New Roots Cooperative Farm

New Roots Farmer Seynab Ali.
Photo by Jenny Nelson, Maine Farmland Trust.

A group of Somali Bantu refugees has started a cooperative farm in Maine, whole continents away from where they were born. They’ve traveled treacherous terrain and faced down threats that could have taken their lives. Thousands of miles from Somalia, on 30 acres in Maine’s second-largest city, they’ve begun to feel like they’ve come home.

New Roots Cooperative Farm, though just recently started by four New Americans, is already a success story. Combine the complexities of farming with the uncertainty of navigating a system that is unfamiliar—and at times unfriendly—to newcomers and you’ll understand just a fraction of how far New Roots has already come. They’re inspired to help one another and the community, too. “Our aim is not only to grow food and run a business ourselves but to help our community and teach them about how to run a business,” says New Roots farmer Batula Ismail.

New Roots is a producer cooperative—the four co-owners work together to share land, markets, infrastructure, and resources—and they are demonstrating to other immigrant farmers that their co-op model is best for meeting their needs and building community.

The group used to farm before being forced from their homes during Somalia’s tumultuous civil war period. “There was no control,” one of the co-op organizers, Hussein Muktar, told the Portland Press Herald recently. “People come to your house and kill you or beat you and take whatever you have,” he said. “You have no power.”

After arriving in Maine, they got back to farming at Cultivating Community’s New American Sustainable Agriculture Project at Packard-Littlefield Farm in Lisbon. The program empowers New Americans to launch farm businesses, to adopt new leadership roles in the community, and to attain increased economic independence for themselves and their families.

Now, with a decade of experience at Packard-Littlefield backing them up, the group is ready to put their education to the test. When Gendron Farm, a dairy farm in Lewiston was divided into several parcels in 2015, New Roots worked with Cooperative Development Institute, Maine Farmland Trust, Land for Good, Cultivating Community, and many others to preserve 30 acres as a working farm.

In August 2016, the farmers celebrated with a groundbreaking ceremony for their farm with food, music, speakers, and prayers for the land. More than 100 people turned out to support the farm and the New American community in Lewiston, a heartwarming affirmation that New Roots is leading the way for immigrant farmers in the Northeast. Farmer Mohamed Abukar said, “We are a new generation of farmers, as New Americans, and we want to bring our farming to a new level. We want to develop support from other organizations and people to open the farm in 2017 and provide fresh chemical free vegetables to schools, hospitals, restaurants, and people around the state.”