Houston nonprofit creates job stability for refugees

Republic of Congo refugee Toto Alimasi harvests his farm as he prepares his produce for the upcoming farmers market. | Photo by Jonathan Valadez

Urban farming isn’t a new concept, but Plant it Forward Farms, a Houston-based nonprofit, is taking the idea to a new level by providing refugees a plot of land within the city to cultivate and tend to for themselves.

“Each farmer has a farm that is at least two-thirds of an acre,” said Daniella Lewis, who runs the nonprofit’s Farm Stand program as well as many other duties throughout the organization.

PIFF’s founder, Teresa O’Donnell, came up with the design after she co-founded a successful company called Bridgeway Software with her brother, which helped put her in a position to give back in some way, although she was uncertain how she would do so.

The idea eventually started to materialize when she read two separate articles — one about the growing number of refugees who resettle in Houston and the other about how just one acre of land could support an individual. She decided that she would find a way to combine the two issues, and as the concept started to formulate, she reached out to Catholic Charities, an organization dedicated to assisting refugees, to see if any of the displaced people who were resettling in Houston were previously farmers.

She was told that the majority of the refugees that were being transplanted to the city were in fact farmers, or at the very least had some farming experience.

After getting the answer that she wanted, she met with individuals from Urban Harvest, another Houston nonprofit geared toward sustainable and organic farming, to consult and learn the ins and outs of farming in a city.

She created Plant it Forward in May 2012 by leasing three acres of land from Braeswood Church in southwest Houston. Later that year, the organization graduated its first class of nine farmers.

A group of volunteers readies a bed, so that flowers — a new addition to Plant it Forward’s farms — can be added. | Photo by Jonathan Valadez

Upon graduation, the newly skilled cultivators are able to sell any of the produce that they harvest, and it is up to each farmer to set the price of their product.

PIFF partnered with Urban Harvest so that their farmers would be able to sell their produce at the other’s farmers markets. So far, the partnership has been mutually beneficial to both parties, according to Tyler Horne, who is the director of farmers markets for Urban Harvest.

“They were one of the single best additions I’ve ever made in my 8 years of being involved with the election of market vendors,” he said. “In an area where we struggle to have people enter into jobs in vegetable-focused agriculture, it’s encouraging to see them succeeding.”

While PIFF has seen some initial success, Houston has resettled an enormous number of refugees from all over the world, and their reach has only touched a small portion of that diversity.

16-year-old volunteer Keith Hankins takes a moment to recuperate after tilling the garden beds for several hours. | Photo by Jonathan Valadez

“All of our farmers are Congolese,” Lewis said. “They’re from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Congo-Brazzaville, so two different countries.”

One of those farmers is Sarment Louamba, who arrived in Houston after being displaced twice — once from his native Republic of Congo and then from neighboring Gabon.

While in Gabon, Louamba tried to stick to his profession as a taxi driver but was told he could not since he was a foreigner. He started a small garden, which is where his experience came from, before he was ultimately threatened to leave the country.

When he arrived in Houston in 2010, Louamba attempted to go back to driving.

“When I come here to America, if you don’t understand English, it is hard to get a job,” he said.

O’Donnell found Louamba through a resettlement agency back when she was starting PIFF, and now the Houston transplant operates his own farm in the Westbury Community Garden in southwest Houston, which is now one of four Plant it Forward farms.

“I like my job,” he said. “The farming is very good because I am very relaxed.”

So far, PIFF still has just those nine original farmers, but there are plans to begin a new class of 10 to 15 prospects later this year, which means they’ll be looking for more land throughout the city to farm.

And even with just four farms at the moment, there is much to be done between tilling, digging, planting, harvesting and all of the other duties, so the farmers rely heavily on volunteers to assist them.

Bara Gregoire, a server from the Galveston area, decided to aid the farmers after reading about PIFF’s mission on meetup.com.

Despite her inexperience, volunteer Bara Gregoire does what she can to help out during her first visit at PIFF’s Westbury location. | Photo by Jonathan Valadez

Although she had no farming experience, she wanted to do whatever she could to help out, and after getting her feet wet, she said that she wants to make an effort to come out and help at least once a week, especially since it impacts the farmers’ livelihood.

“I could tell that this was low-budget farming, and I know that they really need the help,” she said. “They’re refugees just trying to make a living out here, so their story touched me.”

It has been five years since that first class embarked on their new journey, and although they are the only farmers employed by the organization, PIFF’s mission, however lofty, is to have a farm in every neighborhood in Houston

“We want this to be as normal and ubiquitous as a nail salon in every strip center,” Lewis said. “We want people to know that they can get fresh produce in their neighborhood and get the highest quality stuff to eat and know their farmer.”