Growing Together: the Refugee Ag Program

In January, Tennessee gardens tend to offer more frozen patches than green, but growth in the TNFP gardens continues in the cooler months in different wayswith preparation, trainings and relationship building.

At Hillcrest United Methodist Church on a recent Monday, the Nashville Food Project’s Garden Manager Christina Bentrup stood before a group of refugee growers from Bhutan and Nepal to talk about opportunities to sell crops at farmers’ markets and restaurants through the Refugee Agriculture Partnership Program (RAPP). 

Speaking through translator Siddi Rimal, two farmers named Chhabi and Chandra shared their successes selling popular mustard greens at a negotiated price within their community. But beyond learning ways to market and work togetherand hearing how the growing seasons differ in Tennessee than their home countriesthe trainings help make deeper connections.

“Participants build stronger relationships with each other, with the physical land, with neighbors and members of their community and with other communities through selling their food,” Christina says.

Lauren Bailey, the Agricultural Programs Director at the Center for Refugees and Immigrants of Tennessee, the agency partner on the RAPP program, also participates in the trainings where lessons go beyond the soil.

“Sometimes farmers come to us with other issues that they are facing in life, such as the complicated nature of obtaining citizenship,” she says. “In these moments, we're faced with the opportunity to listen and to find ways to connect and advocate with our farmers. As our relationships grow, our understanding of our farmers' lives grows.”

A few days later at the Woodmont garden at The Nashville Food Project, a group of volunteers sifted compost to make potting soil for starting crops in the greenhouse. 

“See how pretty that is?” said volunteer Linda Bodfish. “It started off as melons and rotten tomatoes.” 

They worked together over a hands-on process that couldn’t be rushed. Among discussion about the compost, they shared stories about family pets, jobs and hometowns. 

“Growing food, even if you and your family are the only ones eating it, is a communal activity,” Christina says. “It brings us into contact with the earth we all share, with the traditions of agriculture that have kept our species alive, and spirit of abundance that pervades all well-cared for gardens.” 

Linda, a long-time volunteer in TNFP gardens, says she’s learned over the years about irrigation and overwatering and companion planting: “I feel like I get out of it more than I give."

Lauren, too, said preparing for the trainings reminds her of the power that garden programming has to build community and foster existing community leaders.

“People seem really happy at the field trainings, both in the RAPP program and in our neighborhood-based community gardens," Christina says. "I am privileged to be a witness to the joy and pride people seem to feel when working in their gardens. This joy reminds me that isolation is one of the biggest cofactors of hunger. When we work in a garden, even if we happen to be by ourselves, we become deeply rooted to a place.  This connection alone can bring people from isolation to integration.”