Lewiston Somalis give new life to New Gloucester, Pownal farms

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NEW GLOUCESTER — A new season, a new chapter, and new beginnings are taking root for an immigrant community and unused farmland.

Intervale Farm, which ended its nearly 20-year run of harvesting and selling popular pumpkins and gourds last October, has a new crop of farmers.

The Somali Bantu Community Association of Maine, a Lewiston-based nonprofit organization that helps refugees transition to life in Maine, began farming the land off Route 231 in early May. The organization also farms on land leased in Pownal, but the demand for land there forced it to look elsewhere.

Muhidin Libah, the organization’s executive director, said he was put in touch with the owners of Intervale Farm, Jan and Carl Wilcox, through a friend in the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Somali Bantu Community is leasing three acres at $300 each from the Wilcoxes, who still live on the land. The lease runs until December.

“Right now we have 34 plots,” Libah said, divided between 39 community members. Each plot is a 10th of an acre.

“Our goal wasn’t to lease,” Jan Wilcox said. “It just kind of happened.”

Each plot is farmed by a family, and almost everything is done by hand, without the use of pesticides or added chemicals.

“They’re all experienced in African farming, but not all of them are experienced in Maine farming,” Libah said. He said new refugees have a learning curve with the cold and frost.

“In Africa, you don’t have to wait for snow to melt, you just have to wait for the rain,” he said, adding that their main crop of corn “takes three days” to sprout in Somalia. “It can take up to three weeks here because of the frozen ground.”

In addition to corn, Libah said each family is given seedlings for other vegetables, like cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, onions, peppers, and eggplant. Everything the organization provides is free to the farmers, paid for by grants. The only thing the farmers have to pay for are any extra seedlings.

“People have difficult times paying their bills,” Libah said. “(But) we don’t bother people to pay. All they have to do is show up.”

Farmers come and go as they please, with access to the land from 7 a.m.-7 p.m., although farmers will sometimes stay later, until nightfall. Libah said it’s rare if all the farmers are there at once, because most people fit in farming time around their work schedules.

“There are some people who just show up once, and there are some people who are here everyday,” he said.

Libah, who immigrated from Somalia to the United States in 2004, said farming in the evening is part of an “African mentally” of staying out of the sun during the day.

“I feel like I’m back home,” Libah said of the work at Intervale Farm. “I can hear birds, there is no traffic.”

Wilcox said she sees people from the Somali Bantu Community farming on the land every day. The Wilcoxes aren’t playing an active role in the farming, but are helping prepare the land.

“We still have a few things to do,” like irrigation, Jan Wilcox said.

Libah said there are a more families on a waiting list for plots, and he is trying to “accommodate everyone” while keeping “consistent farmers.” He said if farmers aren’t cleaning or taking care of their plots, they may be dropped to accommodate others.

As the crops grow and are harvested, the community will begin exploring ways to market and sell their crops. Libah said they are looking into door-to-door marketing, and are beginning to reach out to college campuses and restaurants.

“The biggest problem was (finding) land,” Libah said. “Now the next step is to figure out what people want.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Sidebar Elements

Mohamed Mohamed and his wife Habibo Salat tend to a plot of broccoli Monday, June 1, in Pownal. The Lewiston couple, originally from Somalia, has been living in the United States since 2004, but this is their first year farming, thanks to the efforts of the Somali Bantu Community Association of Maine.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.