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Nonprofit works to help immigrants adjust to local farming

A man in overalls, a tan hat and a plaid shirt loads crates of grape tomatoes, green bell peppers and other vegetables into a yellow work van at Providence Farm Collective.
Alex Simone / WBFO-NPR

Winter isn’t often associated with harvesting crops, but it is an important time for immigrant farmers participating in a local incubator program.

For the past few years, Providence Farm Collective’s incubator program has provided a way for immigrants and refugees to get into local farming, and working as a supplemental income.

November-December is a key period for PFC because that’s when applicants are accepted and the process starts anew.

Many of the participants are from Africa and have farming experience, but PFC Farm Mentor Mo Mberwa says it’s a process adapting to the planting schedule.

“They have to know that, ‘O.K., this is the right time to put the seed in the ground, this is not the right time to put the seed in the ground,’ and how long you're going to be taking for (planting) in the ground," he said. "Because where are they coming from? Always the climate is open, there is no winter time, it just only summer under waning time, so they have only two seasons. But here, you have to plant (at a) good time with the weather.”

Another issue is accessibility.

Since most of the farmers have full-time jobs and might not have vehicles, they often have to find transportation on weekends to PFC in the Orchard Park area, Mberwa said.

Some farmers sell back to the farm collective once produce is ready — which is then donated to food pantries — while others prefer to attend farmers markets or sell within their communities, he said.

Square, wooden signs on a fence are painted to show the logos and names of several farms partnered with the Providence Farm Collective.
Alex Simone / WBFO-NPR

An important part of the incubator program is that PFC provides each farmer with a small plot of land, Farm Director Beth Leipler said.

“For most of our farmers who have experience farming previously, a quarter acre is a really good place for them to start, especially when the majority of our farmers are farming for supplemental income," she said. "We do, of course, hope that some of our farmers will launch out of the incubator program onto land of their own, where they can access larger acreages.”

PFC has 18 farms specifically in its incubator program, but new challenges are arising with recent success.

PFC currently offers land access after participants complete the three-year program, but the organization is running out of land to provide. The key next steps include maintaining how much land they have available to farmers, while trying to help participants find their own areas to continue cultivating, Leipler said.