By Leslie Berestein
Union-Tribune Staff Writer
2:00 a.m. September 10, 2009
SAN DIEGO – On a city-owned lot in San Diego’s Chollas Creek neighborhood, urban farmers from around the world are re-connecting with the agrarian roots they left behind.
Yesterday afternoon, Lucia Lokoyen tended to her small plot of chard, spinach, kale, amaranth, tomatoes and onions on one of the 80 plots making up the recently opened New Roots Community Farm. It felt good to have her hands in the soil, said Lokoyen, a lifelong farmer who arrived from from Uganda 10 months ago.
“I’m so happy here,” said Lokoyen, 33, who lives with her family in a City Heights apartment. “I come here and see all these greens, and I feel like I’m home.”
It took about three years for the farm to take root in this community where several modest neighborhoods converge at 54th Street. The farm is a project of the International Rescue Committee, an international organization that provides assistance, including relocation aid, to refugees fleeing violent conflict.
The process began when the committee was trying to address nutrition needs among recent refugees from Somalia, said Ellee Igoe, an official with the organization in San Diego. Former farmers who grew only enough for their families were navigating modern grocery stores, where they didn’t recognize much of the produce. Payment methods only added to the mystery.
“Imagine coming to the United States for the first time, and you’re a subsistence farmer,” Igoe said. “You walk into a grocery store and you have to learn how to shop. It’s a whole different foodscape.”
The committee gathered comments from Somali Bantu refugees, members of a minority, largely agrarian ethnic group. Suggestions also were solicited from Asian and Latino members of City Heights’ polyglot mix of residents.
The arduous permitting process took about two years and included biological studies mandated because the vacant 2.3-acre parcel sits next to a creek.
Igoe estimates the farm has cost about $120,000 to set up. It was paid for with a combination of private and public funding, she said. A grand opening ceremony is scheduled for this afternoon.
After ground was broken on the farm last fall, farmers from Somalia, Uganda, Kenya, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Mexico and Guatemala began preparing the soil. Planting began in June. Starting mostly from seeds, they planted corn, tomatoes, basil, squash, chiles and other crops.
The bounty is a testament to the community farm’s international nature. Lemongrass and basil, planted by farmers from Southeast Asia, grows next to amaranth and kunde , an edible green, planted by farmers from Somalia. Corn, popular around the world, grows throughout the farm.
The plot farmed by Bilali Muya, a Bantu refugee who also serves as the committee’s farm educator, is surrounded by plots farmed by immigrants from Cambodia, Guatemala and Mexico. Muya has learned that in Spanish, the corn he grows is called maiz , the sunflowers girasoles .
“It brings people together,” said Muya, who has been in the United States five years and, born without a birth certificate, estimates he is in his mid-20s. “We learn a lot from each other.”