One late summer evening, a group of Somali women begins to flock to a small urban farm.
The women live in Horn Towers, a social housing complex in southern Minneapolis where the vast majority of residents are Somali. The tall, gray towers south of Lake Street are in a busy part of town, near Interstate 35W and the Minneapolis Police Department 5th Station, a major point of protest and civil unrest in 2020.
But the only noise behind the towers is the chatter of residents, picking fresh okra, tomatoes, and cilantro to complement their kitchens. For many, the urban farm at Horn Towers is the first time they have grown their own food since living in Somalia, where many families cultivate small vegetable gardens and exchange vegetables with their neighbors.
Saynab Hilowley said she couldn’t express how much she loved the food and the feeling of raising her own tomatoes, onions and mint. The Somali elder and resident of Horn Towers for eight years comes to the small farm every afternoon or evening in the summer to help water the plants and pick some ripe herbs or vegetables. Now retired, she considers taking care of the plants a form of happy work.
âIt’s amazing,â Saynab said.
The Horn Towers Urban Farm is the work of Naima Dhore, a Somali American farmer on a mission to bring fresh produce to her community and engage more East Africans and other immigrants. in growing their own food.
Naima, 38, is a trained organic farmer whose passion for fresh and healthy food began in 2009 after the birth of her first child. What started with growing microgreens in her apartment has turned into a plantation in community gardens. She became fascinated with agriculture and studied organic methods. In 2016, she started farming full time and spent three years renting land at Farms of the big river, a certified organic farm in Marine in Sainte-Croix that works with producers from historically under-represented backgrounds. She has devoted a great deal of time to exploring sustainable agriculture, including a trip to Cuba to learn more about the island nation. regenerative agricultural practices.
Connect people to produce
In 2020, she started donating fresh produce to Horn Towers. The trio of buildings had a long-standing community garden, and management asked Naima if she would be interested in cultivating there in 2021. Naima was looking for a new space to cultivate, and the timing worked out perfectly.
Throughout the spring and summer, she helped the community access common products in East Africa.
âI’m trying to do my part and spread this kind of agriculture in the city,â Naima said.
She also became a spokesperson for other immigrant farmers.
In 2020, Naima launched the non-profit Somali American Farmers Association, responding to messages and requests she received from interested community members. Agriculture is a predominantly white profession. Of the 68,822 farms in Minnesota, the vast majority are operated by whites, according to the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture. Latinos run 583 farms; Asians run 281; and black farmers operate only 48 of them. Access to land and loans for farm equipment are barriers for many people of color.
âMy goal is to get more young people, immigrants and East Africans to get into farming,â Naima said.
At Horn Towers, Naima created a scholarship program for residents interested in participating in the Urban Farm. Most of the 20 participants are Somalis, but not all. Naima interviewed the participants and matched them based on their farming experience. Some had already grown vegetables; others were completely new. The original plan was to pair the young and the elderly, but with the continued presence of COVID-19, Naima chose to keep the program for the elderly only.
Each pair has a raised bed for working. Groups compare techniques and planting methods. Naima gives advice, but also encourages participants to cultivate in their own way. The group exchanges knowledge, Naima said, and she has learned from residents in addition to teaching. As the growing season progressed, she taught participants how to identify plant blight, with the goal of determining how to be more successful in the future.
A community space
On just 1/8 of an acre behind Horn Towers, Naima has built 28 raised beds that are home to nearly 100 cultivated varieties (or cultivars) of plants. Residents manage and harvest 10 of the beds, and Naima manages and sells the rest of the produce.
Tomato vines bearing cherry, gold, and heirloom varieties weave around the rows of corn, kale, and okra, bringing hints of red and orange to the rows of green. The beds are overflowing with hibiscus, mint and cilantro. Naima particularly likes Swiss chard, with its vibrant purple stems and rich flavor.
She also wants to demonstrate that small spaces can generate a lot of products. âOur goal is to grow as much as we can,â Naima said.
At Horn Towers, she opted for a no-till method of cultivation. Many gardeners and farmers turn the soil every year with a garden fork (or on a larger scale, a cultivator), but Naima prefers to let the soil develop beneficial microorganisms from season to season. Instead of using a plastic weed barrier, she laid paper over the flower beds and covered it with compost.
Urban soils can be rocky and nutrient poor. Naima’s approach, she says, creates healthier soil for the next year of growth.
In the urban farm of Horn Towers, she has a lot of farm workers supporting her. Residents regularly help maintain the space. As people help out, Naima teaches them about crop rotation and other techniques essential to sustainable cultivation. The goal is for the site to benefit the community for years to come.
Naima is experimenting at Horn Towers, trying to see what thrives. This year his Mexican corn looks big and is producing quality cobs. But the sweet corn common in Minnesota struggled during the hot, dry summer.
“I am the one who tests the waters and sees what works and what doesn’t,” she said.
She planted a section of traditional African cultures at Horn Towers. Crops like cowpeas, peanuts, Ethiopian kale, sorghum, okra and hibiscus are doing well, Naima said. Sorghum, a cereal, is especially special to the Somali community, she said.
âMy goal is to really make sure that the community is engaged and that they can develop whatever they want,â said Naima.
At Horn Towers, Naima and the Somali American Farmers Association hope to create a model that can be replicated in all of the Twin Cities, providing healthy food to communities in need.
“Everyone puts in work and everyone shares”
Halima, a Somali elder who declined to give her last name, said she was last growing food in Somalia 27 years ago. This summer marks the first time she has seen East African cultures since leaving her homeland. She plants tomatoes, pickled cucumber, watermelon and a number of hot peppers.
Okra, which the group started harvesting in late August, was their favorite. Having a space in their home to congregate, spend time outdoors and exercise is beneficial, she said.
âEveryone is putting in work and everyone is sharing,â said Halima.
The drought was difficult this summer, but with the help of the locals, the plants were watered well. Now the harvest season is in full swing and several people are walking around the urban farm in the early evening, cutting the ripe plants with small scissors.
On August 24, senior women stuffed basil, okra and green beans into brown paper bags, then sat down in the shade of an crabapple tree. They laughed and talked as they examined their catch from the farm. They would be back the next night. It is their space.