With its downtown high rises housing global oil companies, and its vast, sprawling suburbs that can only be reached by navigating packed freeways and dizzying highway overpasses, Houston does not seem to be a place where a farmer could find a quiet corner to coax a harvest from the soil. But thanks to the unlikely partnership between a co-founder of a software company with nary a notion about gardening and a small group of African refugees with deep roots in the Congo’s fertile soil, several small urban farms are flourishing — bringing hope and joy to the immigrants and fresh produce to their neighbors.
Plant It Forward was established by Teresa OʼDonnell, co-founder of Bridgeway Software, who says, following the success of her company, she was “looking for a means to give back to the community.” The group’s genesis was sparked by a story in the Houston Chronicle about the problem some Iraqi refugees (many of them doctors and engineers) were having finding jobs. “I thought it would be a good fit,” O’Donnell says. So she contacted Catholic Charities, a major worldwide force in refugee resettlement efforts. They implied that helping these Iraqi professionals settle was not much of a challenge compared to the giant problems facing immigrants with few skills.
Houston is the number one refugee destination in the United States, according to the U.S. State Department. Some 70,000 immigrants from 78 countries have settled in the Texas metropolitan area since 1978 — many drawn to its healthy economy and low housing prices.
To help make her aware of their needs, Catholic Charities suggested she accompany a volunteer that was meeting refugees at Houstonʼs international airport. “It was a seminal moment,” she says. OʼDonnell watched as nine people disembarked, “all wearing the same shoes, carrying the same bags, all wearing a name tag and all unable to speak English…I thought, ʻOh my god! They don’t have a chance.ʼ” From that moment she was committed to find a way to help.
Many of Houston’s African refugees arrive from the war-torn African Republic of Congo-Brazzaville where the earth yields so-called “blood diamonds” and rare metals used to manufacture smartphones and tablets. That same land is blanketed with some of the world’s most fertile soil — a happy circumstance for its multitude of poor citizens. O’Donnell learned that many of the refugees farmed small plots in their home countries, giving her the notion that perhaps they could make a living or get some economic benefit from urban farming.
After meeting with local pioneers in the urban farming movement, O’Donnell set up Plant It Forward, a training program that helps refugees farm crops suitable to the Houston climate (including taking advantage of the region’s two-harvest-a-year cycle) and develop sales skills.
In May 2012, the program leased three acres on the campus of the University of St. Thomas, and later that year, the first class graduated. Now, the organization has increased in size from one to three urban farms (the other two are located at a local church and at a large community garden site) and in scope — including additional classes in urban gardening and business skills. And for the first time ever, this year’s group includes several women, which is particularly important given that female African refugees have a hard time finding jobs due to their lack of English language skills and little educational history, O’Donnell says.
Initially, Plant It Forward aimed to help supplement the income refugees earned by working menial jobs like janitorial services. But it became apparent that, due to the program’s success, some could develop an urban farming business that would provide their entire income. By farming small plots — around two or three acres — and setting up weekly vegetable and fruit stands, several graduates of the program have been able to live off the land and develop a solid, profitable relationships with customers who look forward to the weekly harvests.
One of Plant it Forward’s stars is Sarment (his last name withheld because many refugees harbor understandable fears given their traumatic history). The 51-year-old is a native of Congo-Brazzaville where he had worked as a taxi driver before fleeing and becoming a refugee in neighboring Gabon for 10 years.
“I left the Congo because of the war,” Sarment says through an interpreter. “I left and went to Gabon,” he says. “They told me that I couldn’t drive a taxi because I was a stranger…I made a garden there. In Gabon, I had three people who worked with me in my garden. I was the boss. My garden there was 150 square meters. I mostly grew tomatoes. I also grew eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, sorelle, roselle [hibiscus]. We would sell the vegetables at the market,” he explains.
His garden was a success, but one day, “the military came and said you can’t stay here — if you stay, I will kill you. If I kept farming, they would put me in jail or kill me. I was the boss, so I was in danger, not my workers. After that, the United Nations said it was not safe for me, so they sent me to America.” On Feb. 22, 2010, Sarment, his wife and family arrived in Houston.
In May 2013, Sarment graduated from Plant It Forward’s agricultural program and now operates his one-acre farm in Westbury, a suburb of southwest Houston. He is what the program dubs an “independent farmer,” earning his full income from the produce that he grows. (According to OʼDonnell, independent farmers can gross $30,ooo to 40,000 a year or more in the program.)
Life is good for Sarment now. He and his wife recently welcomed their sixth child — a baby boy — and also his first grandchild. He is taking English language classes and practices with customers at the weekly farm stand sales. “I can work with my family to build my farm and go home and all is good,” he says. “Language is hard — [but farm] work, for me, no problem. I can say itʼs all okay for me in the garden.”
As for his future? “Iʼd like to stay in America. I’d like for my project with farming to grow. I want to stay here, not return to my country. For me — I need my family and my farm. Today this work is small like this. And tomorrow,” he says opening his arms up wide and grinning, “it will be big!”
OʼDonnell, who works full time as the director of Plant It Forward, has big dreams, too. She is working to lease more land and has met with city leaders not just in Houston, but also other cities to explain the concept.
Houston’s neighborhoods have proved enthusiastic about having access to fresh produce, which Plant it Forward sells at stands located at its three farms and at the city’s Urban Harvest Eastside Farmers’ Market on the weekends. The organization also offers a farm share program that delivers its goods to homes on a subscription basis, and O’Donnell is also working to deliver produce from the farms to local chefs.
More so than anything, O’Donnell is excited about the success of this community-building program, which connects her “pioneer farmers” to empty land “that was just being mowed every week” — satisfying “the huge demand for local food.”