New Roots farmer-owners and supporters — left to right in foreground, Kadija Hillowle, Mohamed Abukar, Seynab Ali, Lewiston Mayor Robert McDonald, Batula Ismail and Abdullah Ibrahim — cut the ribbon to their new cooperative farm on August 11. (Photo by Andy O’Brien )
New Roots farmer-owners and supporters — left to right in foreground, Kadija Hillowle, Mohamed Abukar, Seynab Ali, Lewiston Mayor Robert McDonald, Batula Ismail and Abdullah Ibrahim — cut the ribbon to their new cooperative farm on August 11. (Photo by Andy O’Brien )
Last Thursday, around 100 people gathered in a 30-acre pasture on the edge of Lewiston to celebrate the groundbreaking of the New Roots Cooperative Farm. The group listened to speeches, sang songs, prayed and feasted on samosas and other dishes from their native Somalia. A wave of emotion swept over New Roots President Seynab Ali as she addressed the crowd of mostly Somali Bantus. 

“This is an example of when people come together as a team, as a family, as friends and as a community,” Ali said through an interpreter.  “This is symbolic to everyone.… This is also showing people behind us how to take an action, how we can work collaboratively to be as one nation.”

In 2004, Ali, the mother of seven children, arrived in the United States and was resettled in Atlanta, Georgia, before she and her family moved to Lewiston, in 2005, where a Somali Bantu community was already thriving. When she came to Maine, Ali said one of her primary goals was to grow food, just as her parents, grandparents and great grandparents had done. The predominantly Muslim Bantus have traditionally been subsistence farmers, but they were forced off their land and many were raped and murdered at the hands militiamen during the Somali Civil War in the 1990s and 2000s. The first Somali Bantus arrived in Maine in the early 2000s as part of a resettlement effort by the US State Department. Abdulle Ibrahim, a Bantu leader from Connecticut who helped lead the refugee resettlement effort, said farming programs have been important for Somali Bantus as they adjust to living in the United States.

“They are born and raised in farming and it’s inherited from their great grandparents,” said Abdullah Ibrahim through an interpreter. “And for them, when they came to this country, they continued their farming practices.”

Through Coastal Enterprises Inc., a Wiscasset-based rural development nonprofit, Ali joined the New Americans Sustainable Agriculture Project (NASAP), which helps train immigrant farmers and assists them in building businesses. In 2009, NASAP was taken over by the Portland-based nonprofit Cultivating Community and now New Roots farmers deliver about 40 varieties of fresh vegetables to restaurants and markets as well as to 120 CSA customers in Maine. 

For the past ten years, Ali and the three other farmer-owners of New Roots have farmed at the Packard-Littlefield Farm in Lisbon, but the new Lewiston land — which was acquired with the assistance of Maine Farmland Trust, the USDA, Land for Good, Cultivating Community and the Cooperative Development Institute (CDI)  — will provide a permanent home for their farm businesses.  

“When I became a farmer in Lewiston, many people questioned why I chose to become a farmer because they believed that farming is a hard job,” Ali continued. “But they don’t know the benefit behind farming. One of the benefits we have today is we grow our own food while making money and also helping other communities and their neighbors and friends across the state. We grow fresh, healthy food and we donate the food we grow to many communities as well as the food pantries around Lewiston and southern Maine.” 

Under the producer cooperative model, each farmer will own a share of the business, and they will also share marketing, distribution, equipment and land management responsibilities, according to CDI’s Cooperative Food Systems Developer Jonah Fertig, who helped develop the farm’s business model. 

“New Roots Cooperative Farm is a model for their community and the state about how to use a cooperative business structure to increase access to land and markets for farmers,” said Fertig in a statement. “Their cooperative is creating greater economic opportunity for New Americans and increasing food access in southern Maine.”  

Craig Lapine, executive director of Cultivating Community, said that the immigrant farmers are also a valuable asset to the state, as the number of farms had been shrinking until the Somalis arrived. He noted that in the last USDA Agricultural Census, the number of farms in Maine went up largely because of several new self-identified African-American farmers in Androscoggin County, which made the difference between Maine gaining farms and losing farms. 

“I think we’re witnessing the future of farming in Maine,” Lapine told the audience. “ … When we think about the historical moment that we’re in and what we need, we need to be feeding ourselves and we need to be moving forward as one in peace.... And we really need the farmers of New Roots.”

And there’s no shortage of new Mainers looking for a way into farming, says Muhidin Libah, executive director  of the Somali Bantu Association of Maine. Libah says his group has assisted about 66 Somali farmers between Lewiston and New Gloucester in addition to the 20 farmers working with Cultivating Community. He currently has 11 farmers on a waiting list because he hasn’t been able to find land for them to farm. 

“If you can get pieces of land in the Lewiston-Auburn area like this, that will be wonderful because we have the farmers, but we do not have the land,” said Libah. 

New Roots is scheduled to move its operations from Lisbon to Lewiston in 2017 and will operate a farm stand as well as offer CSAs and wholesale delivery to institutions, restaurants, markets and food pantries. Recently the group has launched a crowd-sourcing campaign at to raise about $10,000  to connect the farm to city water and electricity as well as to build a farm stand, a driveway and a vegetable wash-and-pack station. The group also hopes to raise additional money for a tractor and to hire a marketing coordinator because the farmers have difficulty reading, writing and speaking English.

“We have an expression in our culture that says with one finger you cannot wash your face, but with a whole hand you can wash your face,” said Hussein Muktar, the outreach coordinator for Cultivating Community, in a statement. “By working together, we can accomplish more and grow more food for our community.”