hail from a thunderstorm has left their kale pockmarked. Women in long T-shirts and fleece jackets stoop to fill plastic shopping bags and white buckets with greens for their own dinner tables and those of their neighbors.
Pollock stops for a moment at the top of the hill at the training farm and looks past the grain elevators that dominate the horizon. "Think of what people would pay for this view," she says, pointing out the tree-framed skyline of downtown Kansas City, Missouri.
The farmers don't look up. They're thinking about what people will pay the next morning at market. They hope to get home before the sun sets, and they know that their husbands are still five hours from being able to leave St. Joseph. After a few fleeting moments of sleep, the women will return to the fields as the sun begins to reflect off the downtown buildings.