Monday July 9, 2018
By Lori Valigra
Seynab Ali, farmer-owner and president of the New Roots Cooperative Farm, gathers carrots at the initial incubator location of the co-op in Lisbon. New Roots and Isuken Co-op, another Somali-run farm, are reopening Blackie's Farm Stand in Lewiston. New Roots will sell produce and Isuken will use the location as a base for what it says is the nation's first Somali Bantu farm-to-fork food truck. Courtesy of Greta Rybus, Cultivating Community
Two Somali Bantu farm cooperatives
will open a farm stand in Lewiston that will be the home base for what
they say is the nation’s first Somali Bantu farm-to-fork food truck.
The idea is to find a broader market for
food from the two farms and to use the food truck to introduce Somali
food to venues around Lewiston and eventually the rest of Maine.
New Roots Cooperative Farm in Lewiston and
Isuken Co-op in Lisbon joined forces to reopen the former Blackie’s
Farm Stand — named for the late founder Normand “Blackie” Labbe Sr. — at
966 Sabattus St. in Lewiston. Blackie’s also has a farmstand in Auburn
and a farm in Minot.
The cooperatives have a six-month lease
but plan to continue running the farm stand seasonally, according to
Jonah Fertig-Burd, a co-op development specialist at the Cooperative
Development Institute, a Massachusetts-based organization that helps
co-ops get set up and expand their business. Fertig-Burd said CDI has
many locations throughout Maine as well.
Both cooperatives are owned and run by
Somali Bantu farmers who came to the United States as refugees and are
now citizens owning a business. The Bantu are an ethnic minority group
who live mostly in southern Somalia.
The new farm stand also will be called New Roots Cooperative Farm.
“The farm stand will provide an
opportunity for our food truck to have a home base so people can come
and eat Somali Bantu cuisine, and for us to share our culture with the
wider community,” Ishino Ibrahim, president of Isuken Co-op, said.
Seynab Ali, president and one of the four
farmer-owners of New Roots, said the collaboration will give Lewiston
residents a new place to get fresh, local vegetables.
The farm stand will hold a grand opening
celebration with Somali food and produce Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m.
Fertig-Burd said the food truck likely will be there, though it is
scheduled to start operations in August. The farm stand will be open
through October, and the food truck will likely run through December, he
New Roots is the first immigrant-owned
farm cooperative in Maine, Fertig-Burd said. It started in 2006 at a
small incubator location in Lisbon and moved to a larger, 30-acre farm
in Lewiston in 2016. It grows vegetables it sells to wholesale
customers, restaurants, farmers markets and through its own community
supported agriculture program.
Both co-ops tapped loans from the
Cooperative Fund of New England and held separate crowdsourcing
fundraisers. Fertig-Burd said his organization helped the co-ops learn
to raise the money.
Isuken raised $14,000 through its crowdsourcing campaign last year, and New Roots raised $12,000, he said.
The money went toward business
operations, including a new tractor for New Roots and the food truck
purchased by Isuken. New Roots also installed solar panels last year to
help power the farm and this year plans to add unheated hoop houses to
extend the growing season till late fall and to start planting earlier
in the spring.
New Roots grows traditional vegetables
such as tomatoes, kale, chard and beans. It also wants to expand its
African specialty crops including molokia and amaranth, Fertig-Burd
The food truck may sell some fresh
vegetables as well, but its main fare is Somali food, including sambusa,
a fried pastry filled with a mixture of vegetables or meat and seasoned
rice with chicken legs or goat meat.
“The goal with the food truck is to bring
their food to a larger audience,” Fertig-Burd said. “They are
interested in bringing the truck to various areas around the state, to
go out and to connect with people.”