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Professor Appachanda Thimmaiah explains soil health methods to new American gardeners in Fargo, N.D. (Karen Davis-Brown/Special to Agweek)

New Americans take leadership in Growing Together Gardens

FARGO, N.D. — Scattered throughout Fargo, N.D., there are six very special gardens. Growing Together Gardens, produce not only fresh food; they cultivate skills, community and leadership among the new Americans who work in them.

Established 11 years ago, a committed core group of Fargo natives, a coalition of public and private organizations and agencies, and several new American community leaders now sit at the same table in the interest of serving the Fargo area.

Jack Wood, one of Growing Together's founders, shared that every garden is co-led by one or two core volunteers and one or two new Americans. These teams comprise the Growing Together core group and meet weekly to plan activities, problem-solve and support each other. Wood has been humbled and excited by the learning and relationships that have that developed over the seasons, as people work side by side planting and harvesting.

"At first, core volunteers show people how to do things," he says. "By the end of the season, everyone knows what to do and it is their garden. And, at this point, it is new Americans who are showing other new Americans, not just the volunteers."

Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota — the refugee resettlement agency for the state — is a partner with Growing Together and says collaboration as a win-win for both organizations and for the larger Fargo community.

Cari Logan of Lutheran Social Services says that LSS provides four things to the program:

• Land access for the gardens.

• Well-established connections with other entities providing services to new Americans.

• Resources, and a half-time Volunteers In Service To America volunteer for recruiting and outreach.

• an umbrella not-for-profit incorporation so that Growing Together can apply for grants and receive financial donations.

In return, Logan says that Growing Together "is a huge bonus for our programs, particularly those for elderly new Americans. They offer fresh food, social contact and connection to the community. And, people share the food they grow — they are able to give back instead of just receive."

Through Growing Together, LSS was able to engage one of the lead gardeners as a volunteer outreach person to older Bhutanese new Americans in the community.

In the last couple of years, an exciting new partnership has been welcomed into this collaborative venture. The Foundation for Agricultural and Rural Resources Management and Sustainability (FARRMS), based in Tuttle, N.D., is partnering with the Immigrant Development Center, North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota Extension on a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture called Beginning Farmer Rancher Development Program. This grant supports Growing Together in developing a "Farm Beginnings" training program, Farmer Learning Circles and Farmer Exploration Classes, which include a focus on new Americans.

Verna Kragnes of Moorhead is a volunteer with the FARRMS training, learning circles and exploration classes, as well as working closely with a newly formed New Farmer Task Force. The Task Force members include representatives from government, public health and Extension, as well as service providers, advocacy groups, agricultural organizations and farmers.

The goal of this group is to explore the development of vocational programs for younger new Americans who work in the Growing Together gardens. Bringing all the players to the table — first and foremost, the new American community — this goal represents a "next step" for everyone involved in adding a vocational and economic component for new Americans who would like to pursue agriculture as a career. Kragnes, who grew up in the area and returned after many years away, says this next level of collaboration has the potential to "change the image of what's possible in the Red River Valley."

Most recently, all of these partners came together to host a "Regenerative Agriculture Day" at Lutheran Social Services in Fargo. The guest speaker was Dr. Appachanda Thimmaiah, director of the Regenerative Organic Agriculture Program at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa.

A native of India, Dr. Thimmaiah started the day in the garden next to the LSS office building. Conversing in Hindi with the primarily Bhutanese new Americans who came to meet with him, he answered their questions and gave valuable guidance on practical ways to improve soil, build compost, save seeds, grow healthier crops and use "weeds" as edible plants.

Wood observed the confidence and ownership of those who attended, in being able to converse with Dr. Thimmaiah in their own language.

"They were able to have a conversation, ask questions and engage with him and each other in Hindi, instead of trying to understand people conversing around them in English," says Wood.

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