Portland Somali teens learn farming and business skills at Falmouth's River Point

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River Point goats.JPGThe Center for African Heritage’s organic farming project at Falmouth’s River Point has been teaching farming and job skills for the past two months to 10 low-income Somali teens from Portland. Mahad Warsame, left, and Sumaya Mohamed bring two of the goats out of the barn to graze. (Roberts photo)

FALMOUTH — During a summer that broke records for rainfall and cold, 10 Somali teens from Portland have learned first-hand the power the weather has on a farmer’s success.

Federal stimulus money administered through Goodwill Workforce Solutions funded the organic farm management program through the Center for African Heritage. And the teens, all from low-income households, earned hourly wages to work on a patch of land at Falmouth’s River Point property, an open space area behind Hannaford Supermarket that is bounded by train tracks and the Piscataqua and Presumpscot rivers.

The students, ages 16 through 18, slogged through mud the first half of the summer, throwing out years of junk from the barn, cleaning the vacant house and helping to drain its basement of two feet of water, supervised by the center’s President Dawud Ummah and assisted by several volunteers.

But the heavy rains turned the expectant fields to an untillable, soggy sponge as the teens continued to clean and refurbish, all the while attending classes on farming techniques, money management, journaling and employment skills.

Halfway through the summer, they were finally able to plant a few crops in raised beds they made themselves from wood salvaged from pallets. Now, in the long-awaited sun and heat, tomatoes struggle to produce their fruits by season’s end, while faithful zucchini plants promise a bounty, along with lettuce and peppers.

And somehow, between rainstorms, they painted the barn – both inside and out.

Though the weather may not have cooperated, the pilot project was a success in the teens’ eyes.

Ilhan Hilowle said she has learned a lot of skills specific to farming, such as power equipment safety, as well as many that could help her in any future job.

And Sumaya Mohamed, who had no previous experience growing vegetables, said it has given her a new appreciation for farming and food.

“It’s better to know where your food comes from and how hard it is to grow,” she said. “And a lot of people are wasting it.”

A few weeks ago, the group took in nine Nubian goats, which are raised for their milk, and Boers, prized for their meat. The gentle, floppy-eared animals live in the barn and are taken out to graze during the day. Ummah said the teens have been learning how to trim the goats’ hooves and groom them from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s educator Dick Brzozowski. He has also taught them how to check them and the rabbits they’re raising for worms and other diseases.

In addition to the practical skills and training, the teens have learned something less definable but critical to their success, Ummah said.

“I try to encourage and develop leadership,” he said. “I tell them, ‘you are your own boss and I just happen to be the person that has the bigger vision. You need to take control of yourself; I encourage you to use your brain power.'”

Ummah has also taught the teens to be resourceful; to use what’s available to them. He proudly showed off the recycled wood in the vegetable beds and pens for the goats made of more recycled wood.

Now, Ummah hopes the teens will have more opportunities to incorporate their new skills in jobs during the school year. And as he looks to continue this project for other teens next year, he hopes to find a solution to a problem that threatens its future at River Point.

The property’s access, a bridge that leads from Hannaford’s parking lot over the railroad tracks, is in desperate need of major repair or replacement.

Falmouth Open Space Ombudsman Bob Shafto said he thinks the bridge can be repaired.

“There are a few places that are weak points,” he said. “It doesn’t need to be replaced, but it needs a major overhaul.”

The bridge makes it hard if not impossible to bring equipment across. And Town Councilor Fred Chase said its design, with open railings and high arch, make it dangerous for pedestrian use, as well.

“I think the bridge is dangerous and should be replaced with a grade crossing; patching it up is not the answer,” Chase said.

A grade crossing, which the Guilford Railroad used to have available nearby, would allow traffic to the site to drive across the tracks instead of over the bridge, he said. It could be gated when not in use.

With the connection to the property key to the program’s future at River Point, Ummah may take a lesson from his group of teens, as he looks to many others who have already expressed an interest in being a part of year’s program.

“They were working off of faith,” he said of those who volunteered their time before the funding even happened. “They believed in the process, the program, and then it came to be.”

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or proberts@theforecaster.net.